Buffalo River Watershed Alliance
ON April 12, 2022
Is there any part of Arkansas more widely beloved than the Buffalo River? The case for “The Natural State” being a fitting motto for Arkansas begins (and could almost end) with the crystal clear river, meandering through towering bluffs of the Boston Mountains in what feels like near pristine wilderness. I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking that an annual pilgrimage to the river is a minimum requirement for Arkansas citizenship.
For those of us who weren’t around in the 1960s and 1970s, when environmental activist Neil Compton and other conservationists faced down powerful forces who wanted to see the river dammed for hydroelectric power, there aren’t any hints of that terrible counterfactual on the river: For long stretches of the Buffalo, it feels as if what it is always was.
March 1 marked the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Buffalo River as the United States’ first National River, and throughout the year Buffalo River National Park Service and the Ozark Society, formed 60 years ago by Compton and others to preserve the Buffalo, and other groups will hold events to celebrate the milestone year. June 9-12, the park service will celebrate the artistic inspiration the river provides with a student film festival at the Kenda Drive-In in Marshall, a folk storytelling event at the Buffalo Point Campground Amphitheater and a free music festival at Tyler Bend. Oct. 8-9 the park will host a photo geocaching scavenger hunt, a “yoga in the park” event at Steel Creek and Buffalo Point and a “moon party” at Tyler Bend with telescopes to enjoy stargazing in the park, one of the rare spots formally designated as a Dark Sky Place by the International Dark-Sky Association. In other words, because the Buffalo River is largely free from light pollution, it’s an ideal spot for stargazing.
Other celebrations will look back on the herculean effort involved in the establishment of the National River, something David Peterson, president of the Ozark Society, doesn’t believe would be possible today. “It was a sort of miracle built on dogged persistence and grassroots people,” he said.
But the work of conservation never ends. For those intimately acquainted with the Buffalo — or anyone who follows the news — that motto should be top of mind after the hog farm debacle. The story has many twists and turns, but here’s the short version: In 2012, the state foolishly awarded a permit to a concentrated animal feeding operation, or CAFO, for an industrial hog farm in Newton County, located near Big Creek, a tributary of the Buffalo. The permit allowed for up to 6,500 hogs; the C&H Hog Farm normally operated with a little less than half that. Still, that number of swine produced mountains of fecal waste, which had to spread across fields. Groups like the Buffalo Watershed Alliance raised the alarm, warning that the pig poop was likely to seep through the porous karst topography of the area into the watershed. In 2018, there were some 70 miles of algae blooms along the river. Algae forms naturally, but it’s stimulated by phosphorus, which excreta is full of. Though they were never able to make a direct link, the Buffalo Watershed Alliance and others suspected the CAFO as the culprit.
After long legal battles and years of activism, the state stepped in to correct its error, buying out the hog farm for $6.2 million and temporarily banning similar operations, but an effort to make the moratorium permanent was derailed by the Arkansas legislature, despite endorsement from Governor Hutchinson.
Gordon Watkins, president of the Buffalo Watershed Alliance and a Newton County resident, believes that even without the ironclad protection a permanent ban would’ve provided, the likelihood of a similar operation returning to the watershed in the near to midterm is low. But the relatively small footprint of the park in the watershed requires constant vigilance.
“Buffalo River National Park is a thin blue ribbon that only takes in 11% of the watershed,” Watkins said. “The other 89% is outside of the park’s control and sphere of influence. All of those tributaries, what’s done in them, has a direct impact on the Buffalo. It’s important to encourage private landowners to adopt practices that will help preserve the Buffalo so it’s clean and pristine. That’s what attracts visitors.” And money. A 2020 study from the park service found that visitors to the park spent an estimated $66 million in the region.
Thankfully, state government and lawmakers are more engaged than ever, according to Watkins. The Buffalo River Conservation Committee, formed by Hutchinson a few months after the announcement of the hog farm buyout and seeded with $2 million for conservation and water quality grants, includes representatives from the state Department of Agriculture, the Department of Energy and Environment, the Department of Health and the Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism. It’s helping with crucial but boring work: providing money to pave dirt roads that spill sediment into the watershed, to upgrade outdated area wastewater treatment plants and septic tanks, and to help ranchers keep cattle out of streams.
Perhaps the most pernicious threat to the river today is a tricky one — it’s me and you and thousands of others who love the river. According to official park service records, 1.5 million people visited the park in 2021, just shy of the record 1.78 million in 2016. But those numbers, based on traffic counters throughout the 95,000-acre park, which includes 100 miles of road and 135 miles of waterway, likely represent an underestimate. “Crowdedness is a real problem,” the Ozark Society’s Peterson said. “There are too many people on the river.” Peterson hopes the National Park Service will address the issue through a permit system, though with so many access points and visitors who bring their own boats to float, that could prove logistically difficult.
The park service is in the beginning stages of a comprehensive river use and management plan, according to Cassie Branstetter, public information officer for Buffalo National River Park. It will update a plan that’s 40 years old and, it’s hoped, guide the park for the next 50 years. Branstetter said the process is in the early stages and will likely take several years, and include ample time for public comment, before completion. So don’t look for any official discussion of use restrictions anytime soon.
Ross Noland, a Little Rock lawyer and the executive director of the Buffalo River Foundation, grew up floating the river. His dad, retired engineer Stewart Noland, was one of the founding members of the Arkansas Canoe Club and among the group that made the first descent of the Hailstone, the wild, rapid-filled upper stretch of the Buffalo, from Dixon Ford to Boxley. Ross was on the river as young as 2 or 3, and he’s made regular pilgrimages with his elementary school-age children for years.
