Buffalo River Watershed Alliance
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.
Talk Business and Politics
by Robin Mero (email@example.com)
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.
Talk Business & Politics
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.
‘MORE WITH LESS’
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.”
THE ‘ARTIFICIALLY UNSTABLE’ RIVER
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.”
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."
Madison County Record
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
Today at 3:15 a.m.
by Bryan Hendricks
Glenn Wheeler, Newton County sheriff, says his county can't bear the burden of expanding the Buffalo National River into a national park.
Wheeler said he appreciates the Buffalo National River as a recreational resource. He is widely respected in the outdoor recreation industry, an accomplished outdoor photographer who served two terms on the board of directors for the defunct Southeastern Outdoor Press Association. He also served one term as its president and one term as its board chairman.
Wheeler can also do basic math, and he said that vastly inflating the number of people visiting his county will exceed the ability of his office to serve its constituents.
"We are the sheriff's office, but we do search and rescue and medical emergencies, too," Wheeler said. "We respond to all aspects of emergencies in this county."
Many of those responsibilities involve responding to emergencies on the Buffalo National River. They include search and rescue operations, recovering drowning victims, evacuating injured boaters from the river, evacuating injured hikers from the Buffalo River Trail and, according to Wheeler, evacuating people who are ill-conditioned to be on a wilderness trail in the first place. He said he has even been called to evacuate hikers who were simply too lazy to walk back to a trailhead.
On top of those duties, Wheeler's deputies manage traffic issues that occur from wildlife watchers admiring elk in Boxley Valley.
"At times I have one one deputy on duty to cover 822 square miles," Wheeler said. "When I have to send a deputy to deal with somebody blocking the highway at Ponca, and then we have to respond to a medical emergency in eastern Newton County, that's one hour just to get there. It puts that deputy in danger, but it also puts the public in danger because that deputy has to drive faster to respond to a critical medical situation or a motor vehicle accident where a timely response could be the difference between life or death."
Adding 200,000 visitors to Newton County by increasing visitation to a redesignated national park would stretch the sheriff's office beyond a breaking point, Wheeler said.
Wheeler said he computes that 200,000 number from estimates supplied by the Runway Group, which is promoting changing the Buffalo National River to a national park and preserve.
"I've heard different estimates from them, but they talked about 600,000 additional visitors a year to the entire Buffalo River," Wheeler said. "The Buffalo River is technically in four counties, but mainly it's in three counties. In the springtime and early summer, my county -- the upper Buffalo -- is the busiest. If you take a third of 600,000, and I'd say that's a conservative estimate, that's 200,000. To say that an extra 200,000 people a year in my county would overwhelm my resources would be a vast understatement."
Wouldn't nearly a quarter million additional visitors provide sufficient tax revenue to offset additional costs?
No, Wheeler said. He explained that county property taxes fund the sheriff's department, along with emergency medical services and fire protection services.
"The one message I'm trying to get out is that we value tourism in our county," Wheeler said. "As sheriff, I believe tourists are important to our economy. As a resident, I am very proud of my area, and I love sharing it with people.
"But with the resources and budget I have right now, it is a struggle to provide the services that Newton County residents and visitors deserve. If you add that much to my workload, I won't be able to do it."
Additionally, Wheeler said, the county does not have sufficient water, sewer or waste management to accommodate nearly a quarter million additional visitors every year. The roads are also inadequate to accommodate that many extra vehicles.
Wheeler said that the annual salary for a Newton County deputy sheriff is about $27,000, and that his department has bought three new vehicles since 2019.
"You're asking for someone to work for $27,000 in a hand-me-down car," Wheeler said. "That's a tough sell, and the Runway Group sure isn't offering to pitch in any extra money for salaries or to buy any vehicles."
The bottom line, Wheeler said, is that the Newton County Sheriff's Office has all it can do with the current level of visitation to the Buffalo National River. Intensifying its burden would be a disservice to Newton County residents and visitors, Wheeler said. It would reflect badly on the county, on the state, and on the Buffalo River.
