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  • 06 Mar 2024 4:06 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Madison County Record

    Numbers show re-designation concerns

    Locals polled don’t want Buffalo River changed

    Posted Wednesday, March 6, 2024 9:45 am

    By Ellen Kreth, For The Record

    The Alliance for the Buffalo National River (ABNR) released results from a poll taken after a town hall meeting regarding re-designating the Buffalo National River as a national park or preserve. 

    The Oct. 26 meeting held at Jasper High School had more than 1400 in attendance and was organized after The Madison County Record published a story detailing efforts by Steuart and Tom Walton — brothers and grandsons of Sam and Helen Walton, founders of Walmart — to consider re-designating the river to a national park. 

    In 2022, the Waltons quietly approached U.S. Congressman Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., who represents Arkansas’ 4th Congressional District and chairs the Natural Resources Committee, about changing the river’s designation to a national park and preserve. In conjunction with their idea, and acting under the umbrella of The Runway Group, a holding company originated by them, the Waltons also paid for a national survey gauging whether the river should be re-designated.  

    The Runway Group hired Selzer & Company, who polled 412 voters in Baxter, Madison, Marion, Newton and Searcy counties and produced a flyer touting the results, with most of those survey responding favorably to the re-designation.

    However, the results have been attacked by those living along the river as being unfair, many attending the meeting stating the survey’s questions were skewed by leading those polled to believe that changing the river’s designation would be a good thing for the area. They also complained about the number of voters who were surveyed and where they lived in proximity to the Buffalo National River. 

    Last fall, after the town meeting in Jasper, a grassroots survey was conducted by ABNR of people attending the meeting and those living near the Buffalo watershed. 

    “After reading The Runway Group’s survey questions and responses, and observing that Baxter County residents were the largest group surveyed by The Runway Group, ABNR wanted a clear set of questions for residents who live in the counties that would be affected by changes that might occur from any type of redesignation of the Buffalo National River,” Misty Langdon said in a statement issued on behalf of ABNR. 

    The group’s survey showed vastly different results from the one paid for by The Runway Group.

    “The feedback we received was in stark contrast to that from The Runway Group’s survey. We also wanted to receive input from a greater number of respondents, as a pool of 400+ didn’t feel sufficient,” the ABNR statement said. 

    “Our results are from a group of 737 respondents from primarily Newton and Searcy counties. News outlets are still circulating and relying upon The Runway Group survey, despite the obvious flaws in its methodology.”

    More than 700 responded to the ABNR survey, with 491 saying they lived in Newton County and 232 noting they lived in other counties, including Madison County.

    “ABNR’s survey hopes to provide updated, clear, and concise responses to straightforward questions presented to locals in the counties most affected,” the statement said. 

    Of those respondents, 705 voted that river remain as it is. Nine people voted to have the land re-designated as a preserve, but not a park. 

    Twenty-three people or 3% of respondents said they were participating in both surveys, the grassroots one from the town hall meeting and the one paid for by The Runway Group. 

    The ABNR  poll asked people what their biggest concerns were if the land were to be re-designated. 

    Their top concern — 83% — said they were concerned about government and corporate overreach. Other concerns included the government’s use of eminent domain (82%), park expansion (78%) and increased taxes (75%).  People also responded they were concerned with being able to afford land (69%) if the land was re-designated and about gentrification (68%). 

    Respondents expressed concerns about activities becoming restricted or banned if the land was re-designated. Farming topped the list of concerns with 82% saying they were concerned that if the land changed to a national park or preserve farming would be restricted, 78% were worried that fishing and hunting would be restricted and 64% were concerned that canoeing, kayaking and rafting might be restricted. 

    Other concerns were having restrictions on horseback riding (54%), hiking (57%), rock climbing (39%), bike riding (36%). 

    After The Record’s coverage, the Waltons backed off the idea and Westerman said no legislation is currently being proposed to re-designate the land. Westerman told constituents during a live-streamed town hall people that the issue had been overblown and he visited Jasper last fall in an attempt to assure people that he was not currently considering introducing legislation re-designating the river.

  • 13 Dec 2023 5:02 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Eureka Springs Independent

    Ranger touts forest burn benefits


     Becky Gillette


    December 13, 2023

     The Ozark-St. Francis National Forest Big Piney District Robert’s Gap Project would have many benefits including a “wide variety of needed treatments which would reduce fuel loading, in turn reducing dangers of wildfires, improve forest health, improve wildlife and aquatic habitat, protect private property in the wildland-urban interface and increase species diversity,” District Ranger Tim Jones said.

    Jones said this forest and project area was once a fire-dominated ecosystem. Frequent fires eliminated shade-tolerant species from the understory which provided ample forage for many species of wildlife and maintained habitat for pollinators.

     “Past forest management practices have caused a reduction in the number of insects (pollinators), small mammals, seed eating birds, deer and wild turkey and have created a condition that could result in a damaging wildfire situation,” Jones said. “Based on monitoring data, the reintroduction of fire has improved conditions within prescribed burn areas on the district. The project area is a fire-adapted ecosystem in which fire has been excluded for many years. These areas could be repeatedly burned for fuel reduction, wildlife habitat improvement, and ecosystem restoration and would move them toward the desired future condition for this management area. Used in conjunction with prescribed burning, these treatments would increase herbaceous plants as well as overall habitat diversity.”

    Jones said that to protect the environment and lessen possible negative impacts, protective measures would be used, including best management practices for water quality protection established by the state. The project page link, along with all supporting documentation, can be found at

  • 13 Dec 2023 5:00 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Eureka Springs Independent

    Forest Service plan raises hackles of Buffalo River advocates


     Becky Gillette


    December 13, 2023

     The non-profit Buffalo River Watershed Alliance (BRWA) has raised objections to the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) Robert’s Gap Project to manage a 40,000-acre tract of land including the headwaters of the Buffalo National River, White River, Kings River, Mulberry River and War Eagle Creek—five of Arkansas’ more iconic rivers.

    “Clearly this is a special place deserving of enhanced protection,” BRWA President Gordon Watkins said. “It is a unique area with quite a lot of Forest Service land. BRWA has serious concerns about this proposal, and we have submitted comments, and we then submitted objections when our concerns were not adequately addressed by USFS. Others submitted objections as well.”

                    In 2017 the USFS introduced a far-reaching proposal to manage the Robert’s Gap tract, which includes one of the state’s more visited and photographed areas, Hawksbill Crag. The Forest Service plans call for thinning and harvesting about 11,000 acres, prescribed burning on 11,000 acres of land, 70 miles of road construction for timber removal, 20 miles of dozer lines for firebreaks and 3,000 acres of herbicide treatment.

                    Watkins said BRWA and others started participating in public comments in 2018. But he said the Forest Service largely ignored the concerns.

                    “A final decision was made to proceed with the project despite numerous comments against the project,” Watkins said. “Between the time between when USFS closed the comment period and issued final decisions, a maternal colony of Indiana bats, which are endangered, was found in the Robert’s Gap area. The Indiana bats have been here forever, and we know they hibernate in caves in the Robert’s Gap area. The thought was that when the bats were ready to have young, they would migrate mostly into Missouri.

    “The discovery of this maternal colony was a big deal – the first of its kind in the Ozarks. Rather than put a pause on this project, in their final decision they made a comment they would have a quarter mile set back from the tree where these particular bats were roosting. We thought that was a significant enough finding that the USFS should have taken a step back and taken additional comments on how to do a thorough job of protection. We are asking for a Supplement Assessment or even better, an Environmental Impact Study.”

    Watkins said they oppose herbicides being used. They are not opposed to logging or prescribed burning in general, but the way it is being done and the scale.

    “Burning has certain benefits but burning thousands of acres at a whack is excessive,” Watkins said. “Smaller burns would have less impact on the local ecology and the people who live in the area. We live 15 to 20 miles as the crow flies, but we got smoke in Little Buffalo Valley from the prescribed fires at Robert’s Gap. People who have asthma have had to take shelter or go somewhere else.”

    Watkins said BRWA also prefers single tree selection for logging rather than group selections; single tree selections would create a more diverse forest.

    One of the bigger concerns is building more than 70 miles of roads and firebreak on a 40,000-acre track. Fire lines are dozed to protect property owners. After logging is completed, the roads are closed to traffic, but Watkins said they are still a permanent scar on the landscape. It is easy to walk through Ozark forests and see old logging roads a hundred years old still there.