His favorite stretch of the park is floating from Ponca to Kyle’s Landing. “But so is everyone else’s,” he said. “That’s because it’s the most beautiful stretch of the river.” But he won’t do it on a Saturday in June because of the crowds. He, Peterson and Watkins all encourage visitors to consider spreading out and trying less trafficked stretches. Hemmed-In Hollow Falls, with its spectacular 200-foot waterfall — the tallest between the Appalachians and the Rockies — is deservingly the most popular hiking destination in the park. Less heralded is the Railroad Trail in Gilbert, a moderate hike on an old railbed that follows the river, Branstetter offered. The 37-mile Buffalo River Trail is one of Arkansas’s premier backpacking paths, but often when you take it in small bites, you won’t see another soul for miles, Branstetter said.
Noland and the Buffalo River Foundation work to help prevent the outside world from creeping into the park. As a nonprofit land trust, the foundation primarily works with landowners to create conservation easements, interests in land that govern use and development, and very occasionally purchase property near the river. The foundation is a cooperative conservation organization. “We can’t make anyone do anything,” Noland said. “There’s a history of distrust stemming from the way the park was formed. We’re careful not to contribute to that. We want to work with people who want to work with us.”
One of the Buffalo River Foundation’s primary objectives is to conserve what Noland calls “the scenic integrity” of the river. “Fifty years ago, there were hardly any structures visible from the river aside from visible sites like Buffalo Point or Tyler Bend. In recent years, people who probably love the river have found places along the river to build. You see it at Rush. You see it at Love-Hensley near Snowball.” The foundation aims to establish easements on as much property near the river to prevent development that undercuts the sense of wilderness the Buffalo River is known for.
To get involved in efforts to conserve the Buffalo, donate to the Buffalo River Foundation (buffaloriverfoundation.org) or the Buffalo Watershed Alliance (buffaloriveralliance.org) and join the Ozark Society, which has seven local chapters, and sponsors regular hikes and float trips (ozarksociety.net), and publishes essential outdoors books, including Ken Smith’s “The Buffalo River Country” and “Trees, Shrubs, and Woody Vines of Arkansas.”
By Joe David Rice
Newton County can claim more than its fair share of Arkansas’ iconic natural features — places such as Hemmed-In Hollow, Big Bluff, Indian Creek, Richland Falls, Whitaker Point and, of course, the Buffalo National River. To that impressive list can be added Lost Valley, a rough-and-tumble canyon southwest of Ponca formed over the eons by the erosive actions of Clark Creek, a minor tributary of the Buffalo. Named after Abraham Clark, one of the original pioneers who settled in the area during the 1830s or 1840s, this intermittent stream plunges some 1,200 feet in the 3-mile stretch from its source to its confluence with the river.
It was one of Clark’s descendants who guided a trio of government surveyors up the creek in 1898 to an enormous rock shelter. Deep in its dry interior, they noticed bushel upon bushel of tiny corn cobs left centuries earlier by Native Americans. Dubbed Cob Cave, the picturesque landform became known among the locals and provided an attractive setting for occasional Sunday afternoon picnics.
In 1931, a University of Arkansas expedition led by archeologist Samuel C. Dellinger bushwhacked to the cave, seeking Indian artifacts. Spending roughly three weeks digging through the dust, leaves and gravel in the deepest section of the shelter, Dellinger and his team uncovered, in addition to the ubiquitous cobs, an assortment of gourds, sunflower seeds and woven baskets — all of which had been preserved due to the site’s extremely dry conditions — but they failed to find the expected burials. Dellinger’s collections, made possible by a grant from the Carnegie Foundation, are still used today by researchers examining food and fiber practices of Native Americans.
Things remained fairly quiet along Clark Creek until the spring of 1945 when a resourceful state publicist by the name of Avantus Green brought Willard Culver, a staff photographer from National Geographic magazine, to Newton County. Green, who’d been given the task of presenting Culver with interesting subject material, had heard rumors of the cave and decided he’d take his guest to the remote location. Not only did they come upon Cob Cave after an arduous hike, they found a series of waterfalls beyond the rock shelter and also another cavern with an underground cascade. While the magazine opted not to use any of Culver’s photographs taken that day, Green was smitten with its spectacular beauty, naming it The Lost Valley.
Green’s releases about the isolated gorge caught the attention of Margaret Maunder, a feature writer for the St. Louis Globe-Democrat. Flying to Little Rock in April 1946, she was met by Green and Harold Foxhall, the Arkansas state geologist, who drove her to Harrison and then to the valley of Clark Creek the next morning. In its Sunday, June 2, 1946, edition, the newspaper ran a full-page article (with six photographs) describing Maunder’s adventure, beginning:
Oddly enough, in a country combed by the wandering footpaths of 140,000,000 people there still exist spots of rugged yet ethereal beauty, virtually unknown to present-day Americans.
One of these is the newly-discovered Lost Valley in the verdant, rocky wilderness of northwestern Arkansas, scarcely more than 325miles from the heart of St. Louis. Here, as recently as one year ago, mighty waterfalls cascaded over cliff-like palisades as tall as 40-storybuildings and pounded on ancient slabs of pure marble many feet below all without their thundering roar touching the eardrums or their sun-glistening beauty catching the eye of modern man.
Although Ms. Maunder’s piece took a few liberties with the truth, stating that Lost Valley had been unknown until the previous year and that mummies had been found in Cob Cave, it certainly generated additional interest in the narrow canyon. Meanwhile, Avantus Green continued to extol the beauties of The Lost Valley — a name which over time was shortened to Lost Valley.
Then, in the early 1950s, students from the University of Arkansas began making the 67-mile trek from Fayetteville to explore this special place they kept hearing about. One of them was Kenneth L. Smith, who in the summer of 1958 wrote two lengthy pieces on Lost Valley for the Sunday Magazine published by the Arkansas Gazette. Smith devoted much of his adult life to conservation of the Buffalo River watershed, to include writing The Buffalo River Country, a classic first published by the Ozark Society in 1967.