At the end of 2020 in the back of a Covid Relief Bill, legislation made New River Gorge the newest national park and preserve. An investment group and a coalition are touting it as a model for exploring whether to turn land around the Buffalo National River into either a national preserve or a national park.
Posted Wednesday, November 15, 2023 10:06 am
By Ellen Kreth, Record Publisher
First in a two-part series
FAYETTEVILLE, WEST VIRGINIA — New River Gorge became the nation’s second national river in 1978, its’ designation following the country’s first national river established in 1972: Arkansas’ Buffalo National River.
In December 2020, Congress re-designated New River Gorge National River to a national park and preserve, the only place in the country to have the combined distinction.
A coalition and business group in Arkansas have touted it as a model for 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 Record traveled to Fayetteville, W. Va., and interviewed elected officials, business owners, national park service employees, service-industry workers, Realtors, and vacation property managers to find out how re-designating the New River Gorge has changed the area and their way of life.
A town with a population of approximately 2,800, according to the U.S. Census, Fayetteville, W. Va. is the town closest to the new park and preserve. The town square and county courthouse anchor the downtown area. It has a mayor, town council, town manager, a visitors center, and convention and visitors bureau and other parks visited by people from all over the world for outdoor recreation.
Three hotels, more than 100 vacation rentals and private and public campgrounds provide tourists a place to stay. The square and downtown boast locally owned restaurants.
U.S. Route 19, a four-lane highway, runs through the town and leads to several larger gateway communities.
Wendy Bayes, a Realtor and owner of a favorite local restaurant, Cathedral Cafe in downtown Fayetteville, moved to the area in 1994.
“There’s a fine line between the ‘from here’s’ and ‘the not-from-here’s.’ And by having a local cafe and raising my kids in the area, I’ve gotten very lucky to be embraced,” Bayes said.
The re-designation of New River Gorge to a national park and preserve changed the community. It boosted tourism by 30 to 35%, increased business by at least the same figures and prompted local and outside investors to buy and renovate properties and build hotels and apartments. Vacation rentals have increased, money is being pumped into the local economy, and private campgrounds are popping up. Locals are happy that lands they grew up on are protected from being developed by the park designation.
They are prideful of their area and community, touting the landscape and the kind-hearted and friendly people. They noted their distaste for a hillbilly reputation.
Even with the positive economic indicators brought by the re-designation, people disagreed on whether the change, coupled with the increase in outdoor recreation during Covid, have been good for their community.
“I feel there’s a huge animosity between locals non-willing to change and a person, like myself,” who embraces growth and is an outdoor-recreation enthusiast, said Fayetteville town councilman Brian Good, who manages the city parks and some private vacation rentals.
But they all agreed the current infrastructure is lacking, housing and lodging are in short supply, eating in their favorite restaurants can be problematic, property values and taxes have increased, parking “is horrible” and traffic is congested, and the school system continues to rank near the bottom of the state’s school districts.
Even though the area saw tourism explode in 2020 due to people getting outside during Covid, some locals think the re-designation happened too fast and the area was unprepared.
“We were on a 20-year plan and it got pushed to a two-year plan,” Bayes said.
Local business owner, Andy Forron, owner of New River Bikes, advised people around the Buffalo to “brace for impact,” if the land was to be re-designated.
Mayor Sharon Cruikshank says she’s “happy but not satisfied” and would have preferred “a little more support with infrastructure, parking, signage from the National Park Service,” but realizes it is “strapped as well.”
Town Manager Matt Diederich doesn’t see a lot of cons, but, “Some of the locals want it to be a quiet town and it’s not a quiet town anymore.”
Larry Nibert’s business, West Virginia Experience, a fishing and hunting guide service, has experienced an increase in calls, but “with a lot more business comes a lot more traffic, comes a lot more stress and a lot more headaches.”
Nibert said locals are not happy with the change. “When you talk to people, ask them if they’re local or are they an implant. I think you’ll find the implants are less opposed than the locals who run businesses.”
