OPINION | REX NELSON: Neil Compton's battle
by Rex Nelson
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, there was increased interest across Arkansas in preventing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from building a dam on the Buffalo River. On May 24, 1962, the first members of what would become known as the Ozark Society held an organizational meeting on the campus of the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.
Members of the Nature Conservancy were there that night to show a film about the float trip U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas had taken on the Buffalo earlier in the spring.
People were asked to pay $1 each to join the organization. A Bentonville doctor named Neil Compton was elected as the first president. Joe and Maxine Clark became editors of the Ozark Society Bulletin. A Little Rock chapter led by Charles Johnston Jr. was organized in February 1963.
The Ozark Society sponsored a float on the Buffalo in the spring of 1963. The first statewide meeting was held at Fort Smith that summer. Membership grew rapidly. The organization attracted national publicity and received the 1968 National Conservation Achievement Award.
The Ozark Society was successful in its primary mission. Not only was no dam built, Congress in 1972 established a new designation within the national park system. The Buffalo River became America's first national river, setting the stage for more to come. President Richard Nixon signed the bill in March 1972.
"What a lot of us forget when we're recreating on the 135 miles of this free-flowing river or the surrounding 95,000 acres is that before this was public land, it was people's homes and livelihoods," the National Park Service wrote in a social media post that marked the 49th anniversary of Nixon signing the bill. "Many of the trails you can enjoy here today were originally built by early settlers as roadways connecting their communities' homesteads, churches, farms, mines and mills. Many of the park's campgrounds used to be somebody's agricultural fields.
"Many bluff shelters and bottomlands were seasonal hunting camps for indigenous peoples. The river itself was a means of transportation and commerce, connecting rural communities along the Buffalo to larger outposts across the White and Mississippi River basins."
The society didn't simply bask in past successes. It attempted to prevent dams on other streams in Arkansas and led the fight for more public access to the Mulberry River. It lobbied for creation of the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission and passage of the Arkansas Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. It worked in Washington to ensure that places in Arkansas were protected by the National Wilderness Acts of 1975 and 1983. Chapters were added in Missouri and Louisiana.
"The challenge goes on," Compton said. "There are other lands and rivers, other wilderness areas, to save and to share with all."
In 1975, the nonprofit Ozark Society Foundation was created to support the society's educational and recreational activities in the region. The foundation became a publisher of high-quality conservation and nature-related books. Since 1967, the society and foundation have produced more than two dozen publications. These include canoe and hiking guides, natural and cultural histories, and field guides.
The most recent publication is a monumental 520-page guide, "Trees, Shrubs and Woody Vines of Arkansas." It will be the go-to guide for Arkansas trees for years to come. I think Compton, who died in February 1999 at age 86, would be pleased with this effort were he still around.
In writing and discussing Arkansas history, we tend to focus on political and business leaders. But Compton, who was born in August 1912 at Falling Springs Flats in Benton County, should be recognized alongside our greatest Arkansans ever for his efforts to preserve parts of what we now refer to as the Natural State. He had a deep love for the natural aspects of this state from the start.
Compton attended elementary school at Bozarth, a rural school near Gentry. After graduating from high school at Bentonville in 1931, Compton entered the UA. He graduated four years later with degrees in geology and zoology.
Compton married hiking and canoeing partner Laurene Putman of Bentonville in September 1935. In 1939, Compton graduated from medical school in Little Rock. After an internship in Camden, N.J., he went to work as a health officer in Bradley County and later Washington County for the state Board of Health.
He was a resident in obstetrics at St. Vincent Infirmary at Little Rock in 1948-49 after having served during World War II in the U.S. Navy. Following a long practice in the field of obstetrics and gynecology, Compton would often joke that he had "delivered enough babies to staff my own navy."
It's for his conservation efforts, though, that this avid hiker and canoeist will be remembered. That 1962 meeting at Waterman Hall on the UA campus was the start of a 12-year tenure as Ozark Society president.
A book titled "The High Ozarks: A Vision of Eden," which featured Compton's photographs, was published in 1982. In 1992, the University of Arkansas Press published his book "The Battle for the Buffalo River: A Conservation Crisis in the Ozarks." Five years later, the Ozark Society published Compton's "The Buffalo River in Black and White."
In September 1987, National Park Service director William Penn Mott appointed Compton an honorary national park ranger. It's fitting that after his death in 1999, his family chose to scatter some of his ashes in the Buffalo River.
Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.