A 1960 timber sale yielded a bulldozed logging road and a stand of hardwood stumps within sight of Cob Cave, galvanizing public support for protection of the property. In late 1966, just weeks before he left office, Gov. Orval Faubus announced a 200-acre purchase establishing Lost Valley State Park. Imagine the public’s surprise when a front-page story in the Arkansas Gazette the following July revealed that Cob Cave, the waterfalls, and the towering bluffs weren’t included in the original acquisition, but instead were within an adjacent 80-acre tract owned by the former governor. Faubus, who’d quietly bought the land 60 days after leaving office, sold the property to Mr. and Mrs. Albert Heyden of Little Rock for $6,500 (allegedly only $100 more than he paid for it) — and they, in turn, generously donated it to the state. In 1973, this park, along with Buffalo River State Park far downstream were given to the National Park Service for inclusion in the Buffalo National River.
Today, Lost Valley remains a popular destination with an easy-to-moderate trail leading to Cob Cave and the nearby falls. The round-trip hike of a little over 2 miles is jam-packed with fascinating photo ops: caves, springs, waterfalls, bluffs, a rock shelter and a natural bridge. When Ms. Maunder described Lost Valley as being “one of the most scenically beautiful spots between the two oceans,” she wasn’t exaggerating.
Joe David Rice, former tourism director of Arkansas Parks and Tourism, has written Arkansas Backstories, a delightful book of short stories from A through Z that introduces readers to the state’s lesser-known aspects. Rice’s goal is to help readers acknowledge that Arkansas is a unique and fascinating combination of land and people – one to be proud of and one certainly worth sharing.
Each month, AY will share one of the 165 distinctive essays. We hope these stories will give you a new appreciation for this geographically compact but delightfully complex place we call home. These Arkansas Backstories columns appear courtesy of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies at the Central Arkansas Library System. The essays have been collected and published by Butler Center Books in a two-volume set, both of which are now available to purchase at Amazon and the University of Arkansas Press.
by Mike Masterson | March 5, 2022
There's been a lot of history published this week about the 50th anniversary of our Buffalo National River, the nation's first so-designated stream.
That's as it should be, especially considering how challenging it was to achieve that distinct honor in 1972 when my late uncle, John Paul Hammerschmidt, was instrumental in preserving this magnificent river that flowed through his 3rd District.
In the year before his passing, John Paul told me he considered that act among his proudest accomplishments in Congress. The vast majority reading I believe would agree.
But becoming America's first national river wasn't sufficient to prevent a Cargill-sponsored large-scale hog factory from quietly gaining state a permit from the then-Department of Environmental Quality under former Gov. Mike Beebe's administration--unbeknownst even to Beebe.
When serious concerns over huge amounts of toxic hog waste being regularly spread along and near the karst-lined banks and watershed of a major Buffalo tributary 7 miles from the river's confluence emerged, Beebe called the agency's approval the biggest regret of his administration.
I chose to become involved in writing consistently for two years about the potential pollution problems not with the factory itself, but with its inappropriate location.
Thankfully, the state under Gov. Asa Hutchinson's direction eventually chose to make the factory's owners financially whole by buying them out and closing the operation.
My determined concerns for the river were rooted in a childhood spent wading and fishing the river only 30 minutes from my hometown of Harrison and because it was the right thing to do for the sake of all who love and enjoy such a magnificent natural treasure that couldn't speak for itself.
The Newton County family who legally established the factory had done nothing amiss and deserved to be fairly reimbursed by our state for the difficulties and public perceptions they had to endure. The fault for all of it rested squarely on the shoulders of a few state agency numbskulls who chose to issue the permit.
by Rex Nelson | Today at 3:48 a.m.
To view the National Park Service’s information on the Buffalo National River’s 50th anniversary, visit https://www.nps.gov/buff/getinvolved/50th-anniversary.htm
It has been 50 years now since some determined Arkansas people, led by conservationists and outdoors enthusiasts, saved the Buffalo River for the rest of us.
In the 1960s, plans emerged to build two hydroelectric dams on the Buffalo. People who populated the valley and others who traveled there from near and far to enjoy its scenic beauty and recreational opportunities closed ranks against those who argued the dams were needed for economic growth, flood control and power generation.
It was a long fight but, on March 1, 1972, the free-flowing river with its towering limestone bluffs won designation as the United States' first "national river." The protected status stopped the dams and preserved the river for future generations.
It remains one of the few undammed rivers in the lower 48 states and has been a unit of the national park system for all these years.
A yearlong celebration began over the last weekend, marking the designation that was intended to preserve the river and conserve and interpret the features of this treasured waterway that cuts through the Ozark Mountain wilderness.
It ought to be celebrated and the people who fought for the designation -- and to stop the dams -- should be remembered.
They range from descendants of those who lived their lives in the Ozark wilderness to generations of outdoor enthusiasts who explored the river's path as well as politicians from the state and elsewhere who heard their pleas to save the Buffalo.
Dr. Neil Compton, a Bentonville physician, spearheaded much of the effort, attracting support even from a sitting U.S. Supreme Court justice of the time, William O. Douglas, who saw a photograph of the bluffs above the river and came to float the river with Compton.
"You cannot let this river die," Douglas said then, calling the river a "national treasure worth fighting to the death to preserve."
Among those celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Buffalo National River are its most recent defenders, who waged a second fight to save the Buffalo in recent years.
This time, the war was with a hog farm permitted in 2013 during former Gov. Mike Beebe's administration.