    “Roads divert the flow of water, and the runoff from the dirt roads creates erosion and turbidity in the rivers,” Watkins said. “The biggest problem is the stormwater runoff from the practices impact water quality of the Buffalo and these other rivers, as well.”

    Some timber removal is to take out dead trees to reduce fuel for wildfires, some is salvage logging, and some is commercial logging. There are also planned wildlife openings. Watkins said the purpose of those is to open the canopy to create a more diverse ecosystem and improve conditions for animal species.

    “That is a notable goal, but we have problems with the way they choose to go about it,” Watkins said. “We think it is a little over the top.”

    According to the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission, rivers all over the state are under stress from improper streambank management including people building homes and cutting trees down to the river’s edge for a view, runoff from dirt roads, and climate change that is creating heavier rainfalls in shorter periods of time. Rivers are filling with gravel and getting wider and shallower, losing many of the deeper pools that are good habitat for game fish.

    “I live right on the banks of the Little Buffalo,” Watkins said. “I’ve seen those changes here where the river is wider and shallower. The same is true on the Big Buffalo. Logging, road building and maintenance of unpaved roads are the biggest causes of sedimentation of the river. These plans for logging and road building on a 40,000-acre track immediately upriver from Buffalo River are definitely going to hurt water quality, in our opinion.”

    Whitaker Point, the official name for Hawksbill Crag, lies within Robert’s Gap. There is a big project underway to pave part of Cave Mountain Road, the access road to Hawksbill Crag from the Buffalo River. At the peak of the tourism season, hundreds of vehicles are using that narrow, steep county road.

    “It has caused such a problem with gravel erosion and runoff into the Buffalo River,” Watkins said. “The cooperative project between the state and counties to pave about 1.5 miles going up the mountain is designed to reduce sedimentation. Then the Forest Service is planning on creating more sedimentation problems just up the road on 40,000 acres.”

    On February 21, BRWA, represented by the Earthrise Law Center, and Carney, Bates and Pulliam Law Firm, on behalf of the BRWA, filed a Complaint for Vacatur of Illegal Agency Decision, Declaratory and Injunctive Relief challenging the U. S. Forest Service’s October 27, 2021, Decision Notice and Finding of No Significant Impact resulting in approval of the 40,000-acre Robert’s Gap Project. Watkins said progress continues on the lawsuit. If all stays on schedule, briefings and filings should be completed in January.

    “To the best of our knowledge, USFS has not yet begun logging or road building activities, although some prescribed burning as well as water sampling has taken place,” Watkin said. “We ask our supporters who visit the area to please let us know if any USFS activity is observed.”

    For more information, do an internet search for USFS Robert’s Gap. For more information about BRWA’s take on the project, go to

  • 10 Dec 2023 10:47 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Democrat Gazette

    OPINION | REX NELSON: The perfect storm

    December 10, 2023 at 2:20 a.m.

    by Rex Nelson

    Tourism is the second-largest sector of the Arkansas economy (behind agriculture), and promises to become even more important to the state during the next several decades. That's because Arkansas finds itself in a sweet spot demographically. Many of those who study population trends believe the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex will pass Chicago by the end of this decade as the nation's third-largest metropolitan area.

    Some of the closest mountains (and thus best cycling, hiking, camping, floating and flyfishing opportunities) to that growing DFW population base are in Arkansas. This explosion in the number of potential visitors comes at the same time significant investments are being made in the state's outdoor recreation economy. They're coming from the likes of brothers Tom and Steuart Walton and Bass Pro Shop founder Johnny Morris.

    It's the perfect storm. Folks with vision and deep pockets believe Arkansas can be for the central third of the country what Colorado is for the western third.

    I wrote a series of columns about social media disinformation that has flowed largely from Newton County in recent months. The disinformation campaign began after a telephone poll to see if people would favor changing the status of the Buffalo National River to a national park-preserve. I don't know if that's the right thing to do. What I do know is that we must have a rational discussion about how to attract more resources from the National Park Service. You can't address that funding problem while villifying well-intentioned people with lies on social media.

    Those who think that keeping things as they are will hold down visitor numbers are deluding themselves. The aforementioned demographic trends mean that more people are coming regardless of whether the Buffalo is a national river or national park. Additional resources--more rangers, parking lots and restrooms--will be required regardless of status.

    A prolonged discussion on how to obtain more federal resources must take place. We should be thankful it has started. And we must hope that the six members of Arkansas' congressional delegation become more engaged in seeking those resources.

    Newton County saw its population fall from 11,199 to 7,255 in the century between 1920 and 2020. We finally have a chance to pump funds into the county's economy without clear-cutting its woods, mining gravel from its streams and adding commercial hog farms. It will be done with environmentally sensitive development on private lands, an issue that's separate from the Buffalo debate.

    Residents shouldn't worry about becoming an overcrowded Branson or Gatlinburg. Newton County is too isolated for that (as the failure of Dogpatch USA proved). The visitors who come here will be high-income cycling, hiking and rock climbing enthusiasts who want the land to stay pristine. It's in everyone's best interest to welcome these people with open arms.

    Suspicion of outsiders runs deep, though, as the past few months have shown. Certain natives don't like folks who come from "off," though Native Americans might suggest a more nuanced sense of history. After all, the Osage claimed this region until 1808. From 1818-28, it was part of a Cherokee reservation.

    "The area was part of Carroll County when that county was created in 1833, and white settlers quickly moved in," C.J. Miller and David Sesser write for the Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas. "A block of marble taken from a hillside near present-day Marble Falls was used to build the Washington Monument. Although Jasper appeared on maps in 1840, it wasn't incorporated until 1896.

    "The Legislature created Newton County on Dec. 14, 1842, naming it after U.S. marshal Thomas Willoughby Newton. After beginning his career as a mail carrier and serving as U.S. marshal, Newton was elected to Congress after the resignation of Archibald Yell. John Belleh's house on Shop Creek was designated the county seat until the designation was given to Jasper in 1843. The county had 10 post offices by 1856. The terrain made the area unattractive to land speculators, which was encouraging to people who couldn't afford land in other parts of the state."

    The 1850 census showed there were 51 slaves in the county. That number dropped to 24 (along with 3,369 white residents) by 1860.

    "While neighboring Carroll, Boone, Madison and Searcy counties saw a decrease in population and livestock in the Civil War years, the isolation of Newton County resulted in an increase in both at the start of the war," Miller and Sesser write. "Neighbors and families split as loyalties were divided between the Union and Confederacy. Guerrilla warfare and skirmishes between Union and Confederate troops caused turmoil. Some residents lived in caves, while others fled.

    "John Cecil, a former sheriff, led a guerrilla band, operating against Union forces. Union soldiers destroyed Confederate saltpeter works at Boxley, and Jasper was burned. Engagements included three skirmishes in April 1864 at Whiteley's Mills, Richland Creek and Limestone Valley."

    After the war, people continued to live on small farms that grew corn, wheat, rye, oats, tobacco, potatoes, apples and peaches. Some cotton was grown along the Buffalo River.

    "A legend was born as Beaver Jim Villines became known for his trapping ability," Miller and Sesser write. "Visitors went to Marble Falls and Tom Thumb Spring for the water's supposed healing power. The 1900s brought increased population as outsiders moved to the county. ... Lead and zinc mining increased briefly to support World War I efforts."

    By the 1930 census, no Black residents lived in the county. One-room schools began consolidating after 1930. The rough terrain, lack of a railroad and bad roads prevented growth. The county's population tumbled from 10,881 in 1940 to 5,963 in 1960.

    "Change came slowly," Miller and Sesser write. "Newton County resident Ted Richmond opened the first library, a private endeavor called Wilderness Library. Jay Smith opened the first airports, one at Piercetown in 1946 and the other in neighboring Boone County in 1951. Also in 1951, Newton County got its first paved road when Arkansas 7 was paved from Jasper to Harrison. The 1960s and 1970s saw residents arrive with the back-to-the-land movement.

    "Santuario Arco Iris, an intentional land community founded by Maria Christian DeColores Moroles, served as a refuge for women and children, especially those of color. The popularity of the comic strip Li'l Abner created interest in an amusement park. Dogpatch USA opened in 1968 and employed residents of Boone and Newton counties, both in the construction of the park and as employees.