Lizzie Watts, who was park superintendent when New River Gorge became a national park and preserve, said some “really good things” come from re-designation but the process has to be handled well.
Watts, who worked for the NPS for 45 years, said its’ mission is to “preserve and protect the park’s resources, our American history, our stories, our culture for the next generation. As long as we’re true to that, even making good money, it’s not a bad thing if it’s done the right way for the business side of things.
“But for all the ranchers and farmers that live on that river, your stories are just as important. Their way of life has been farming the pastures and their way of passing that down to the next generation has to be honored,” Watts said.
Park and Preserve
Talk began of turning the New River Gorge area into a national park when it was designated a national river, but those plans stalled because of hunters’ opposition.
The prospect resurfaced around 2018.
Re-designating the land “was driven by locals, convention bureaus, local tourism boards, people who were looking to benefit from the economic benefits of having a national park,” according to Dave Bieri, district supervisor for interpretation at New River Gorge Park and Preserve.
Rafting companies pushed for the re-designation, according to Becky Sullivan, director of the New River Gorge Convention and Visitors Bureau. Some of the concessionaires hired lobbyists to push the change.
They wanted to attract more visitors, spur economic activity and increase tax revenue for infrastructure, and they had the support of West Virginia’s U.S. Senators, Joe Manchin III, a Democrat, and Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican.
Manchin and Capito “wanted to see it happen really bad, so they just kept pursuing it,” Sullivan said. “Being a national park state, they knew what it would do for the area bringing in tourism, bringing in the people, and increasing a positive awareness for the state.”
The process took about two years.
To become a national park, the U.S. Secretary of Interior must value the area for its national significance and stories it can tell. The New River Gorge National Park and Preserve tells the stories of the area’s geology, coal mining, railroading, logging and natural resources, Watts said.
Manchin and Capito held town hall meetings, in which quizzical, concerned and angry citizens asked questions and voiced frustrations.
Watts testified on Capitol Hill before the Senate Natural Resources Committee and again when that committee came to Beckley, W. Va., a larger town, 22 miles from Fayetteville.
“They don’t do that very often, have a meeting outside of D.C.,” Watts said.
But Manchin and Capito wanted to hear from local citizens.
“They wanted their side of the story,” Watts said. “How did they feel? What were their concerns? Anything they wanted to ask was put on the record.”
Conversations about the change “became heated quite often,” Watts said.
Bayes said most attending were opposed. “Others were just like, ‘Yeah, ok, let’s go.’”
Nibert attended the meetings, saying, “It was pretty obvious to me from the get-go that there were certain local monies who were going to benefit a lot more than small businesses like mine.”
The prevalent concern was taking away hunting rights.
“Property values were a concern but hunting was a huge issue because hunters didn’t want to lose the property that they’ve hunted on for years and years and years,” Sullivan said.
Distinctions exist between a national park, a national preserve and a national reserve.
A national park is the highest of all statuses, bringing in far more tourists, but also restricting hunting and fishing rights. “It must be found to be nationally unique and significant enough to become a national park instead of a river,” Watts said.
A national preserve may allow hunting and fishing rights, oil and gas exploration and mineral extractions and the re-designation is easier to achieve.
“A preserve allows the community to do what has always been done,” Watts said.
A national reserve has even less restrictions, continuing to allow hunting, fishing, and oil and gas exploration and mineral extractions and allows the land management to be turned over to a state.
In December 2020, a time when the area was still experiencing an influx of visitors due to Covid, a clause in the back of a Covid relief bill made some land around New River Gorge a national park and other lands a preserve, expanding the area by 3,000 acres and giving hunters rights on the preserve but not in the park.
The processes used to make the Buffalo River a national one and the prospect of making it a park or preserve or both have differed from those used for New River Gorge’s re-designation.
Before becoming a national river, land ownership around New River Gorge was varied, some lands were privately owned while others were owned by former coal-mining companies. Some owners chose to sell their property. The government did not use eminent domain or condemn any lands while establishing New River Gorge National River.