Regulators then granted a permit for a large-scale concentrated swine feeding operation at Mount Judea in Newton County.
Beebe later said he regretted the state approved the permit that allowed the farm to have 2,500 sows and up to 4,000 piglets at the site, which was adjacent to Big Creek. The creek flows into the Buffalo just 6.6 miles away.
Additionally, the permit, its opponents contended, was issued without adequate public notice. It was a done deal before they got to raise their objections. Not even the National Park Service got the chance to weigh in before the state regulators approved the permit.
What followed was a period of intense scrutiny of the hog farm operation, its impact on Big Creek and the Buffalo River watershed and strong opposition to any extension of the hog farm permit.
Eventually, after years of litigation, the state of Arkansas, with some private financial assistance, moved to buy out the farm.
Credit Gov. Asa Hutchinson for striking the $6.2 million deal that left the farmers whole but also provided a way out of the controversy.
"The state should never have granted that permit for a large-scale hog farm operation in the Buffalo River watershed," Hutchinson said then.
What began in the Beebe administration and was settled by Hutchinson's was an expensive lesson for this state and its regulators.
It was also further evidence of just how much the Buffalo National River and its watershed really are treasured by the generations in Arkansas and elsewhere.
“The free-flowing living waters of the Buffalo River wind through the mountains, valleys, caves and karst of one of the most beautiful places on Earth. As a person that married into a family with deep connections to this area (my kids are the seventh generation to live in the Ozarks), I am proud to finally call this place home.
After a long life and career of moving throughout the country with the National Park Service, serving in national monuments, parkways, recreation areas, seashores, memorials and parks, I know I am drawn to the water — drawn to the sustaining powers of a river, finally, this river, the people’s river.
This river belongs to the people who lived here, hunted, fished, and depended on it for thousands of years. It belongs to the pioneers who forged their homesteads here when it was on the western frontier of a growing nation. It belongs to the people who fought a bitter struggle between ways of life and for the soul of that nation. The Buffalo River belongs to the people who thought it should be dammed, the people who thought it should remain in private ownership, and to the ones who fought to make it America’s First National River. We all share the stewardship of this river. We owe it to the generations to come.
This river will change you if you let it. Come and see.”
Mark Foust, Superintendent, Buffalo National River
“The Buffalo National River influence I have experienced is the driving economic force it has become behind the small towns and villages in its watershed. Jasper’s quality of life and economy, I believe, are directly dependent on the love, proximity and usage from both residents and tourists of this river. …
Our natural setting provides jobs and recreation — plus, the real reason most of us are here and people are continuing to come, which is to experience the awe-inspiring beauty of where we live. Our big job will be to manage and maintain what we have for ourselves and for future generations.”
Jan Larsen, Mayor of Jasper
“I truly believe the Buffalo River is a magical place. Its beauty with its clear waters and majestic bluffs is what stole the hearts of me and my wife, and what enticed us to move to the area. I am constantly told stories by locals and visitors alike about how the Buffalo has influenced them — it may be something as simple as an overnight fishing trip with their grandfather to an annual family float trip to meeting their spouse while floating with friends. The stories are all unique, and each so special in its own right. The Buffalo is a magical place that keeps people coming back, year after year, so they can introduce the younger generations to its beauty so it can be appreciated for years to come.
If you haven’t had a chance to visit the Buffalo National River, I want to personally extend an invitation to you.”
Alvin “Chip” Johnson, Mayor of Gilbert
“I remember the first time I saw the Buffalo National River. I grew up in Pine Bluff and when I was a young-ish teenager, my family took a road trip one beautiful spring day to Dogpatch. We traveled north on Highway 7 and pulled over at Pruitt to see the river. I had never seen anything like it — the majestic bluffs and beautiful winding river below. I was smitten, and I’ve been in love ever since. Like many Arkansans, I’ve taken my share of float trips and enjoyed every single one.
In my current position with state government, I had the opportunity to play a role in achieving a resolution to the C&H Hog Farm dispute. Led by Gov. Hutchinson, the settlement was a very good day for our national river and for the state of Arkansas, and I will always be proud of our work. Now, I continue to serve on the Buffalo River Conservation Committee as an appointee of the governor, and I continue to take pride in the opportunity I have to protect and promote this incredible natural resource.”
Stacy Hurst, Secretary, Department of Parks, Heritage & Tourism
“I have always believed that an underlying reason that the Buffalo River was saved and made into the first National River was that it had the state park there. Most Ozark rivers had little or no visitor service facilities like what the state park provided. Access to places like that was limited along most other rivers. Consequently, for decades, thousands of families were able to access the river, enjoy it, and become not only fond of it but also protective of its beauty and uniqueness. No other Ozark river had such a constituency. It made a difference.”
Richard Davies, former Director, Department of Parks & Tourism
“Growing up in Northwest Arkansas, my family and I visited the Buffalo River often. It was one of our treasured places to canoe and camp, and to this day we still gather as many family members as possible for an annual float trip. The Buffalo River epitomizes the beauty of Arkansas, from its deep ravines to steep cliffs, its waterfalls as well as fishing holes. It helped instill in me my love of the Ozarks, which inspired me in founding Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art to focus on the connection between art and nature.”
Alice Walton, philanthropist
“The Buffalo River has been an important part of my life for more than 60 years. … With the urging and example of Dr. Neil Compton, Margaret and Harold Hedges, Mary Virginia and Hubert Ferguson, and my parents Eunice and Paul Noland, I have since the mid-1970s been involved in ongoing efforts with the Ozark Society to continue the preservation of the Buffalo National River. As a long, narrow park, possible threats to its integrity have been and always will be present. I feel I have a responsibility to be a part of its protection.