    "When the comic strip ceased publication, free publicity disappeared, and the park's isolated location failed to draw the anticipated traffic. Financial problems brought changes in ownership. After several attempts to revive the park, it closed in 1993. At the request of residents, Dogpatch again became Marble Falls."

    Morris is turning the Dogpatch site into a nature center. The federal Economic Development Administration recently awarded a $1 million grant, which will be matched by $1.9 million in state funds, to the Marble Falls Sewer Improvement District for wastewater improvements. Morris estimated in the application that there will be $40 million in private investment at the site and 166 jobs. It's the largest private investment in the county's history.

    While Morris attracts those who like nature centers (and caves, since he's excavating underground pockets beneath the property), expect the Waltons to attract well-heeled mountain bikers, hikers and rock climbers. None of these people will further crowd the Buffalo. They instead will be using the county's other outdoor recreational attributes.

    Given that the future of Newton County relies on tourism, it's incumbent on residents to make these visitors feel welcome.

    Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

  • 03 Dec 2023 10:04 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Arkansas Times

    The Waltons, the first gentleman and the future of the Buffalo River

    BY Debra Hale-Shelton   ON December 3, 2023

    It was a town hall fit for the movies. On Oct. 26, more than 1,000 people turned out for a community meeting at the school cafeteria in Jasper, an Ozarks town and home to about 500 residents. Almost 2,000 more watched the meeting online. But the big names of the night were absent: two grandsons of Walmart founder Sam Walton and the Arkansas governor’s husband, Bryan Sanders.

    The topic was the Buffalo National River, where folks have been swimming, fishing and canoeing longer than anyone can remember. Outdoor enthusiasts Steuart and Tom Walton, co-founders of the investment firm Runway Group LLC, want the beloved river preserved — but also changed. For at least 1 1/2 years, they’ve been promoting the idea of asking Congress to redesignate the area as a national park and preserve.

    But those plans only became public knowledge in September, when residents of five north Arkansas counties began getting phone surveys asking them about a possible change. Runway posted survey results online, saying nearly 64% of the 412 voters polled were in favor of the idea. Critics said the survey’s questions seemed designed to encourage participants to give just such a response.

    The public outcry was so loud that Runway later told legislators it was backing off. Still, residents remain suspicious about the company’s goals.

    “I don’t think this issue is going away,” said state Sen. Bryan King (R-Green Forest), whose district includes some of the Buffalo region. King said he fears Runway’s retreat is only a delay, especially considering the more than 6,000 acres Walton Enterprises owns in Madison County after a property buying spree.

    Darryl Treat, executive director of the Greater Searcy County Chamber of Commerce, agreed. He cited recent newspaper editorials in support of the change and the fact that we’ve heard no definitive rejection of the idea from Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders or Arkansas’s congressional delegation and the governor’s office.

    What exactly would the change from a “national river” to a “national park and preserve” mean for the Buffalo? It’s not fully clear.

    The current “national river” designation allows folks to fish and hunt along the 150-mile river. National parks generally don’t allow hunting, but national preserves may have less stringent land use rules. Activities such as mining and drilling may be allowed on preserves.

    If the Buffalo were a “national park and preserve,” the arrangement might resemble the New River Gorge national park and preserve in West Virginia. The public lands at New River Gorge include a core 7,000-acre national park and a much larger, 65,000-acre preserve.

    Regardless of the name, the specific activities allowed in a particular National Park Service-administered territory are spelled out by Congress. The law authorizing the Buffalo National River specifically allows hunting and fishing and prohibits the establishment of hydropower projects.

    Tina Boehle, a National Park Service spokeswoman, said mining and drilling “would currently not be allowed” in or along the Buffalo.

    “Nothing in the enabling legislation of Buffalo National River explicitly mentions mining/drilling, but any activity such as that would ‘unreasonably diminish the scenic, recreational, and fish and wildlife values present in the area,’” Boehle said, referring to a phrase contained in the enabling legislation.

    Asked whether mining and drilling could take place in a national park and preserve, Boehle said, “It centers on whether there is a valid pre-existing mineral right and the various laws and regulations that apply to the exercise of that right.”

    If Congress were to change the Buffalo’s designation, it is possible that it could make other changes to land use restrictions. 

    Runway has said it does not support the idea of mining or drilling along the Buffalo. The Madison County Record recently reported that gubernatorial spokeswoman Alexa Henning said Bryan Sanders “does not support nor has he even discussed the idea of drilling or mining in the Buffalo National River.”

    Even if mineral exploration is not in the cards, though, many residents fear the proposed change could overwhelm the region with tourists, infrastructure and additional federal regulation. And regardless of the details, the secretive nature of the planning has many people in north Arkansas feeling suspicious of the planners’ motives.

    King, Treat and state Sen. Missy Irvin (R-Mountain View) indicated residents were frustrated that neither Runway nor Bryan Sanders sought residents’ input before the September phone poll.

    “It seems elementary to never try to push a major change without first engaging with the people it affects most and maintaining transparency. A lot can be accomplished with open dialog,” Treat said. “We heard the siren song of economic prosperity 51 years ago when the Buffalo became a National River. The economic claims did not come close to being realized. The local people are very wise to not trust anyone’s promises today without seeing detailed plans which we have been told do not exist.”

    King said an early discussion with residents would have been tough because of lingering unhappiness with the designation of the Buffalo National River back in 1972, which displaced some people living in the area. 

    Still, he said “that route, even being difficult, would have been far better than the Bryan Sanders route.” As things stand now, “Any trust factor has been blown out of the water.”

    Rumors of the first gentleman’s involvement surfaced months ago, though he, his chief of staff and the governor’s spokeswoman have not responded to requests for comment from the Arkansas Times.

    Sanders is a friend of the Walton brothers, a fellow cycling enthusiast and the chairman of the Natural State Advisory Council, on which Tom Walton serves.

    Irvin said Sanders contacted her in May about the Buffalo.

    “I told him he needed to meet directly with my constituents,” she wrote on Facebook. “At which point I reached out to … the Searcy County Chamber of Commerce director who was ready to meet. Then we never heard back from the first gentleman’s office and no meeting ever occurred.”

    In an online statement, Irvin wrote, “I stand with my constituents in opposing a change in the designation of the Buffalo National River.

    “It is critically important to respect the people who have forged their lives from these mountains & who continue to live with the pain of losing their homesteads, their heritage,” she added.

    Runway said it approached U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman, now chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, in July 2022 about the idea of designating the river as a national park and preserve.

    The Arkansas Republican has acknowledged the river discussion but said, “There has not been any legislation drafted or introduced in … Congress to change the current designation. Currently, my top priority is hearing the thoughts of my constituents on the matter and collecting as much feedback as possible.”

    Westerman said he supports “the rights of private property owners, and I do not support any forced sale of privately held lands.”

    Treat, who said his family settled in Searcy County before Arkansas was a state, called it “disrespectful and paternalistic behavior” to discuss making major changes to the area without consulting local leaders. “After all, we live here and we are the reason there is infrastructure here and our tax money maintains the very roads that many people use to access the Buffalo National River.”

    Treat said he believes “the vast majority of people who live here, whether from founding families or recent newcomers, are against the change.”

    Runway has been publicly quiet about the proposal since the Oct. 26 town hall. A flier at the meeting said Runway representatives, the governor and her husband were all invited to the meeting but did not attend, the Arkansas Advocate reported.

    Shortly before the town hall, Runway released a statement indicating it was backing off. “A designation change for the Buffalo National River is not our decision to make, but we believe it’s an idea worth exploring,” the company said.  

  • 28 Nov 2023 9:06 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Talk Business and Politics

    The Buffalo: A river that has ‘really changed in places for the worse’

    by Robin Mero (

    Editor’s note: This is the second of two articles explaining the challenges of maintaining and preserving the more than 94,000 acres in the Buffalo National River system. Link here for the first story.

    Paul Villines was born 76 years ago within a flagstone house by the Boxley Valley Mill Pond near the Buffalo River, and lived elsewhere only two years for military service during the Vietnam War. His mother was raised near the Mill Pond, and his father around Low Gap.