Lands around the Buffalo River were mostly privately owned. Eminent domain was used to make some land part of the Buffalo National River. Strong feelings about the public taking of private lands remain a source of deep anger and consternation more than 50 years later.
Legislation making the Buffalo River a national one enacted on March 1, 1972, maintained hunting and fishing rights but did not provide rights for mineral extractions or oil and gas exploration.
Confusion surrounds what was being pursued by the Runway Group and the coalition. In some comments, the Runway Group insisted the designation would be only a preserve.
However, in informational “fact sheets” produced by the Runway Group, it used terminology of park and preserve interchangeably, sometimes touting the success of a national park, other times, stating it only intended to seek information on a preserve and at other times stating the “path to action is clear” for turning the land into a “national park preserve.”
The fact sheets’ first page states, “A National Park would preserve the Buffalo River way of life.”
Some people living around the Buffalo National River do not want the land open to gas and oil exploration or mineral extraction.
“The First Gentleman [Bryan Sanders, chair of a state tourism council] does not support nor has he even discussed the idea of drilling or mining in the Buffalo National River,” Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ spokesperson Alexa Henning said recently in a written statement.
The Runway Group stated through its literature that mineral extraction and oil and gas exploration would be allowed if the land were re-designated as a preserve.
Big money often comes from mineral extractions and oil and gas explorations, Watts said.
Unlike the public meetings about the re-designation at New River Gorge, several actions took place quietly in the 15 months between the Runway Group’s meeting with Westerman and the public learning about the re-designation possibility, including discussions with Gov. Sanders and Westerman and the Runway Group and Bryan Sanders.
In January, Gov. Sanders signed an executive order establishing the 18-member Natural State Advisory Council in an effort to increase the state’s tourism business. She appointed Bryan Sanders as chairman and Tom Walton as a member.
This spring, Bryan Sanders, who spoke alongside Tom Walton, told members of the Rotary Club of Little Rock that he wanted to double the state’s outdoor recreation economy from its current $3.5 billion to $7 billion in the next 10 years. At the same time, Bryan Sanders began contacting state officials about re-designation.
Austin Albers, a member of the Natural State Advisory Council and president and owner of Buffalo Outdoor Center, a concessionaire, reached out to Watts asking about New River Gorge Park and Preserve’s re-designation.
In September, in an effort to gauge public opinion about the potential re-designation, the Runway Group hired Selzer & Co., who polled 412 voters in Baxter, Madison, Marion, Newton and Searcy counties about the proposal. Most of those surveyed indicated they were in favor.
No legislation is currently being written, according to Westerman and Gov. Sanders. After local pushback during a town hall meeting, the Runway Group said they are pulling back and taking no further steps.
“The designation change for the Buffalo National River is not our decision to make, but we believe it’s an idea worth exploring,” a Runway Group statement said.
The coalition took down its website. The Runway Group declined to name coalition members.
Change came fast to the New River Gorge area.
“We thought we were going to have time to prepare and then all of a sudden, bam, it’s done,” Cruikshank said.
Lack of infrastructure caught everyone off guard when federal funding did not accompany re-designation.
“When I talk infrastructure, I’m talking about roads, the boat ramps, I’m talking the trails. I’m talking the parking,” Nibert said.
Nibert lives within 200 yards of NPS land and near a popular hiking trail. “Any given Friday, Saturday or Sunday, that parking lot is full and people are out there parked along the road. Half the time, their vehicles are parked in the way,” he said.
“We have more parking violations, people parking in handicapped or no-parking or loading zones only,” Cruikshank said.
The towing business increased, Sullivan said.
And people are not accustomed to one-lane dirt roads.
“You definitely want people who know how to drive on a dirt road, rather than trying to go 55, especially in the summer when you’re going to have a nice dust cloud,” Cruikshank said.