Stewart Noland, Ozark Society
The Buffalo River carries a heavy weight on its shoulders as it attempts to demonstrate to the world what a living Ozark stream should be. It cannot do that alone. It requires its land, its tributaries and its native life. This requires us to live sustainably and work to save as much of the natural world and as many rivers as we can. The Buffalo has not been saved forever. It has only been insulated temporarily from the degradation all around it.
To paraphrase the poet John Donne, no stream is an island. It is a part of the main, a part of the whole. We must remember, too, that the work of saving never ends because there will be natural changes and ongoing challenges. Rivers are never finally saved. We must instead see the work of saving them as an ongoing process with no endpoint and dedicate ourselves to that as a life-long battle.”
Debbie Doss, Arkansas Canoe Club
“Much of my work is in rural areas, where I have observed the challenges facing farmers and ranchers trying to provide for their families. I have heard the need for the river to provide more benefits to the people that live and work in its watershed. Now, the Arkansas Nature Conservancy, the Buffalo River Foundation, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Searcy County Agricultural Cooperative and other partners are working together with landowners on projects that address erosion issues for improved farm financial sustainability that also helps the river. The people benefit, and the river is healthy. Working with landowners on their needs that also benefits the river — this is the future of conservation.”
Scott Simon, Director, Arkansas Nature Conservancy
“In the late ’70s and ’80s, I got to know the folks who were determined to save the Buffalo. I thank God for them and Sen. Dale Bumpers, who never gave up. We owe them and the Buffalo so much.
Kay Kelley Arnold, former Director, Arkansas Nature Conservancy
“My blood pressure drops at least 20 points the moment I exit I-40 heading north to the Buffalo River Valley. For more than half my life, this has been my go-to place, my retreat — sometimes with family, sometimes with friends, often alone.”
Jim Dailey, former Mayor of Little Rock
“I have been doing paintings of the Buffalo River for 40 years, and I still find reasons to come back to it. … I grew up in Louisiana where there are no rocks, and the waters are brown. Clear water running over rocks is still magic to me.”
William McNamara, artist
Rise like Medieval Castles
above this Ancient River
Sending us back to a time
when all our land was wild
Leaves rustle with stories
from a past known only to the land
from one forest glen to another
Of brave deeds
Performed by magnificent antlered stags
for doe-eyed mates
held safe captive
By these towers of time …
By this Wilderness
Susan Morrison, poet
“The Buffalo River itself is certainly the main character. But to me, the supporting cast of towering painted bluffs, wilderness vistas, variety of wildlife, colorful wildflowers and hundreds of thundering waterfalls are what have shaped my character and given me unlimited subjects to build my nature photography career on.”
Tim Ernst, photographer
“I was born in California. Moving to Arkansas in the early ’70s, I thought I was leaving all the beauty behind! Imagine my delight when I began to experience the natural wonders this state has to offer. …
Very early on residing in my new state, some friends took me on a float trip to the Buffalo River. I was clueless regarding a canoe, camping and floating! I could not believe the incredible scenery I saw on that first trip. I cannot forget the best night’s sleep I had ever had in a sleeping bag, on a gravel bar on the river. It began a very long love affair with the Buffalo. … I am so thankful to all who came together to preserve our true natural treasure — the beautiful Buffalo.”
Gay White, former First Lady of Arkansas
“My fondest memory of floating the Buffalo was back in the 1980s when I had the extreme pleasure of being in the same canoe with Dr. Neil Compton, who, of course, led the campaign to save the Buffalo as a free-flowing stream. What he emphasized to me and our viewers on that float trip has stuck with me ever since. That it takes only one person to do his or her part in preservation and conservation. That the challenge goes on — there are other streams and wilderness areas to save. Each one of us must do our part to protect and care for the wild places we love — those places that resemble a bit of heaven on Earth.”
Chuck Dovish, AETN-PBS personality
“Following congressional designation of the Buffalo as a national river, local activists throughout the nation could point to the free-flowing stream as a sterling example of the diverse natural wonders found across the entire nation. The legacy of the fight for the Buffalo could also be measured in the growing regard in Arkansas for places that fed wonder and awe rather than as parcels valued chiefly for human enterprise.”
Ben Johnson, historian
“When the Buffalo was designated as our first national river, it did something more important than simply bringing additional visitors to our state. It helped us, after many years of population losses and various embarrassments in the national news, begin to believe in ourselves as Arkansans. Having the first National River made us proud and helped us begin to understand how abundant outdoor recreational attributes might play a role in economic development. We finally started to understand that economic development is about more than attracting factories. It’s about quality of life. I truly believe the National River designation changed the trajectory of Arkansas as much as the growth of Walmart.”
Rex Nelson, columnist/writer
“Anyone who spends time on the Buffalo needs no explanation of its priceless value to them and all of us. It is why I’ve pledged myself as an opinion journalist to do all in my power to keep our state informed of anything that appears to threaten the river and all it means to so many across Arkansas and nationwide, as did my uncle, the late Third District Congressman John Paul Hammerschmidt.
Mike Masterson, columnist
“It is my special place — my go-to place, and I am at peace and can enjoy just being still whenever I am there.”
Bryan Day, Director, Little Rock Port Authority
“The Buffalo River was a special place for me and some of my U of A friends in the ’60s. We would frequently leave campus for the weekend and spend the entire time on the river camping and floating. Since we were broke college students and this was such a great experience at virtually no coast, it was our Disneyland. Those memories are still very vivid today.”
Shelby Woods, Chairman Emeritus, CJRW
“I graduated from Marshall High School and the University of Arkansas before embarking on a long career in the U.S. Air Force. During my travels and interactions with people around the country, the Buffalo National River was a source of pride that I shared with others. …
As the eighth generation of my 10 generation Searcy County family, I work tirelessly for the people of Searcy County and the Buffalo River Watershed, where the vision of economic prosperity for the locals has never been close to being realized. May the next 50 years not only continue to preserve this great treasure that we share with the world but may the vision of widespread economic benefit for the residents of the watershed finally be realized.”