    A wide swath of the land in the valley is owned by Villines and his family or is leased from the National Park Service (NPS) by him for raising cattle or cutting hay. He lived through the Buffalo’s designation as the nation’s first National River, the vigorous acquisition of private land by the National Park Service, and the reselling of much of the same property back to the families in the late 1980s and 1990s.

    The bucolic Boxley Valley is one of seven areas within the Buffalo National River that the Park Service has further protected as a “Cultural Landscape,” with the aim of retaining old traditions and small family farms that give the valley its character.

    Within the 8,000-acre valley, the Park protects 170 structures and features that embody Ozark culture in the 1800s – the hand-built fences and stone walls, the wells and cisterns, cemeteries, the log houses and outbuildings. The Park leases valley land to local farmers for pasture and producing hay, wheat and corn to retain the subsistence farming that settlers relied upon.

    Villines maintains a thick white binder filled with photographs to remember the river through the decades. One shows his late wife Carol in 1979, with their daughter Jennifer and a nephew, enjoying what they informally call Plum Bush Hole at the river. A second photo in recent years captures the same swimming hole, but it’s bone dry.

    “A lot of people come and go and don’t realize that the river has really, really changed in places for the worse. There’s lots of erosion. I’ve been concerned about it for a long time,” Villines said. “People who weren’t here years ago don’t have a clue how pretty it was. We had deep holes of water down to bedrock and fish, all kinds of wildlife. Now there are (virtually) no turtles, no mussels. This gravel is filling the water up, destroying the habitat, and the rich dirt along the creek bank is full of phosphorus.”

    Landowners along the river can maintain their property but not the riverbank, and disagreements arise. The National Park Service wants to retain the land’s pastoral, agrarian character, but landowners argue the river is eating away at their land because they’re not allowed to maintain it.

    The farmers who used to live here, they wouldn’t have let this happen,” Villines said. Landowners maintained their gravel bars by regularly moving small amounts of gravel to opposite banks before obstructions formed.

    “Erosion is natural, but a hurricane is natural and a tornado is natural. Managing them is natural,” he said.

    Behind the Boxley Grist Mill, the river has cut and washed away more than 50 feet of bank, trees, and the soft, fertile soil, leaving jagged edges barren of vegetation that loom more than 10 feet above river level.

    “Eventually it will undercut the Mill. It’s all written, basically; if you can read the river, you can see what’s going to happen.”

    From his farmhouse in the valley, Villines sees a steady stream of cars pass on a Friday afternoon. He isn’t bothered by tourists. He’s more concerned about the health and longevity of the river itself.

    The challenges and threats that the Buffalo River faces are detailed in a foundational document governing how the Park Service manages the river. The governing document was created in 2018 and is available online. Yet the Park Service lacks the funds and/or permission to address many of these challenges.

    Erosion along the streambank is flagged within the document dozens of times. Other concerns are pollutants and external impacts to water and air quality from development, including municipal wastewater, septic systems, agriculture, vehicle exhaust, and coal-fired power plants. The river system also faces a lack of riparian buffers, increases in feral hog populations, which trample riparian vegetation, algae blooms and low dissolved oxygen impacting aquatic species and threatening the scenic character of the river, rising water temperatures, and widening river channels.

    In a 2020 document, the Boxley Valley Comprehensive Area Plan, the NPS said any redirection of stream channels or riverbank stabilization would require extensive compliance with the Clean Water Act and NEPA, and “is best suited for a separate, targeted planning effort that considers the hydrology and flow pattern of the Buffalo River and how these correspond to current land uses.”

    Concerns about these issues and the lack of funds to rectify them is part of what led the Runway Group to explore options for the river, including a controversial idea to redesignate the river system to a National Park Preserve. The Runway Group backed away from the idea when many residents and officials in the system area organized to oppose a redesignation.

    “We believe a change in status is one idea that would provide needed infrastructure support to a growing number of tourists; would support the preservation of the river and its current boundaries; and would create new ways to benefit the surrounding communities,” noted part of a statement from the Runway Group.

    National parks are funded by a variety of sources, including entrance fees (there is no fee for access to the Buffalo National River, only for use of a few campgrounds with amenities), concessions, Congressional appropriations, gifts and donations, and the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

  • 26 Nov 2023 9:57 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Talk Business & Politics

    Buffalo River redesignation idea rejected for now, but growth and preservation still a concern

    by Robin Mero (

    Editor’s note: This is the first of two articles about the challenges of maintaining and preserving the more than 94,000 acres in the Buffalo National River system.

    The Buffalo National River, an anchor of Arkansas’ tourism industry, is sharing in a dramatic rise in tourism that is sweeping the Natural State. Visitors to the state in 2022 spent $1 billion more than in 2019, before the pandemic, and dollars spent on lodging increased 23%.

    Gov. Sarah Sanders aims to make the state a leading destination for outdoor recreation. But recently, public response was swift and disapproving when a conversation arose about redesignating the Buffalo River as a National Park Preserve in order to attract more visitors.

    Redesignating the river could dramatically increase the revenue that’s needed to maintain the river region and improve amenities. That was the message from the Bentonville-based Runway Group, a privately-held company owned by brothers Tom and Steuart Walton that invests in outdoor recreation, initiatives and conservation, as well as hospitality and other businesses in the region. Tom Walton is also a member of the Natural State Advisory Council, established to strategize and promote the outdoor economy.

    State and government officials and the Runway Group immediately backed away from promoting the idea after hackles were raised for many in the watershed and particularly in Newton County – where folks prize isolation, a slow pace and unadulterated beauty. The Runway Group has provided this webpage to explain its involvement in the redesignation discussion.

    “At this time, no official proposal has been offered, only preliminary research as reflected in some fact sheets designed to lead meaningful conversations about the future of the Buffalo and the growth of Arkansas’ outdoor economy,” noted part of a statement from the Runway Group. “We are engaging in a coalition to explore new ideas centered on preservation, quality of life, and economic vitality. It is our hope to continue these conversations with sincerity and respect.”

    But an increase in tourism along the 135 miles of Buffalo National River is inevitable; in fact, it’s underway. Arkansas Tourism has leaned into the marketing and promotion of the river as a destination and increasingly pays for more images and stories to be projected across the nation and into big markets such as Atlanta, Houston, Los Angeles, Chicago and Miami.

    Maintenance for the Buffalo River and its amenities is drastically underfunded, with the Park Service deferring upwards of $30 million in projects for roads, bathrooms, campgrounds and the riverbed itself, according to Sen. Missy Thomas Irvin, R-Mountain View. The river’s home counties are some of the state’s poorest and most underfunded, and since 40% of land in the watershed is federally owned, it is not subject to property tax revenue for the counties.

    “All of this creates a drain on the local counties that have to deal with these many problems, and they don’t have the budgets,” Irvin said. “It costs these rural counties a lot to maintain unpaved roads, especially ones with low water bridges and that see an incredible amount of traffic due to key access points for the river.”

    Newton County officials, for instance, are anticipating the impact of the opening of Marble Falls Nature Park, which Bass Pro Shops CEO Johnny Morris is constructing at the former location of the Dogpatch USA theme park. Arkansas Highway 7 from Harrison may need increased maintenance and to be widened.

    Even the skies are busier. The resurgent Searcy County “Buffalo River” Airport, for instance, is now home to Buffalo River Air Tours, which has petitioned the Federal Aviation Administration and National Park Service for permission to fly customers over the river.

    Statewide, revenue from the 2% tourism tax rose steadily from $18 million in 2019 to $24 million in 2022. That revenue goes into the state’s marketing budget used to attract more visitors via paid news content and traditional media placement.

    Amidst the speculation and musing, there are questions to be asked and thoughtful answers to be given. Do Arkansans want many more people using the river? How can the area grow in a manner that is responsible to current and future communities and, most importantly, to the river itself? Rather than asking what we want from the river, what does the river need from us?

    Park, River, and Preserve. These are federal designations instructing the National Park Service on how to protect and maintain the character and beauty of waters and lands with historic, scenic and/or scientific features. The Buffalo River possesses all three.

    Legislatures designate the categories, determine funding, and ask the Park Service to protect the resources and prevent them from changing as much as possible.