Recently, Nibert was driving clients to the river in his 1994 Chevrolet Suburban when he had to slam on the brakes. “Here comes probably 10 sports cars. I’m not talking a Camaro. I’m talking Lamborghinis, Porsches and they’re about to run us in the ditch,” he said.
“They drive like bats out of hell. I’m talking a small percentage of folks, but it goes back to infrastructure. We were not prepared to deal with this, in my opinion.”
Nibert said he’s seen RVs parked on boat ramps and “People sitting out there having coffee because they ain’t got enough sense to realize that’s a boat ramp.”
People think since it’s a national park, they can do whatever they want, he said. “Well, no you can’t. There’s still those of us out there trying to make a living,” Nibert said.
Visitors cause traffic jams by driving at a snail’s pace across the four-lane New River Gorge Bridge, an iconic bridge and one of the most photographed places in West Virginia. Locals know to travel the inside lane and prepare to suddenly stop at times.
Though Nibert said everyone “should get out there to enjoy God’s creation,” he would like to see fewer people on his road.
“There’s too many doggone people going in and out of these roads and using these areas at times and it is, it’s stressful.”
Nibert doubted when Manchin told those attending the meetings not to worry about infrastructure because Manchin was on the appropriations committee and he would just delegate more funds to the area.
Progress is being made, but with growing pains.
Diederich said the city is “doing a bunch of planning right now. It’s key to get the community involved in it,” to hear their thoughts and assessments of the town’s strengths and weaknesses.
The city is studying zoning laws and looking to increase parking by building lots on city-owned property or buying private property to build parking lots.
The park and preserve is working with the state to provide more parking.
But, parking is a double-edged sword.
Providing too much parking will bring in more people and the trails will become more crowded and deteriorate.
Bayes believes infrastructure will be in place in 10 years and notes the town has made a lot of progress in just two years.
The locals have built more trails on private property, Forron said.
Forron said if re-designation is being proposed, the government needs to “give the park money, put money into the infrastructure, build the park first and give the towns and communities a chance. That would be the ideal situation.”
He said the town could have benefitted from three-year notice to “get our ducks in a row and get a couple more trails built.”
No one disputes business in the area increased.
Business was on the upswing during the end of Covid, but when the national river changed to a national park and preserve, “It went crazy,” Bayes said.
Business at Bayes’s cafe doubled in one year and is now beginning to even out.
Calls to Nibert’s business increased by 50 to 60%. That equated to a 40% gain for the number of trips he booked, “Because at some point you gotta be able to say, ‘No.’”
Nibert noted it’s only been about three years.
“You know, I’m going to say this and definitely quote me on this. I am very happy with what the New River Gorge and National Preserve designation has done for me and my family financially. As a local, it needs a heck of a lot of work.”
While Nibert acknowledges the good economics of having a national park near his property and business, he laments losing a quiet lifestyle.
“Money ain’t everything. Way of life and having a little bit of peace in life and not seeing 40% more traffic on your road that comes by your house, you know what I mean. There’s so much of it that I just don’t give a s**t for.”
Forron’s business has also increased.
“Everybody in town that works in the service industry has more money,” he said.
But, “We’re poor. We are poor here.”
The resort-type concessionaires offering more activities, such as horseback riding, zip lining, rock climbing, have taken business away from the smaller whitewater rafting resorts, Sullivan said. Whitewater rafting has declined a bit but rock climbing has increased, she said.
“When I started guiding in 1991, there was probably about 20 whitewater companies,” Nibert said. “There was a handful of fishing companies — two or three or four. And what happened is the big fish started eating the little fish and you turned all these little companies into huge companies.”
Nibert estimates one local rafting business handles 50,000 people a year. Nibert’s business has about 1,000 on a good year.
When the land was re-designated, the state maintained control of licensing and permits for the whitewater rafting companies.
As the Buffalo National River, anyone can float or raft New River Gorge, provided they have the experience to handle some of the whitewater currents. They do not have to have a permit.