Darryl Treat, Director, Searcy County Chamber of Commerce
“My love of rivers was passed down from my dad. … I first floated the Buffalo in 1965 from Pruitt to Hasty. During my college years at Hendrix, I had a canoe, a tent and knew how to run a shuttle for a day float.
After college, I started my first business, The Wilderness Company, renting canoes and camping equipment from my apartment in Fayetteville. In 1974, I moved to Ponca, and in 1976 founded Buffalo Outdoor Center, and the rest is history. I have more than 25,000 miles canoeing the Buffalo National River. Ponca to Kyles Landing is my favorite and the best of the best!”
Mike Mills, Owner, Buffalo Outdoor Center
“As a historian, I have always been fascinated by the Buffalo, both the river and the communities through which it flows. Gov. Orval E. Faubus grew up in Madison County not far from the Buffalo, the family being a good example of the hardscrabble life led by many who tried to farm the thin Ozark soils. That family would produce a governor who, in his final term in office, took a stand that ensured the river would not be dammed. While Gov. Faubus’ work on behalf of racial segregation forever stained his legacy, his determination to save the Buffalo ensured that he cannot be condemned without at least one caveat.”
Tom Dillard, historian
“Of all the memories, what stands out the most is my dad (who spent a lot of time on the Buffalo) telling me stories of the ‘local’ resistance to the national river and people stringing barbed wire across the river to prevent access. He said because he and his friends were regular floaters and campers, the locals knew him and let them lift up/pass through the barbed wire without any problems, hassle or threats.”
Skip Rutherford, former Dean, Clinton School of Public Service
“The Buffalo River is one of Arkansas’ crown jewels, kept undammed and pristine thanks to the conservation efforts of Neil Compton, Governor Bumpers, Senators Fulbright and McClellan, Congressman Hammerschmidt and others. As governor, I supported the Arkansas Wilderness Act of 1984, federal legislation that ultimately protected the upper and lower ends of the Buffalo River, along with 11,800 acres along Richland Creek, one of the Buffalo’s major tributaries.
About 800,000 people visit the National Park each year, where they can float, fish, and raft the river with its breathtaking views, and see the ruins of a 10,000-year-old Native American culture and remnants of the first European settlers in the late 1700s and early 1800s.
I first discovered the Buffalo when I was 16 on a field trip led by my junior class English teacher, Lonnie Luebben. We stayed in Jasper, saw an Audie Murphy movie in the small theatre, and visited sites along the river, including a cave which still had gun powder kegs from the Civil War.
When I ran for Congress in 1974, I visited every community along the Buffalo and near it, in Searcy, Newton, and Madison counties and in the southern parts of Marion, Boone, and Carroll counties. I vividly remember Boxley, Ponca, Parthenon, and many more. I remember spending many hours in the home of my friend Hilary Jones in Pruitt where there was an old cemetery with birthdates dating back to the 1700s and where Hilary provided a decent burial to people from the area who died without the means to pay for it.
Most people I talked to were against the national river because they thought the government was going to take away the land that had been in their families for more than a hundred years. I said how important it was that the Buffalo was the first river in the country to be protected as a national treasure. And that I thought their problem could be solved if the government, instead of forcing sales upon their deaths, took a scenic easement of all the land in the protected area, preventing any development or degradation but allowing them to pass along their land to their families.
I didn’t win the election, but I did carry every precinct along the Buffalo River, including many that had always voted Republican before. And I made a lot of lasting friendships, just by listening to them and getting to know them. I also learned to try to balance the competing claims of man and nature in one of our country’s most wonderful areas. In the process, I fell in love with the beauty, wildlife, history, and people of the Arkansas Ozarks. I could write a whole book with my interactions with them over the years. Here’s to fifty more great years.”
William J. Clinton, former Governor of Arkansas and President of the United States
“I was in law school when I discovered the Buffalo River, and like so many Arkansans, I view the Buffalo as a particularly pretty piece of God’s creation. As an outdoorsman, I have a personal interest in preserving the health and beauty. As governor, I devoted resources to help care for the Buffalo. My family and I have canoed the river and hiked along its banks.
The Buffalo watershed is more than a clear-running body of water — much of our history bounces off the walls of the Ozarks and echoes through its magnificent caves. My hope is that we will sustain this palace so that our children and all the generations that follow can share this natural masterpiece with a beautiful river that runs through it.”
Asa Hutchinson, Governor of Arkansas
“Known for its turquoise waters, towering sandstone bluffs, majestic overlooks and abundant wildlife, its ancient currents give life to more than 300 species of fish, insects, freshwater mussels and aquatic plants. These attributes have made it an attraction for the area’s inhabitants all the way back to prehistoric times. …
Today, five decades after Congress passed that historic bill, millions of our citizens, both from within the state and beyond our borders, have enjoyed the wonders of the Buffalo National River. They’ve explored its caves, photographed its wildlife, hiked its trails, camped along its shores, ridden horses through its valleys and canoed its rapids and pools. In the words of native son and songwriter Jimmy Driftwood, the river is ‘Arkansas’ gift to the nation, America’s gift to the world.’”
Mike Beebe, former Governor of Arkansas
“It’s hard to call just one of the many natural treasures of Arkansas the ‘crown jewel,’ but the Buffalo National River would be on most people’s list. Pristine cool waters and stunning views of scenic bluffs are just part of the majestic charm.
