Thursday, August 15, 2013
Susan and Kei Pang of St. Louis, Mo., already changed their retirement plans once, selling a vacation home in Florida after the BP oil spill left a greasy stain on their plans for retiring on the Gulf of Mexico. In 2010, the Pangs came to visit Northwest Arkansas after seeing an article in Forbes magazine that listed Northwest Arkansas as one of the top 10 places in the U.S. to live and/or retire.
Kei Pang is a native of Hong Kong, and the family with three children lived there for ten years. The smog and big city congestion in Hong Kong made them appreciate nature all the more. When they visited Northwest Arkansas, they were ripe to fall in love with the scenery, the diversity of plant and animal life, crystal clear waters and the untainted feel of the place.
On the way back home, they decided to follow a real estate sign they saw along Beaver Lake.
“We passed the Dam Site Road and turned right on a dirt road,” Susan Pang said. “We kept going, seeing trees, a sliver of lake and we were excited to finally see yet another sign pointing to the property we were searching for. The last sign, but it felt like a new beginning at the time.
“We pulled in the driveway. Our mouths dropped. The little blue chalet on the mountain top, overlooking the lake, was exactly what we were looking for. We were so excited and so magically happy to find a house of our dreams in the woods, on a lake, on a mountain offering extreme privacy but at the same time with a few neighbors nearby. We liked the Natural State and all that it had to offer. A good quality of life, clean water, air and sensible people all appealed to us. We have travelled around the world and we have not found a place so naturally beautiful with such tranquility. ”
Then in early April American Electric Power (AEP) subsidiary Southwestern Electric Power Company (SWEPCO) announced plans to take private property for a Shipe Road to Kings River 345 kilovolt power line project, a larger electric transmission line than had ever been seen in Carroll County. Susan says she knew she had to get involved. She had already tangled with Carroll Electric Cooperative Corp. about herbicide spraying on the Pang’s property that has denuded vegetation on a steep hillside, leading to erosion damage. She couldn’t stand the thought of the same thing happening on 46 to 59 miles (depending on the route chosen) of right-of-way 150-ft. wide through some very steep terrain providing magnificent lake views.
“There wasn’t anything I could do about the BP oil spill, but there is something that can be done about preserving the Ozarks,” Susan said. “Kei and I preferred a secluded life and enjoy spending time with each other. But when we heard about this, we knew we had to get involved. I knew I would have no one to blame but myself if I didn’t fight against it. I felt I had to dig in and do something. Areas like St. Louis are losing their songbird population because of urbanization and invasive plant species that provide less food for birds and other wildlife. I don’t want to see that happen here.”
AEP/SWEPCO originally had six routes proposed, including one that went through the Pang’s neighborhood. While the route closest to them has now been withdrawn, they continue to oppose the entire project which Susan suspects isn’t about serving the electrical needs of Northwest Arkansas, but instead selling dirty coal-fired electricity out of state.
“They took three routes off,” said Susan, a master gardener who volunteers for the Missouri Botanical Gardens and is a habitat adviser for St. Louis Audubon. “That is awesome. But I look at the Ozarks as a huge ecosystem. You can’t let it get too fragmented. The forest is already weak from drought and some of the forest has been cut. We can’t afford to take away any more forest. You can’t just carve it all up and still have a healthy ecosystem. For example, bees forage for a range of five miles. You can’t just leave the bees two acres.”
The Pangs vacation/retirement home is near the new Devil’s Eyebrow Natural Area, a 1,720-acre property on Beaver Lake recently purchased by the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission. The area is known for unusually high plant diversity with 550 species, including 25 plants of state conservation concern and five that are globally rare. The Pangs see a large range of bird life in the area including bald eagles, blue herons, wood ducks, kingfishers and many others.
The couple recently bought six acres nearby on Spider Creek Road with an eye to opening an off-the-grid eco tourism village for birders, scientists and school groups. The eco tourism development would take advantage of being close to Devil’s Eyebrow and the Indian Creek Park with its nice walking trails and beach.
Plans for the eco tourism village are currently on hold while Susan is devoting a good bit of time to opposing the AEP/SWEPCO transmission lines. Even though the route closest to them has been removed from consideration, the couple still has great concerns about the preferred route 33 that they believe would devastate Garfield and Gateway.
“We’ll see what happens with Gateway and Garfield,” Susan said. “I’m worried about small business owners in Garfield who would be devastated by this. They are busy just making ends meet and they don’t need a challenge like this.”
She is particularly concerned about Garfield, a small town the Pangs find very charming.
“Route 33 I fear would destroy Garfield,” Susan said. “Garfield would cease to exist as we know it. We are in the Garfield School District, and I know some grandparents and parents there who must be worried sick about the possibility of having the lines going through the school’s property.”
The Pangs have a different vision for the future of this region: preservation of the environment, a focus on eco tourism and retaining the beauty and clean, healthy environment of the area that attracts retirees and their investments.
“A lot of people buy hundreds of acres here and keep it natural,” she said. “So many people here love nature. Northwest Arkansas will benefit far more with small businesses flourishing and retirement dollars flowing in if it does not put a wrecking ball to the ecosystems, geology and biodiversity of the Ozarks. People will pay up for land and property that remains pristine and that is what the Arkansas Public Service Commission should focus on – preserving Arkansas to be a “natural state.” This is what Arkansas is known for. We are reminded of this everyday when we are on the road looking at the license plates in front of us. Deforest the place, spray toxic herbicides and build unsightly structures, the place will be ruined, and for what?”
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