But Nibert and Forron expect that to change, despite the national park and preserve not having a gated main entrance and no way to monitor those using the river.
The New River Gorge Park and Preserve has not announced any type of permitting requirement.
Still, Nibert thinks in the future, permits will be required.
“Because how else do you expect to pay for the improvement of infrastructure, the employing of people to take care of this infrastructure from law enforcement to trash cleanup and road building? How else do you propose to pay for this, without either charging more taxes and/or fees to users?”
Nibert says the park and preserve could install gates and booths at access points.
“Joe Manchin looked at several of us and said that’ll never happen, you guys will basically be grandfathered in. You’ll never have to pay fees, permits. Bulls**t. It’s coming.”
Evans believes fees will be required if the park service expects to make money.
“They’ll figure out how to monetize it,” Forron said.
Good is glad to see the town have more income, despite some outfitters capitalizing on it more than others.
“I have zero more money than I had before because of the national park. I guess I have more opportunity to go do stuff,” Good said.
“It depends on what perspective you’re looking at it. If you own a hotel or a business, you’re going to make a lot more money,” Bieri said. “But, we also have people complain about the increase in traffic and housing, it’s hard to find, stuff like that. So again, it depends on your perspective and where you’re coming from.”
Before the park designation, New River Gorge was an unknown place.
“And now everybody knows about us. So you know that comes with the good and the bad,” Bieri said.
Bayes welcomes the influx of tourists.
“There are people from all over the place and they’re always very excited to be here and I love playing tour guide. I’ll go out and hike with people that I don’t know. It’s very small-town here,” Bayes said.
Laurel Johnson, who works in the service industry, grew up in the area.
“I lived on this super awesome secret river. I didn’t even know that people paid money to do the things I was doing,” she said.
Forron hopes the people visiting will like the area and decide to move, “And be contributing members of our community.”
No matter the local opinion, the park and preserve re-designation will continue to bring more and more people to the area.
Good tells his “buddies … you can get right or get left. You either get a ride and get on board with this or make plan B.”
Johnson said her grandparents, who opposed the progress, are learning to adapt.
Neil Compton hailed from Bentonville, making him an outsider to the folks in Searcy and Newton counties.
Writing for the Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas, John Heuston describes Compton as "a physician of obstetrics by profession and a conservationist by avocation." Compton joined a group in Fayetteville in May 1962 to form what at the time was known as the Ozark Society to Save the Buffalo River.
Compton, who died in 1999, is now fondly remembered as one of the greatest conservationists in this state's history. But he was hated at the time by many of the locals in Searcy and Newton counties because he led the effort to stop construction of two proposed U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dams on the Buffalo River.
Local residents thought the dams would bring economic development to a desperately poor area of the state and resented a "rich doctor" from "off" telling them what to do.
Compton was born in 1912 at Falling Springs Flats in Benton County. He was educated in rural schools near Gentry before attending junior and senior high school at Bentonville. He graduated from the University of Arkansas in 1935 with degrees in zoology and geology and graduated four years later from what's now the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences at Little Rock.
Following an internship in New Jersey, Compton began his Arkansas medical career as a state health officer in Bradley and Washington counties. His residency in obstetrics was at St. Vincent in Little Rock in 1948-49 after naval service during World War II. Compton later would joke that he had delivered enough babies to staff his own navy.
"In the early 1960s, Compton, an avid hiker and canoeist, found himself embroiled in another type of war -- a conservation battle to save the Buffalo River from being impeded by dams at Lone Rock and Gilbert," Heuston writes.
"During Compton's 12-year tenure as its president, the Ozark Society conducted a vigorous and eventually successful campaign to stop construction of the dams. On March 1, 1972, President Richard Nixon signed the bill that made the Buffalo the first designated national river."
Compton's 1992 book "The Battle for the Buffalo River: A Conservation Crisis in the Ozarks," which was published by the University of Arkansas Press, was nominated for a National Book Award.