Once, while on a float trip with my wife and a group of friends — that included then-State Parks and Tourism Director Richard Davies, Buffalo River outfitter and tourism guru Mike Mills and my security detail from the Arkansas State Police — we had stopped on a gravel bar for lunch when we observed some young men hurling beer cans at the bluff to watch them explode. My head exploded in rage to see someone show such disrespect for this sacred place. I went immediately over to the young men as the rest of our group and the state troopers were frozen with jaws dropped that I had gone over to engage these littering lunatics.
I asked, “Where are you from?” I was glad to know it wasn’t Arkansas! I proceeded to tell them we valued the scenic beauty of our state and didn’t tolerate those who trashed it. I explained that the fine for littering was $1,000 per violation, and their choice was to pick up their trash, or I would introduce them to the Arkansas State Police who were standing nearby.
Looking back, perhaps it was impetuous and foolish to confront those guys, but trashing the Buffalo was like coming to my home and throwing trash on my living room floor. They picked up their litter, and those in our group picked up their jaws, and we continued our float trip.
And those fellows from out of state? On 99 days out of 100, they could beat me to a pulp. But on THAT day, they messed with the wrong guy who didn’t take kindly to folks not treating our one-of-a-kind Buffalo River with some respect!”
Mike Huckabee, former Governor of Arkansas
“The lion’s share of the credit for the passage of the act naming the Buffalo National River as America’s first national river rightfully goes to my good friend, the late John Paul Hammerschmidt, then the congressman from the Third Congressional District of Arkansas. We should also thank Dr. Neil Compton and other members of the Ozark Society for their tireless work to preserve Arkansas’ natural heritage.
Designating the Buffalo a national river guaranteed environmental protections that otherwise might never have existed, preserving this free-flowing river for the recreational use and enjoyment of generations of outdoor enthusiasts.
My family and I have spent many splendid hours on the Buffalo, floating, fishing and relaxing. I have always thought of Arkansas as one of the most scenic and beautiful states in America, and without a doubt, the Buffalo National River proves this point.”
David Pryor, former Governor of Arkansas and Senator
By Joe David RiceFebruary 25, 2022
Fifty-one years ago this month, I took my first canoe trip on the Buffalo River, a three-day, two-night adventure that ended at the old Buffalo River State Park southeast of Yellville. A little more than five decades later, I can vividly recall paddling for hour after hour hard against a bone-chilling wind that always seemed to be blowing upstream, and then struggling to stay warm in a sleeping bag that was far better suited to a summer excursion. Yet that chilly journey — with memories of incredibly clear water, noisy shoals, towering bluffs and too many stars to count — remains one of the highlights of my life.
The 2,500-acre Buffalo River State Park, along with the much smaller Lost Valley State Park, were absorbed into the Buffalo National River, a brand-new unit of America’s national park system, in 1972. Stretching eastward some 135 miles from the Boston Mountains to the stream’s confluence with the White River, this 95,000-acre corridor is among the true gems of the Natural State.
Canoeists discovered the Buffalo in the 1960s, although it was already known by a select few. One of them was Ray Bergman, a long-time editor with Outdoor Life magazine. In his 1942 classic, Fresh-Water Bass, Bergman recounts a memorable fishing trip down the stream:
“The Buffalo River flows through a valley of soul-inspiring scenery. Each bed of the stream brings forth new beauties of unusual distinction. In all my travels from coast to coast, I have never witnessed more impressive beauty that can be found in the Buffalo River of Arkansas.”
But much of this scenery was nearly lost to a pair of reservoirs planned since the late 1930s by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The outbreak of World War II temporarily halted the projects, but the proposed dams resurfaced in the early 1960s. A heated struggle developed between vocal supporters of the impoundments and equally vocal proponents of a free-flowing Buffalo River, a conflict that eventually involved such political notables as Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus, Congressman John Paul Hammerschmidt, Sen. J. William Fulbright, and even President Richard Nixon. And it birthed The Ozark Society, an organization that half a century later continues to address key environmental issues in Arkansas and adjacent states. For a blow-by-blow account of this fateful controversy, spend some time with The Battle for the Buffalo River, Dr. Neil Compton’s 481-page record of a clutch conservation victory.
Today, as a result of that historic win, some 800,000 visitors annually enjoy the Buffalo in one fashion or another: hiking along the 100-mile trails system; riding horseback; camping; overnighting in a CCC cabin; skipping rocks; birding; and, of course, paddling beneath those sheer bluffs. Tens of thousands of memories have been made because of countless Buffalo River experiences over the years. As a special feature to mark the 50th anniversary of the Buffalo National River, AY About You asked a handful of people to share some of their thoughts and recollections, and the responses can be found below.
We gathered that Wednesday morning in a fifth-floor conference room of the Executive Building near the state Capitol. I was there at the invitation of Bill Stovall, a former speaker of the Arkansas House of Representatives, a current lobbyist, and a man I consider a friend. If Stovall tells me I need to be somewhere, I figure it's important.
He wanted me to meet with representatives of the Buffalo River Coalition, consisting of the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance, the Ozark Society, the Arkansas Canoe Club and the National Parks Conservation Association.
The Buffalo River Watershed Alliance was created in early 2013 after it was learned that the state had approved the C&H hog farm on Big Creek, a tributary of the Buffalo.
What I didn't tell Stovall in advance of the meeting is that I consider all of these folks Arkansas heroes for their efforts to protect the watershed.
According to the alliance's website: "Buffalo River Watershed Alliance was organized by stakeholders living in the river's watershed, but its supporters span the state and region. The alliance was created to help preserve and protect the scenic beauty and pristine water quality of Buffalo National River by opposing and preventing construction and operation of industrial confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) within the watershed.
"Its goals are to educate and advocate for protection of the Buffalo River and its associated watershed by monitoring and addressing adverse environmental impacts and supporting a moratorium on future hog CAFOs within the watershed."
