An Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission meeting set for this evening to consider acceptance of an "unrestricted" $1.1 million gift from a poultry producers' consortium had to be rescheduled due to a clerical error.
The OSRC was originally slated to meet at 5 p.m. to discuss a recommendation from the Scenic Stream Watershed Coordination and Management subcommittee that the gift be accepted. The meeting has been rescheduled for Thursday.
"It was a technical glitch, in that we did not notify the secretary of state's office about the special meeting," said Ed Fite, OSRC administrator. "A while back the secretary's office notified us that they did not want to receive electronic transmissions regarding meeting agendas and minutes, so we took them off of the e-mail list. The problem has been resolved, and I expect the meeting to be held Thursday as arranged."
The original wording on the agenda may be changed as well.
"The agenda was generated before we received the written proposal from Peterson Farms," said Fite. "Following a review of the proposal, Chairman Rick Stubbledfield found that $100,000 of the $1.1 million of the donation is earmarked for the construction of restrooms along the recreational portion of the Illinois River, over a two-year period. We will need to reword the agenda to reflect that detail."
Thursday's meeting will include a presentation by subcommittee Chairman Steve Randall. Consortium members include Peterson Farms Inc., Tyson Inc., Simmons Foods Inc., George's Inc., Cargill Turkey Production LLC, and Willow Brook Foods Inc.
The subcommittee was formed at the request of OSRC Chairman Rick Stubblefield during the August meeting, to seek funding for stream bank stabilization, erosion control projects, educational outreach, water quality monitoring and health and public safety improvements.
"Following the August meeting, Chairman Stubblefield sent out over 100 letters to different municipalities, industries, and local, county and state government entities, seeking funding," said Fite. "He drafted and mailed the letters on his own time, at his own expense. To date, we have received four replies."
One reply came from Janet Wilkerson, vice president of human resources for Peterson Farms in Decatur, Ark. Wilkerson said she was responding on behalf of the consortium, and that the companies are offering several donations and initiatives to the OSRC, subject to agreement on timing and implementation; verification that funds will remain under the control of the OSRC; and the adoption of an acceptable resolution.
Stubblefield was surprised by the response.
"It shocked me that, out of all of the industries to send a response, the poultry industry was the first to come to the table," said Stubblefield. "I mailed out 20 more letters to industries yesterday, and we're not going to quit."
Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson voiced his concern about the donation, saying it may be an effort to affect the outcome of his lawsuit against the companies.
"I think anything the poultry companies do to mitigate the damage they are doing in Oklahoma is a good thing," Edmondson said. "I am very concerned that the gift is not without strings."
Ed Brocksmith, administrator for Save the Illinois River, is cautioning OSRC commissioners about strangers bearing gifts.
"Although I have not read the proposal for donation, I am very concerned and urge the commissioners to make sure accepting such a donation would not endanger Oklahoma's chances of receiving a settlement from the poultry industry from the pending lawsuit," said Brocksmith. "It's an obvious PR ploy. I suggest if the poultry industry is sincere in its intentions, it will leave the offer of donation open until the lawsuits are settled."
Stubblefield believes if the gift is a ploy, the OSRC could do worse.
"If the poultry companies are trying to use this donation as a PR ploy, I say God bless them," said Stubblefield. "At least they're not spending that money on television air time."
John Larson, OSRC commissioner and subcommittee member, praised the response by the poultry industry.
"The OSRC receives no state funding, and since we've received no recent funding, I'm glad Rick [Stubblefield] set up this committee to solicit funding," said Larson. "The funds Peterson and the other companies are wonderful, and unrestricted."
Larson issued an notice of caution, however.
"We want to make it perfectly clear to the public that this [offer of donation] has absolutely no bearing on an pending lawsuits," said Larson. "In addition to donating over $1 million to OSRC, the poultry producers are also setting up a waste-removal operation that, over four years, will cost them $5.5 million. Now, $1.1 million is a pittance to the poultry producers, but it's more money than we've ever received. The $5.5 million in extra expenditure, to me, shows the donation is being offered in good faith. I'm very pleased to be a member of this board at this time."
A response offering matching funding for grant programs was sent by Miles Tolbert, state secretary of the environment.
"I applaud the Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission for its continued dedication to protecting Oklahoma's scenic rivers," said Tolbert. "Establishing a Scenic Stream Watershed Coordination and Management subcommittee is an innovative mechanism to fulfill the mission of the commission."
In a written response to Tolbert, Stubblefield noted the consideration the subcommittee gave to the prospect of accepting the donation from the poultry industry: "The subcommittee gave careful consideration to the gift offer of $1.1 million. Your letter opened the eyes of every member, myself included, as to the potential impact such a gift can have on our scenic watershed when coupled with the matching fund possibilities that you mentioned."
The only negative response received was that of the Adair County Commissioners, on official letterhead, signed by Sam Chandler, chairman: "The programs you are seeking funding for are all good programs. The landowners along Baron Fork Creek and I have been talking about them for years, so there is no need for you to be sitting in your office feeling like a hero for coming up with them. As long as someone like you - a narrow-minded, self-centered, egotistical twit who cannot tell a walnut tree from a sycamore tree has any authority, I will make sure you do not see a dime of funding from Adair County."
Stubblefield is no stranger to the ire of local and county elected officials.
"So far, because I have supported the enforcement of state and federal laws related to invading scenic streams with heavy equipment, a county commissioner in my home county [Delaware] won't consider financially assisting landowners with their erosion control problems as long as I serve on the OSRC," said Stubblefield. "At the other end of the spectrum, folks in Oklahoma City are upset about the OSRC accepting a gift of $1.1 million in cash to assist landowners in Adair, Cherokee and Delaware counties because they don't like the donors."
Stubblefield believes many people are letting their emotions guide their decisions.
"People have approached this issue with such emotion they refuse to accept the facts," said Stubblefield. "I personally faxed a copy of the resolution to a reporter with the Oklahoma City bureau of the Tulsa World because she requested to see it, and after reading it, she called the OSRC office, wanting a copy of the 'real' resolution. I personally wrote the resolution; it basically mirrors the letter offering us the money for erosion control, bank stabilization, additional bathrooms for the Illinois River corridor, and management strategies that OSRC believes will improve water quality."
Stubblefield said he's written strong thank-you letters for gifts received from baby showers.
"Frankly, in my opinion, the most generous word in the resolution is the word 'generous,' said Stubblefield. "I hope we get to write several of these resolutions as other donors come forward to assist landowners in our scenic watersheds."
Stubblefield said many of the OSRC's previous adversaries have, in time, become allies. He's hoping the acceptance of the gift will create an ally of the poultry industry, as well.
"As far as I'm concerned, the duty of the OSRC is to be such good stewards with this first gift that others will follow," said Stubblefield. "The subcommittee voted 5-0 to recommend that OSRC accept this gift. The subcommittee, as well as the whole commission, is made up of professional people who will actually find themselves donating more time to OSRC after this gift is accepted, because with the gift comes the duty to make decisions about how best to use it to improve our watersheds."