I think of Neil Compton these days when I hear folks spread rumors--none of which are based on facts-- about two current Bentonville residents, brothers Tom and Steuart Walton. These two grandsons of Sam Walton have been a blessing for our state. With the ability to live anywhere in the world, they've decided to devote their time to turning Arkansas into an outdoor recreational paradise. They're environmentally sensitive and respectful of the history of areas where they make investments. Like Compton, they want the best for Arkansas.
Bass Pro Shops founder Johnny Morris, who also is making massive capital investments in Newton County, shares those attributes. The investments of these three men might be the best thing to happen to this area in its history. It's not a timber company buying land with plans to turn hardwood forests into pine plantations. It's not a commercial hog or poultry operation. Instead, it's people whose investments depend on preserving the region's natural beauty.
The Madison County Record recently reported: "Kings Creek LLC has been purchasing property in the Kingston area. So far that corporation owns more than 6,000 contiguous acres, according to records from the Madison County assessor's office, making it one of the largest landowners in Madison County. Kings Creek LLC is owned by Walton Enterprises, which is controlled by the Walton family. ... Before some of the land was placed into the LLC, taxes on it were paid by Jim Walton, son of Walmart founder Sam Walton.
"For years, the family has owned property in Kingston, but recently they have begun to buy land that comes up for sale. ... Interest in buying property in Kingston is active. Madison County Clerk Austin Boatright said someone told him that she is asked on a monthly, if not weekly, basis to sell her property south of Kingston. Kings Creek LLC has 'been purchasing up a large amount of that acreage in and around, basically Red Star through Boston and south of Kingston,' Boatright said."
Kingston, with its charming downtown, is 18 miles east of Huntsville and 35 miles southwest of Harrison. It was platted in 1853 by King Johnson and named for him. Kingston's population was just 97 in the 2020 census. I have no idea what's planned for Kingston, but I know the quality of work Tom and Steuart Walton do. I can picture a coffee shop, a store for hikers and cyclists, and a bed-and-breakfast inn.
This can only be good for the locals. It will bring in visitors with money to spend, leading to entrepreneurial opportunities for those residents. At the same time, it will be development that protects the environment and the historic nature of the community's structures. Where's the downside?
We can attract and retain the talented people needed to propel this state's economy (and perhaps finally see a meaningful increase in the per capita income of Arkansans) by increasing the number of quality-of-life amenities. Among our top attributes as a state are the outdoor recreational opportunities Arkansas offers. We must seize the moment by protecting and enhancing those natural qualities.
That's what Tom Walton, Steuart Walton and Johnny Morris are trying to do.
Joe Jacobs, who writes for Arkansas Outside, said: "Towns like Marshall and Jasper could use dining and accommodation improvement that would allow visitors to stay near the park and pump tourism dollars into those communities directly."
We're about to see that happen--and in a high-quality way far different from the tacky Ozark tourist shops of my childhood--despite the conspiracy theories floating through these hills.
The hurtful rumors appear to have started after a coalition floated the idea of making the Buffalo National River a national park preserve. The group is using as a model New River Gorge National Park and Preserve in West Virginia. The coalition pushing the status change hired a company to poll voters during September in Baxter, Madison, Marion, Newton and Searcy counties.
Disregard most of what you read on social media. A change to national park status wouldn't lead to eminent domain or additional fees. It wouldn't ban hunting or fishing. What it might do is bring more federal resources to properly handle the crowds that already are coming to this part of Arkansas.
A National Park Service flack might tell you there's no funding difference between a national park and a national river. Don't believe it. Having lived and worked in Washington, D.C., I can assure you that national parks rule the roost inside NPS when it comes to setting priorities. In Arkansas, Hot Springs is a national park. Though operated by NPS, Buffalo National River, Pea Ridge, Arkansas Post, Little Rock Central, Fort Smith and Clinton Birthplace at Hope aren't.
As one outdoor outfitter said: "The national park system of the United States is the gold standard in the world of conservation and stewardship."