    Congress established the Buffalo National River in 1972 after years of ado over similar questions about how the river should be used and maintained. According to the 1972 enabling legislation, “The purpose of Buffalo National River is to preserve a free-flowing river and to conserve and interpret the combination of natural, scenic, cultural, and scientific features characterized by deep valleys, towering bluffs, wilderness, and landscapes of the Ozark Mountains.”

    In the years since Arkansas has changed. Rather than being perceived as backward and bottom-of-every-list, Arkansas now tops “best of” designations for entrepreneurism, amenities and affordability. Incomes are higher, the population soars in counties west of the river, and new types of people seek property in the river’s breadth.

    Irvin believes the river needs “sustainable growth,” which she defines as “growing tourism at a pace that can be maintained with reasonably improving the existing infrastructure – not overwhelming the current, already inadequate, infrastructure with triple the amount of tourists.” She highlights the grassroots Buffalo River Conservation Committee, which has directed $1 million to assist cities, counties, and local farmers and small businesses with the strain and help maintain water quality.

    “It has been an incredible success, and I hope Gov. Sanders will match the efforts with an additional $1 million,” Irvin said. “And there is absolutely no reason in my mind why these entities as they exist shouldn’t receive adequate funding from the federal government. … It is entirely unnecessary to change the land designation in order to properly fund what you already have. The BNR should stay as the first national river.”

    The New River Gorge in West Virginia was redesignated in 2022 from a National River to a National Park, the nation’s 63rd, and Preserve, the nation’s 20th. The Preserve designation allows hunting and fishing to continue on much of the land – a major interest also at the Buffalo River.

    But re-designations are not one size fits all, said Kyle Groetzinger of the National Parks Conservation Association.

    “The most important factor to consider is resource protection – ensuring that public lands and waters remain protected to the highest possible standard,” Groetzinger said. “There is no single model to follow – the process for New River Gorge or Cuyahoga or any other re-designation varied significantly.”

    U.S. Sen Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., has publicly highlighted $51 million brought to the Gorge since its redesignation and said the redesignation also contributed to $3.7 billion in federal funding received within the four-county area around the park and preserve. With southern West Virginia being one of the most economically depressed areas in America, the new designation is seen by many as a welcome economic driver. Recent reports, however, suggest that funding has not kept up with visitor impact on the region, which is resulting in a rising number of unhappy local residents.

    But many in the Buffalo watershed are asking whether more support for the river can be generated by the Congressional delegation, by state government, or by private philanthropy.

    Three times a year, dozens of volunteers launch canoes loaned to them by outfitters along the Buffalo River and set out early to float and retrieve trash from the river, riverbank and adjacent areas. On separate dates, they tackle the upper, middle and lower river sections. The Buffalo National River Partners was an informal band of do-gooders until the Park Service asked it to partner in the early 2000s; in 2007, it was incorporated into a 501c3.

    The BNRP is not the only group supporting the river, but it is the sole group with a Park Service memorandum of understanding, and a Park staff member holds a liaison position on its board to provide information and guidance.

    “We support the goals and purposes of the National Park Service with education, finances and volunteers; they have work plans laid out for three years and we drum up troops,” said Landon Curtis, acting board president. “There are financial needs. Facilities to be maintained. Sometimes it’s about doing more with less.”

    Much of the quantified degradation to water quality in the Buffalo and its adjacent land is caused by disregard and overuse of the river – such as the overuse of fertilizer, swine and poultry operations, wastewater and septic systems, vehicle exhaust and nearby development, according to a National Park Service “Foundation Document” published in 2018.

    Other concerns noted in the 50-page NPS document are a dramatic increase in backcountry camping and visitors using machetes, hatchets, and axes to impact vegetation, an increased number of dogs disturbing wildlife and visitors, trails widening from equestrian use, adjacent landowners creating unauthorized access points to park lands, and development at the edges of park boundaries, such as houses, cabins, roads, and powerlines.

    One eerie entry: “The overall morphology (living organisms) of the Buffalo River stream channel is artificially unstable due to a variety of past and current contributing factors within the surrounding watershed and park including gravel mining and channelization, effects of agricultural practices, poorly designed and maintained gravel roads, riparian clearing, and bridge structures.”

    Even the wilderness land is overused. Of the Buffalo River’s 94,293 acres, almost 36,000 are designated as wilderness and activities are further restricted. Wilderness land, according to the NPS, is land “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Such land retains “its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation … with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable.”

    Yet there has been an increase in recreational rock climbing, vandalism and graffiti on rocks, caves, and bluffs, unauthorized camping and use of fires in historic fireplaces and sites, theft of minerals such as lead and zinc and vandalism at mine sites, and illegal use of ATVs degrading the land. The wilderness character is threatened by overuse in some areas, and opportunities for solitude and primitive, unconfined recreation are degraded by very heavy usage of trails, according to the NPS.

    Curtis is positive about the future of the Buffalo River but does express concern when detailing the debris and trash his volunteer organization encounters in the river year after year, and increasingly so.

    “The river will be here long after we are,” Curtis said. “And it needs us all.”

  • 26 Nov 2023 9:35 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Democrat Gazette

    Buffalo River rift shifts ire from D.C. to Arkansas

    Author: Little Rock, not D.C., distrusted

    Today at 7:34 a.m.

    by Bill Bowden

    For the past 50 years, the prevailing target of government distrust in the Ozark Mountains has been Washington, D.C.

    But a dispute over the Buffalo National River seems to be shifting the dynamic.

    "In recent decades, the rhetoric of rural resistance to government in Arkansas has mostly targeted distant Washington bureaucrats, but this one pointedly calls out Little Rock, connections to Governor Sanders, and the Waltons and other regional business elites," said Blake Perkins, author of the book "Hillbilly Hellraisers: Federal Power and Populist Defiance in the Ozarks."

    "And it seems to be cutting across political party lines and takes on 'the rich' and 'big money' more directly than I've really seen in any significant way in the last 50 years or so," said Perkins.

    He's talking about the idea of turning the Buffalo National River into a national park and preserve.

    Runway Group of Bentonville floated the idea, saying it would bring in more visitors and more federal funding for the park. Runway was founded by Steuart and Tom Walton, grandsons of Sam Walton, the founder of Walmart Stores Inc.

    A Runway representative asked Congressman Bruce Westerman about it in July 2022, and Runway paid for a poll of area residents in September.

    Sixty-four percent of those surveyed said they were for the change, but some people have questioned the validity of the survey.

    Meanwhile, Westerman said he's not going to propose any legislation to redesignate the Buffalo National River unless there's local support, and so far he said he's not seeing it.

    Through a spokesperson, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders said she has had informal discussions with Westerman about the Buffalo National River. Sanders previously served as White House press secretary under President Donald Trump.

    Her husband, Bryan Sanders, chairs the Natural State Advisory Council, which promotes tourism and growth in Arkansas' "outdoor recreation economy." Tom Walton is a member of that council.

    Perkins said the opposition to the Buffalo's redesignation is much more in line with the historical "populist defiance" that reigned in the rural Arkansas Ozarks in the late 19th and first half of the 20th centuries, a defiance that targeted local and regional "moneyed interests" and "wire pullers" just as much as it did those feds far away in the nation's capital.

    Perkins grew up on a cattle farm along the Strawberry River in western Lawrence and eastern Sharp counties near Smithville. He lives in Lynn in Lawrence County.

    Besides being an author, Perkins also teaches history and serves as an administrator at Arkansas State University-Beebe. He said his comments are from a historical perspective and in no way reflect the opinions or positions of his employer.

    A public meeting held Oct. 26 in Jasper drew a crowd of more than 1,100. Several people spoke out against the idea of turning the Buffalo National River into a national park and preserve.

    Perkins said he wasn't surprised at the backlash over the idea.

    "Public concerns raised at the Oct. 26 meeting in Jasper about dangers of 'development' loudly echo this long history of broken promises and raw deals," said Perkins.

    "Ozarkers, notwithstanding all the popular hillbilly stereotypes, have typically clashed with government-sponsored 'improvement' ideas throughout history, in fact, because those efforts have usually benefited local business elites and well-to-do outsiders at the expense of rural folks's land and labor and their local communities," he said in an email. "Their responses have really been little or no different from other Americans who might happen to find themselves in similar circumstances.