By the time these environmentalists found out about it, the hog farm already had been built in Newton County.
"We held a meeting at the old Buffalo Theater in Jasper and coalesced around this issue," said Gordon Watkins, the alliance president. "We partnered with an organization known as Earthjustice and filed a legal challenge."
In 2017, the advocacy group American Rivers ranked the Buffalo as one of America's 10 most endangered rivers due to the threat of hog farm pollution. There had been several major algal blooms in the watershed by that time. Significant growth in the summer of 2018 included toxic blue-green algae.
In July 2018, a 14.3-mile segment of the Buffalo River and Big Creek was listed as impaired, meaning that pathogen levels exceeded state water quality standards. The Buffalo was again listed on the most endangered rivers list in 2019. Later that year, C&H took a $6.2 million buyout from the state. The land went to the state as a conservation easement.
The battle had gone on for six years. One of those at the Little Rock meeting told me, "It was highly political to the end. It was really nasty business."
Watkins pointed out that 89 percent of the river's watershed is outside the boundaries of land overseen by the National Park Service. The conservation groups are also keeping an eye on Ozark streams such as the Kings River, upper White River and War Eagle Creek.
In 2016, Gov. Asa Hutchinson unveiled his Beautiful Buffalo River Initiative and announced the creation of a committee comprised of the heads of five state agencies. The governor said at the time that he had received more letters, emails and telephone calls about the hog farm than any other issue since taking office in January 2015.
The Buffalo River Conservation Committee, which was established by Hutchinson and now falls under the state Department of Agriculture, meets quarterly to address the impact to the watershed from unpaved roads, leaky septic systems, outdated municipal wastewater treatment plants and other factors. The committee provides grants for roads, water and wastewater infrastructure, algae studies, the planting of trees and other water-quality measures.
March 1 will mark 50 years since President Richard Nixon signed the bill creating Buffalo National River. The legislation put the Park Service in charge of almost 135 miles of the 150-mile-long river that runs through Newton, Searcy, Marion and Baxter counties. The Park Service released a report last year showing that 1.5 million visitors to Buffalo National River in 2020 spent $66.3 million in communities near the park. That spending supported 960 jobs and had a cumulative benefit of $76.1 million.
"Buffalo National River is a one-of-a-kind Arkansas jewel that attracts visitors from all over the country," park superintendent Mark Foust said. "During the pandemic, even more folks came out to enjoy the river and the outdoors. It's great to see our local communities benefit.
"We're working hard with Buffalo River watershed partners to conserve the national river and provide for its enjoyment for future generations of visitors, especially at a time when park visitation is increasing."
The spending analysis was conducted by Park Service and U.S. Geological Survey economists. The economic benefit of the river is clear. But the six-year battle over the hog farm was proof that there must be eternal vigilance on the part of groups that make up the Buffalo River Coalition.
Government can make big mistakes, which was evident when the state granted the hog farm a permit in the first place. I've heard former Gov. Mike Beebe say it was the biggest regret of his eight years in office.
In addition to economic benefits, there are other reasons why March 1, 1972, should go down as one of the key dates in Arkansas history. As I pointed out in last Sunday's column, Americans' impressions of Arkansas the previous 15 years were based on events in the fall of 1957 when the Little Rock Central High School desegregation crisis was the world's top news story.
Over time, the Buffalo helped Arkansas become viewed as a beautiful state in which to enjoy outdoor recreational pursuits rather than being seen as a violent, backward place. In addition to changing the way people thought about Arkansas, it changed the way we thought of ourselves.
Arkansas became the Natural State, and Arkansans became aware of the need for conservation efforts. In 1996, voters even amended the state Constitution to add a permanent one-eighth cent sales tax for conservation purposes.
The Park Service is planning a series of what it calls "event weekends" to celebrate the 50th anniversary. History Weekend will begin Feb. 26 with activities at Buffalo Point, St. Joe High School and other locations. A ceremony on the actual anniversary date--Tuesday, March 1--will take place on the campus of North Arkansas College at Harrison.
Arts in the Park Weekend will begin Thursday, June 9, with a student film festival at the Kenda drive-in movie theater in Marshall. Two days later, there will be a music festival at Tyler Bend that will feature traditional Ozark music. On Oct. 8-9, the Park Service will celebrate the natural resources in the region.
Meanwhile, the Ozark Society plans to conduct numerous hikes this winter. A one-day float from Tyler Bend to Gilbert is set for April 5. The society also will lead a river trip from Grinder's Ferry to the mouth of the river from June 13-18.
The Ozark Society is older than the national river designation, dating back to an organizational meeting on May 24, 1962, on the campus of the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.
"The society was initially founded to give organized resistance to the proposed construction of dams on the Buffalo River," Ellen Compton wrote in a history of the organization. "It was formed during a time of heightened interest in conservation efforts. People in northwest Arkansas and Pulaski County had investigated alliances with national groups about preventing the river from being dammed. Local activists opted to form a separate organization."
It was songwriter and native Arkansan Jimmy Driftwood who said it best when he called the Buffalo "Arkansas' gift to the nation, America's gift to the world."
Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
By JACQUELINE FROELICH
Listen to the report here
“Save the Buffalo River … Again” authored by Brian Thompson details the seven-year long battle to shutter an industrial swine breeding facility situated a few miles upstream of our nation's first declared national river. Sourcing news accounts, scientific studies, stakeholders, as well as lead opposition group, Buffalo River Watershed Alliance, Thompson reveals how corporate pork producers attempted but failed to stake a major claim on the ecologically sensitive watershed.
Buffalo River Watershed Alliance is a non profit 501(c)(3) organization
Copyright @ 2019