According to an NPS report, more than 327 million visitors spent $21 billion in communities within 60 miles of national park-designated sites in 2019. Of the 340,500 jobs supported by visitor spending, more than 278,000 jobs exist in communities adjacent to parks.
This is not to say that we shouldn't proceed slowly on a designation change along the Buffalo. Those hunting and fishing rights I mentioned are important. Residents' concerns must be heard. At the same time, though, residents have an obligation to deal in facts rather than rumor and innuendo.
Change is coming. Knowing the players involved, I'm convinced the change is for the better.
November 12, 2023 at 3:04 a.m.
Starting next spring, expect the cost to rent a canoe or kayak on the Buffalo National River to increase.
As reported Friday in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the National Park Service has proposed prohibiting Buffalo River outfitters from shuttling customer vehicles to their takeout points. Instead, outfitters will be required to transport customers back to their points of origin.
The new policy, if adopted, will take effect in 2026. However, outfitters will probably increase canoe rental fees in 2024 to raise capital to purchase new buses to handle larger numbers of passengers. Most will probably implement the new policy ahead of schedule.
Currently, outfitters use a mishmash of tactics to transport canoeists and kayakers to and from the river. Wild Bill's Canoe Rental in Yellville offers two popular floats from Spring Creek Recreation Area to the Arkansas 14 bridge, and a longer float from Spring Creek to Rush. In 2023, similar to the proposed policy, customers left their vehicles at the Highway 14 Access and met the outfitter at scheduled times at either takeout point. The outfitter shuttled large groups back to Arkansas 14 in a small bus, and shuttled individuals in a van or pickup truck.
Crockett's Canoe Rental at Harriet operates primarily between Maumee and Spring Creek. They take large groups to the launch point in buses or trucks and shuttled individual vehicles to takeout points, as does Silver Hill Canoe Rental at Silver Hill.
Outfitters on the middle part of the river often have canoes waiting at access points like Woolum, Baker Ford or Tyler Bend. Customers drive their own vehicles to the put-ins, and the outfitters shuttle their vehicles to the takeouts at Tyler Bend Recreation Area, Grinder's Ferry (U.S. 65), or Gilbert.
Outfitters on the upper river typically offer day floats from Steel Creek to Kyle's Landing, and overnight floats from Steel Creek to Pruitt.
Supposedly, the new policy intends to relieve vehicle congestion and traffic at small access areas like Kyles, Rush, Grinder's Ferry and Gilbert, which don't have much parking capacity. It will consolidate vehicle congestion at the river's main launch areas at Steel Creek, Tyler Bend, Pruitt and Arkansas 14.
To transport a greater number of people in a more orderly fashion, outfitters say they will have to buy bigger buses, and also buses with four-wheel drive.
The roads to Kyle's Landing and Baker Ford are steep and narrow. A vehicle traversing the roads often will need new brake pads frequently, but we haven't seen road conditions that would require four-wheel drive.
However, those roads are too narrow in places to accommodate two-way traffic for regular passenger vehicles. If you meet somebody coming the other way, one vehicle often must pull to the side. It would be very difficult for buses to traverse that road without a lot of coordination.
On the other hand, discontinuing vehicle shuttles will ease staffing pressure on outfitters because they won't have to dispatch employees to shuttle customer vehicles.
Currently, outfitters charges about $40 to shuttle customer vehicles. Since outfitters will assume the entire cost of the effort and assets to comply with the policy, they will probably transfer the cost of shuttling to the cost of renting a boat.
Outfitters will have to buy additional vans or buses, and that will translate directly to additional maintenance costs. Multiple daily trips on rutted, potholed mountain roads damages vehicles. Shuttling more people will require more road exposure, which will require more maintenance.
Ultimately, the cost of implementing new policy will regulate small outfitters out of business.
Influential people in the state's tourism industry want to transform the Buffalo National River into a model similar to the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve in West Virginia. That will change a lot of things, many of which are beyond the scope of this column.
In the short term, most visitors will notice only a higher cost to rent a boat.
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