    "From a slew of state and federal agricultural reforms in the first half of the 20th century to the building of Corps of Engineers dams and economic development programs in the middle decades of the 20th century, rural Ozarkers with modest means rarely enjoyed the benefits of proponents' promises to 'improve' the region and 'raise all boats.' Instead, most of these initiatives sped up and contributed to the decline of family farming and family operated businesses and hastened the demise of hundreds of small towns and communities throughout the region -- and did so with little regard to the rural people they hurt."

    Such initiatives have accelerated the migration of thousands of rural residents out of the Ozarks, said Perkins. According to one study, 431,000 people left the Ozarks in the 1950s alone. Perkins said they were replaced by more affluent migrants from American cities and suburbs.

    Many of the concerns raised by speakers at the public meeting in Jasper were similar to those of local landowners a half century earlier who wanted neither a dam nor a national river, said Perkins.

    The Buffalo became a national river in 1972.

    The origin story of the Buffalo National River that's usually told concerns a battle between the pro-development dam proponents who lost and the Ozarks Society and other conservation groups that succeeded in "preserving" the free-flowing river and secured its place as a federally protected national river for the sake of the region and everyone's benefit, said Perkins.

    But that leaves out a third group -- local residents who formed the Buffalo River Landowners' Association.

    "Many of the concerns raised at the recent Jasper meeting, whether all those who voiced them are aware of the historical details or not, can trace their lineage to this third group of rural residents who opposed recreational development and encroachment posed by either a dam or a national park and the negative consequences the development would have for their families and ways of rural living" said Perkins. "In their eyes, in other words, the park proposal was mostly just another side of the same coin.

    "Much like those expressing heated opposition today, they didn't see their land in the Buffalo Valley as part of an investment portfolio or a commodity to be traded or developed for new profit making ventures in the Natural State's tourism industry and state's image marketing agenda, but rather as precious and sentimental spaces they and their families claimed (sometimes for many generations), made a living on, and controlled for their own and chosen ways of rural life, as well as heirlooms they could pass down in their families to future generations.

    "As they expected, the tourists who flocked to the national river brought new kinds of pressures and complications to these goals in places like Newton County, and many locals today apparently want no more stresses and hurdles that redesignating the river might bring about," wrote Perkins. "These places are their homes and communities, and they're not willing to sacrifice them for a bigger and better playground for tourists or a national image booster for the state. From what I've read so far, I think it's mostly a rational position, and not a bunch of obstinate hillbillies kicking up just because kicking up is somehow bred into the culture."

    Perkins said the contention over the Buffalo National River has made for some interesting coalitions, particularly the coming together of local landowners, local environmentalists and certain corporate-oriented interests.

    "For now, historical perspective would seem to suggest that local families in the Ozarks who are sincerely interested in rural living and in protecting the land and river for future generations ought to be carefully mindful of what interests are, indeed, at stake and who's pushing in what direction and for what reason," said Perkins. "They should work diligently to maintain healthy checks and balances in such coalitions, because interests with more money and resources can have a tendency to run away with the ball and suddenly leave their teammates standing in the dust. And they need to recognize real allies and keep them close, even if they look, talk, live, or otherwise do things a little differently than they do.

    "And if government somehow does turn out to be the best answer for true protection in a given instance, they need to be open-minded enough to recognize lesser evils when warranted. Contrary to much popular political rhetoric, governments have no monopoly on taking freedoms and impeding rural livelihoods; sometimes they're actually necessary to keep the real foxes out of the hen house."

  • 22 Nov 2023 4:28 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Madison County Record

    More tourism yields improved economy, cleaned-up town

    Increase also impedes locals’ way of life

    Posted Wednesday, November 22, 2023 9:45 am

    By Ellen Kreth, For The Record

    Second in a two-part series

    FAYETTEVILLE, WEST VIRGINIA — After New River Gorge National River became America’s newest national park and preserve in a Covid-relief bill passed at the end of 2020, some area businesses saw an economic boom.

    But smaller businesses haven’t reaped those same rewards. 

    Real estate values increased but so has the list of people looking for affordable housing. 

    Local and out-of-state developers are refurbishing dilapidated houses and buildings into apartments and a boutique hotel. A Hampton Inn is coming to the area.

    Fayetteville is the closest town to New River Gorge National Park and Preserve. The town’s economy is good, but perhaps at the expense of a quiet life.

    A coalition and business group in Arkansas have touted it as a model to explore re-designating public land around the Buffalo National River as a “national park preserve.”

    In June 2022, the Runway Group, LLC, owned by brothers Steuart and Tom Walton, grandsons of Walmart founders Helen and Sam Walton and heirs to the Walmart fortune, quietly approached U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., who represents Arkansas’ 4th Congressional District and chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, with the idea of re-designation.  

    The Runway Group is also a part of the Coalition for the Future of the Buffalo River National Park Preserve, who claims re-designating lands would make the “area the most active-use National Park in the country for outdoor recreation.”

    Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Westerman have spoken about the possible re-designation. The First Gentleman, Bryan Sanders, and Tom Walton have promoted the idea of re-designation as a way to increasing the state’s tourism industry. Bryan Sanders began reaching out last spring to state officials about a possible re-designation. 

    The Record traveled to Fayetteville, W. Va., and interviewed locals, elected officials, business owners, national park service employees, Realtors and vacation property managers to learn how re-designating the New River Gorge has changed the area and their way of life.

    Federal Funding

    New River Gorge Park and Preserve did not automatically get federal funding after its’ lands were re-designated. 

    The Runway Group praised New River Gorge Park and Preserve’s success, noting it “recently celebrated $3.7B in federal funding since it was designated a National Park.”

    The group based that funding information on a video in which U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D.- W. Va., who pushed for the re-designation along with U.S. Sen. Shelly Moore Capito, R.-W. Va., said $3.7 billion had flowed into the surrounding counties and but he does not mention direct funding for the park and preserve.

    “We don’t actually specify who received the funding in our statement but do have a link to the video on our site for further reference to the $3.7 billion,” a Runway Group spokesperson said.

    There have been misconceptions about how much federal funding would be provided to any type of national park or preserve on the Buffalo River. 

    After re-designation, federal funding does not automatically flow into a new park and preserve or its surrounding communities. 

    State Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forest, who represents District 28, disputed claims that billions in federal funding would be given to the Buffalo National River if it was re-designated as either a park or preserve and reached out to Chase Emerson from the office of U.S. Senator John Boozman, R.-Ark.

    “After consulting with our Department of Interior Legislative Staff,” Emerson wrote to King, “It seems that the initial projections of billions of dollars coming to any change in designation for the National River to a Park or Preserve seem exaggerated.

    “There are some additional funding opportunities and mechanisms but not billions of dollars, to our knowledge,” Emerson wrote.

    “Unfortunately there’s nothing that says, ‘OK, now you’re a national park, so you get an increase,” District Supervisor for Interpretation at New River Gorge Park and Preserve Dave Bieri said. 

    “Everything’s kind of based on visitation and that takes a while. So at this point, we’re able to start showing we’ve got more and more visitors here,” Bieri said.

    Even though tourists’ spending can pump money into the local economies in towns near national parks, such as Fayetteville, funding for national parks and preserves projects takes at least three years to obtain and even then money is not guaranteed. All national parks compete against each other for funding. 

    Funding for national parks comes from various government funds. 

    The Great American Outdoors Act (GAOA) passed in 2020 provided funding for National Park Service maintenance needs, mainly for large-scale projects that couldn’t be covered by a yearly budget. New River Gorge has about $30 million worth of projects funded by the act, but that isn’t connected to the park and preserve’s designation. GAOA money is available already to federal parks in Arkansas, including the Buffalo National River, said Lizzie Watts, Former Park Superintendent of New River Gorge National Park and Preserve.

    New River Gorge has also continued to add land, last year adding 1,000 acres paid for by a land fund. Adding land to the park and preserve, coupled with the name change, provided a small increase in the park’s base appropriation, which includes line items such as salaries, utilities, and other continuing bills, Watts said.

    In 2022, New River Gorge National Park and Preserve generated $96.1 million in “economic output,” and supported 1,044 jobs in the area, according to the 2022 National Park Visitor Spending Effects Report. 

    In that same year, more than 1.5 million park visitors spent an estimated $79.3 million in local gateway regions while visiting the park and preserve. Eighty-eight percent of the visitors were from out-of-state, the report said. 

