TAHLEQUAH, Okla. — Visitors at Riverbend Floats in Tahlequah Sunday evening were there for a reason: to raise awareness about corporate farming and the impact it can have on Northeastern Oklahoma.
The Green Country Guardians, an organization committed to protecting the region's natural resources and quality of life, held a benefit concert for clean water. Local musicians with big reputations graced the stage, and guest speakers shared messages of their own.
The Green Country Guardians first started as a Facebook group known as Spring Creek Guardians. After the group successfully motivated chicken farm owners to sell their property on Spring Creek in Oaks, with the help of Cherokee Nation, its members have since focused their efforts toward other threats on the Illinois River, Spring Creek, and the surrounding land.
Founder of Green Country Guardians, Pam Kingfisher, said the musicians for Sunday night's concert actually began contacting her to set up some type of benefit. Those who performed included My-Tea Kind, Red Dirt Rangers, Randy Crouch and Meandering Orange. Bonnie Paine, a special guest, member of My-Tea Kind, and known for her days with Elephant Rival, shared the stage.
"It was wonderful, because musicians have their own particular skills and what they can bring to a movement like this," said Kingfisher. "It's not just about chickens. This is about water. Everyone thinks we're against chickens, but that's not it. We're against corporate farming and the huge concentration of these mega farms."
Kingfisher said places like the river and creek have been used by locals for years, and that it's been a special place to the musicians. Paine and sister Anna Paine, who were also celebrating their father's birthday, said they usually spend the celebration out on the creek, but the family decided to throw a benefit bash instead.
"We raise our babies on Spring Creek," said Kingfisher. "Those kids, half of them on the stage were raised on Spring Creek and the Illinois River. The water means so much to them, so this was there way to do their part, and I'm happy to let them do it in their way and bring their network together."
In the past 22 months, at least 200 new poultry feeding houses have been built in Northeastern Oklahoma, according to figures fro GCG. These "mega houses" contain about 50,000 chickens at one time, and through the course of year can see upward of 2.5 million birds. The chicken manure produces contained high levels of phosphorous, potassium, nitrogen and other chemicals that are harmful to aquatic ecosystems and water quality.
The 200 houses are concentrated in three areas in the region. They can be found along the U.S. Highway 412 corridor, within the Spring Creek and Saline Creek watersheds; Colcord, within the Eucha-Spavinaw watershed; and Chance, within the Illinois River watershed.
As the Red Dirt Rangers took a break between songs, Brad Piccolo said, "We've got to protect these waters, because without water, there is no life."
One concern among advocates is that there won't be enough water in the Illinois River and Spring Creek to support either future recreation, or drinking water and fish habitat. Ed Brocksmith, of Save the Illinois River Inc. (STIR), said the one important factor advocates will have a close eye on is how the state monitors in-stream flow of rivers and streams.
"That is going to be debated again in the Oklahoma Legislature, and what it amounts to is assuring that there's enough water in our rivers for the fish, for recreation, and for you and me, instead of taking it out for irrigation and private and public water supplies, until there's no water left or not an adequate supply for recreation and for wildlife and for fish habitat," said Brocksmith. "In-stream flow is an issue that's going to be coming up again in the Legislature, and we need to support that whenever you have an opportunity."
Brocksmith applauded the work of GCG and Kingfisher.
He said the group has accomplished more through the Agriculture Department than he's ever seen before, mentioning that for the first time, setback requirements have been put in place when new poultry farms are licensed.
While this is progress, Amanda Clinton, who also spoke on stage, said there is still work to be done.
"When they put setbacks in place, 500 feet from schools and city limits, but no setbacks for churches, cemeteries, or culturally significant sites," she said. "We can do better. We've got to do better. If they get setbacks in that are like 1,000 feet, 1,500 feet, 2,000 feet, eventually it will start shrinking the number that go in, because just naturally the concentration will get less if those setbacks are wider."
It's more than just water that people are concerned about. Environmentalists believe debris can escape from the mega chicken farms through large fans, which has caused some people to find chicken debris and feathers falling onto their land, into their swimming pools, and impacting their livestock.
Kingfisher said the recent cleaning of the mega chicken houses has created a "dust storm" in the region, so two scientists from the University of Oklahoma plan on conducting and air-quality study.
"I realized that's air and it's not about the water, but a lot of that litter is spread throughout our watershed onto farmland, and these torrential rains we've had all spring have created more runoff opportunities than we've ever seen before," said Kingfisher.
The Green Country Guardians plan to host more benefit concerts in the future. Kingfisher said the next event will be in Tulsa, and while they do not have a date set, she said they have a list of bands and musicians who are ready to perform.
Kingfisher encourages people to do anything they can to help the GCG's cause. People can make donations, attend future concerts, or call their local representatives.
"If you don't have money, you might have time and it's all-important," she said. "You might just be talking to your neighbors, but the more that we spread this message the better. We've got to really focus on the bigger picture, the water, and that affects everyone."
For more information about the Green Country Guardians, visit greencountryguardians.org.
Crawford writes for Tahlequah Daily Press, a CNHI News Service publication.