    That same report noted the Buffalo National River contributed more than $78.4 million in “economic output,” had 1.3 million visitors to the area, and contributed more than $64.9 million in spending in local gateway communities. That supported 864 jobs and had a total economic output of $78.4 million. 

    Even though the visitors are generating money for Fayetteville and its surrounding communities, the towns themselves are not recipients of that funding.

    “I don’t see a big influx of money,” Fayetteville Town Manager Matt Diederich said.

    Fayetteville Mayor Sharon Cruikshank said sales tax dollars increased, along with hotel and motel taxes, but that money is not designated for the town’s infrastructure. Rather, those taxes are required by state last to be used to promote visitation and tourism.

    “We like that but that didn’t help with signage and building bathrooms,” Cruikshank said.

    The re-designation has created jobs in the service industries throughout the region but the town has not added staff, but could in the future.

    Diederich said the town is preparing for the possibility of adding a job to work on outdoor recreation. 

    Also, the town built more trails with grant money it received for the development of lands that adjoin the federal park.

    “Communities around the park are very much interested in what’s going on in the park and very much want to be a part of it,” Bieri said.

    More Tourism

    Tourism associated with New River Gorge has always been good for area businesses.

    During Covid, tourists took advantage of the area as a place to enjoy outdoor recreation while remaining self-contained. 

    Tourists increased and diversified when the area became a national park and preserve. 

    Canyon Rim Visitor Center usually sees “about 300,000 to 350,000 visitors per year, and this year, they’re hitting 500,000,” Bieri said.

    The type of visitor changed. The park saw an influx of people whose objective is to visit all 62 national parks. 

    “It wasn’t just going to be recreational visitors anymore or sightseers to the bridge [one of West Virginia’s most photographed places],” said Watts, who worked for the National Park Service for 45 years. “They have high expectations. They want the resources there. They want the camping facilities available. All of the high expectations of going to Yellowstone National Park is what they expect. Your staff needs to be retrained and be prepared for that. 

    “The community, in our case, had to step up because we didn’t have a lot of those big facilities. But the local communities outside of us did. And they were probably more prepared in some ways than the park was,” Watts said.

    Bieri said visitors wearing various national park T-shirts come into the visitor center asking to get their national park passport stamped. 

    For some, New River Gorge is replacing the annual beach trip. 

    “This is where they’re coming and they’re going to go home with a hat and T-shirt” Bieri said.

    Profits from the Canyon Ridge Visitor’s Center Store jumped 75%. 

    Visitors consider a new park a destination. 

    “I’ll tell you right now, you’re going to be overrun with traffic because the American vacationer is in love with the newest national park,” said Larry Nibert, owner of West Virginia Experience, a fishing and hunting guide service.

    The kind of visitors changed too. 

    Laurel Johnson, who grew up in the area and works in the service industry, said, “In the past, it was climbers, hikers, paddlers, people that we see all the time. Now there is a bigger group of explorers, adventurers, [and] people that just want to go to a different place.”

    Andy Forron, owner of New River Bikes, said one of his coworkers moved to Fayetteville to ride bikes, another to rock climb, and other tourists visited to run rivers. Some of the best rock climbers and rafters in the world come to the area.

    “It was an outdoor town. It was gritty or hard,” Forron said. “When we got a park, we got a bunch of people with sticks walking around that aren’t what we’re used to. I’m not saying it’s bad. We get a lot of people [who] just come in, walk around and walk off. We’re fine with that.”

    Out-of-state visitors stay several days.

    “Two years ago, if you came out here camping, unless it was a holiday weekend, I’d say you’ll have no problem finding a campsite down there,” Bieri said. “Now people come in and they’re gonna be there early because they fill up every night.”

    Realtor and owner of Cathedral Cafe, Wendy Bayes, said concessionaires are catering to the tourist who will stay at a campground with lots of amenities, such as zip lining, swimming and rafting. 

    Visitors also come year-round.

    “It’s more of a week than a weekend, so they’re staying for longer and I think they knew that would be great for the area,” Bayes said.

    “We don’t really have an off-season,” Johnson said. “We have a super-slammed if-you-get-a-table-you’re-blessed season.”

    November through spring “used to be the off-season, but now people are still coming here to climb or still come here to mountain bike, to hike, [and] to explore the area,” Diederich said.

    “It’s still busier now in November on a Thursday then it used to be on a Saturday in July,” Forron said. 

    The year-round tourism cycle forces locals to find other trails to explore or bike.

    “What are you going to do on Saturday? You’re not,” Forron said. “You’re just going to leave. That trail that you used to go wander down with your dog in the morning, you can’t do that.”

    Johnson said she and her parents still love the area but on weekends, they travel two hours north, away from the crowds.

    “And that’s the best part about living here, in my opinion,” Johnson said. “There are so many cool places you can go to that you will never see anyone.”

    Johnson said on weekends, rather than fighting the crowds, “What I love to do is just go out and bushwhack, just go out into the woods. I know the mountains here.”

    Becky Sullivan, director of the New River Gorge Convention and Visitors Bureau, said locals still enjoy the river and the park. “You just have to know where to go.” 

    The crowds make it harder for the people living there to enjoy eating in their local restaurants during the summer.

    “You know, I used to go get a sandwich at lunchtime [at Cathedral Cafe] and now I don’t do that in the summer because I can’t do it in my half-hour lunch break anymore because there’s so many darn people there,” Bieri said with a smile.

    Wait times can be more than two hours at the local pizzeria. Forron said when he gets together with friends, they order take-out.

    Town Council member, parks director and vacation rental manager, Brian Good, said he’s OK with the sacrifice, noting restaurants don’t have to close in the winter and provide year-round jobs.



    Housing is in short supply, vacation rentals are plentiful, and property taxes have increased.  Dilapidated properties are being refurbished and repurposed. 

    “Our town looks better than it’s ever looked,” Good said.

    Fayetteville had 25 abandoned or dilapidated buildings in the area when Cruikshank became mayor. The town now has about three, she said.

    “The re-designation did something to housing prices that made me happy, not only as a Realtor but as a local,” Bayes said. “People around West Virginia have been getting the short end of the stick their whole lives … It was nice to see these homes that were worth nothing get bought up for way more.”

    But housing is in short supply. Most investors focus on vacation rentals, with more than 100 in the area. 

    People moving to the area and seasonal workers can’t find affordable housing. 

    “If we were to hire more employees, they couldn’t live here,” Forron said. “There is nowhere to live. If you don’t have a house now, you’re not getting a house.”

    Jon Evans, who works with Forron, said his house is worth two or three times what he paid for it three years ago.

    Farron lives in town. “I don’t have neighbors. I have one neighbor. Everybody else? They’re all Airbnbs,” he said. “I get new neighbors every three nights year-round. When I moved there, I had neighbors. Ten years ago, we had neighbors.”

    Diederich said the re-designation raised the area’s cost of living, but, “We’re not at the point where you can’t live here and work here,” he said.

    “But, it’s taken that starter home and turned it into a short-term rental. That was happening before the re-designation and Covid might have accelerated it,” he said.

    Forron wants to see people put down roots in the area. 

    People who own vacation rentals “pay property taxes, but they don’t live here,” he said. “They don’t buy gas, they don’t buy food, they don’t vote. Think about that.”

    Good said the vacation rentals on Forron’s street are turning into rental homes again because investors are not able to get a good return on their investment as far as what they’re able to charge on a nightly basis. The vacation rental market is saturated.

    But Good said people don’t have a clear perception of a vacation rental. 

    “People from this region will vacation at the beach and don’t think twice about staying in an Airbnb there, but when they have Airbnb or guest tourism coming here, they have an issue with it,” Good said. 

    “People say we don’t have housing but we do have housing within our region. You might not be downtown Fayetteville but you do have something two miles out of town,” Cruikshank  said. 

    Fayetteville is short on hotels. A Hampton Inn is being built and a former school building is being turned into a boutique hotel, while another is being renovated into apartments. Nearby towns of Lewisville and Beckley are larger and offer more lodgings. 

    Real property taxes have also increased. Nibert, who owns two homes, said, his taxes have increased 30% in the last three years. 

    Bayes agreed that property taxes have increased, but not enough to make housing unaffordable. 

    Locals said the schools continue to underperform despite the growth in the area and the increase in property taxes.

    Going Forward

    No legislation for making the Buffalo National River a national park or preserve  is currently being written, according to Westerman and Gov. Sanders. 

    After the local pushback during a town hall meeting, the Runway Group said they are pulling back and taking no further steps. 

    “We wanted to explore a new idea for our home state together. However, this is not our decision to make. There is no new action being taken,” a statement issued in October by the Runway Group said. 

    The coalition took down its website after the town hall meeting. The Runway Group declined to name coalition members.

    “Although it is in the purview of the House Natural Resources Committee to advance legislation to designate national parks, I’ve made it clear I would not support any proposition that does not have grassroots support from those that live, work, and raise their families in the Buffalo River watershed,” Westerman said. 

    Watts said re-designating lands will impact communities near the Buffalo National River and close-by communities. 

    “It can be a positive impact if it’s handled well. It can be not necessarily positive if it’s not handled well,” Watt said.

    But will the locals’ way of life change? 

    “Oh, I’d say it does. I mean it’s such a small town,” Watts said about Jasper, a town sitting near the Buffalo National River.

    Living next to a national park or preserve or both has benefits for future generations. 

    “They’re good for school systems because kids go out to parks. They get to learn more about the ecosystems. They learn about preservation and what they can do to preserve this planet and how we should protect the planet,” Watts said.

    The impact will be the greatest if the Buffalo National River was re-designated as a national park. A preserve will not offer the area the same profile and not as many tourists will visit.

    But communities most affected by a re-designation would need to buy into a change for it to be a success.

    “If the locals don’t want it, I hope they don’t do it, personally because that’s their home. That’s been their home,” Watts said. “But it is good for business. It is good for the economy. And it does bring progress if you want it or not. But it all depends on how you plan.”

  • 19 Nov 2023 10:53 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Democrat Gazette

    OPINION | REX NELSON: A false narrative

    Today at 2:00 a.m.

    by Rex Nelson

    It's a sunny Wednesday in October, the leaves are changing color, the square at Jasper is crowded with visitors, and I'm eating one of the best pizzas I've had in Arkansas. I'm at Jasper Pizza Co., the brainchild of Austin and Allison Nichols.

    I stand at the counter and watch Austin make pizzas in a building that was constructed in the 1890s. The couple, who moved to this town of fewer than 600 residents from booming Fayetteville, opened the restaurant in May. Stories about the quality of the food spread quickly.

    Austin and Allison know what they're doing. They've worked at some of the top restaurants in the state. They met while working for Yellow Rocket Concepts (the parent company of brands such as Local Lime, ZAZA, Big Orange and Lost Forty Brewing) at the Rogers location of Big Orange. They later worked for Jordan Wright, whose Wright's Barbecue has taken the state by storm since 2016. Austin is a Little Rock native, and Allison hails from Daytona Beach, Fla.

    "We planned to move to Little Rock and operate the new Wright's Barbecue location there," Allison says. "We decided that first we would travel the country for six months. It was during that trip that we began talking about opening our own restaurant. We found this building in Jasper. We knew big things were about to happen in this area, and it seemed perfect for us since we could live on the second floor.

    "We were afraid we were going to let Jordan down, but he wound up encouraging us. He told us that if we were ever going to open our own place, now was the time."

    After lunch, I walk to the other side of the square and visit with Walter "Bubba" Lloyd Jr. at Bubba's Buffalo River Store. Lloyd, who grew up in North Little Rock, opened his first store several years ago across the street. Business was so good that he moved to a larger location.

    This isn't the Booger Hollow type of tourist attraction that I associated with the Ozarks when I was growing up in Arkansas. Lloyd sells high-quality shirts, hats, coffee mugs and other things that tourists want these days.

    Lloyd takes me to another old building he owns. He's remodeling it for a coffee shop that will open next spring. He likely will remodel the other side of that structure for an additional business later in 2024.

    The investments being made by Lloyd and the Nichols family are the kind of quality capital investments downtown Jasper has needed for years. These businesses could be successful in any city in the country. Newton County, which is among the state's poorest counties, saw its population peak at 12,538 in the 1900 census. It was down to 7,225 by the 2020 census.

    A few miles to the north along Arkansas 7, Bass Pro Shops founder Johnny Morris is turning the former Dogpatch USA amusement park into a nature park. Dogpatch opened in 1968 and closed in 1993. The 400-acre property was purchased by Morris for $1.1 million in 2020.

    In September, it was announced that the U.S. Department of Commerce's Economic Development Administration had awarded $1 million to the Marble Falls Sewer Improvement District for wastewater improvements. The project will be matched with $1.9 million in state funds and allow Morris' project to move forward.

    In the application for the funds, it was estimated that there will be $40 million in private investment creating 166 jobs. I have a feeling that Morris' investment will end up being far higher. Like the Nichols family and Lloyd, he believes in quality. Even at $40 million, it represents the largest private investment in Newton County history.

    The picture I just painted of the Jasper area is probably far different from the impression you got from the media following a recent town meeting. Angry local residents lashed out at the idea of change, even those changes that will improve their quality of life. What happened here represents a case study of the power of misinformation on social media. It shows us how even well-educated people can be duped by the social media mob.

    Wild rumors began circulating in these hills after a coalition floated the idea of making the Buffalo National River a national park preserve. A poll was commissioned, and the rumors spread--Tom and Steuart Walton, grandsons of Walmart founder Sam Walton, want to take over Buffalo National River; the Sarah Sanders administration wants to take over Buffalo National River; eminent domain will again be used; hunting and fishing will be prohibited; the Waltons plan to mine the area.

    None of these rumors are true, but I watched on social media as people (many of whom I consider friends) bought into them without any effort to obtain the facts. The first people to believe the lies were those who support conservation organizations and see themselves as heirs of the environmentalists who fought half a century ago to have the Buffalo declared our first national river.

    What these folks didn't realize is that they're actually on the same side as the Walton brothers and others they were bashing.

    Those in the coalition are searching for a way to obtain more federal funding to handle the crowds already visiting the Buffalo. A upgrade in the National Park Service pecking order might achieve that goal. Federal protection of the river isn't going away. That battle was won 51 years ago in the face of strong opposition from Newton County and Searcy County residents.

    We need more rangers, restrooms and parking lots. All who study the issue should be able to agree on that. Yes, amateur naturalists, you and the Walton brothers are on the same side.

    It's not just the NPS that's under-funded in Arkansas. It's also the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. In a state where tourism represents the second-largest segment of the economy, you would think the six members of Arkansas' congressional delegation would work hard to get these agencies what they need while also ensuring that they prioritize the recreational aspects of their missions.

    On the way to Jasper, I stopped at the popular Rotary Ann rest area along Arkansas 7. The Forest Service's interpretive panels were either missing or difficult to read. Frankly, it's embarrassing in a place that calls itself the Natural State.

    In our highly politicized society, the next group to believe social media misinformation was made up of those who dislike Sanders. I've done extensive reporting on this issue for the past month, and I can't find much evidence of direct involvement by the governor or husband Bryan Sanders, who fancies himself as the state's outdoor czar. The anti-Sanders crowd, however, immediately believed rumors and joined the social media attacks.

    I would like to offer this piece of public relations advice to the Walton brothers: It would be wise to distance yourself from Sarah and Bryan Sanders, since they're now the most divisive Arkansas public figures in my lifetime. They can add nothing but heartache to efforts to preserve and enhance outdoor recreational attributes in the Ozarks.

    It's true that the Walton family has purchased more than 6,000 acres in the area. Take a step back from the social media rhetoric and consider this: The Waltons don't need to make money off this land. They already have plenty. They won't be clear-cutting the timber. They won't be mining gravel in streams. They won't be bringing in commercial hog and poultry operations.

    They want to improve outdoor recreational opportunities, and you do that by keeping the land pristine. In that sense, they're the best possible owners.

    Longtime residents must have their voices heard. But they also must realize a couple of things. First, the Buffalo National River doesn't belong to them. It belongs to all American taxpayers. That issue was settled in 1972. Second, there's no way to keep everything as it once was. In the words of Lou Holtz, you either get better or you get worse. Nothing stays the same.

    It's time to abandon the social media madness and work together. The Buffalo deserves nothing less than a united front.

    Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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