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23 Oct 2023 9:24 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

Arkansas Times

Runway Group steps back, first gent’s role in plan to change Buffalo National River designation is revealed



 Debra Hale-Shelton 


October 23, 2023

6:57 pm

Faced with angry pushback from rural Arkansans, the Walton-founded Runway Group is setting aside a campaign to turn the Buffalo National River and nearby land into a national park preserve.

Further, the name of a long-suspected player in the ill-fated effort has now emerged, though he remains mum: It’s Bryan Sanders, husband of Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

For months, rumors circulated that the first gentleman was working with Runway on efforts to change the federal status of the Buffalo National River. But no one with any political credentials dared to make the connection publicly.

“My understanding is they’re backing off at this point in time,” King (R-Green Forest) told the Arkansas Times after fewer than a dozen legislators met Friday in Little Rock with Runway Group representatives, including the investment company’s lobbyist, John Burris.

“They didn’t expect the backlash,” said King, whose legislative district includes some of the Buffalo region. King also took to X, formerly known as Twitter, where he said, “The runway group said they have no plans to move forward at this time.”

Now, two state lawmakers — Sens. Bryan King and Missy Irvin — have linked Bryan Sanders to the discussion, though Irvin said she did not know Sanders’ position on the matter.

Irvin (R-Mountain View) told the Arkansas Times that she learned about the matter belatedly as well, and said she called U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman, chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, earlier this month.

Irvin said Westerman told her Runway representatives had met with him about the idea. She said she then called Burris to learn more. Burris told her the Waltons were backing off their plans.

Burris declined comment for this article.

Runway has made no public comment since last week when it posted a brief statement online amid residents’ loud pushback after a Runway-commissioned survey of Buffalo-area residents brought rumors into the open.

“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,” Runway said last Tuesday. About the same time, Runway told the Arkansas Times it would not participate in a town hall planned for Thursday night in Jasper about this issue.

Pressed for further comment Monday, Runway spokesman J.T. Geren said only, “What we shared Friday is what we continue to share.” He then repeated a statement given last Tuesday.

The only statement Friday was one that appeared in an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette article in which Runway spokeswoman Krista Cupp said, “This re-designation is just an idea that’s being floated out there.

“This is an idea that we certainly think is worth exploring, but there’s nothing new happening right now,” Cupp added.

King said he fears Runway’s step back is only a delay, especially considering the more than 6,000 acres Walton Enterprises now owns in Madison County after a recent property buying spree. “I don’t think this issue is going away,” King said.

The land purchase in the Kingston area by King’s Creek LLC, owned by Walton Enterprises, looks “bad and is a major reason for the mistrust,” King said in a separate statement given to the Madison County Record. The Record reported the land purchases last week.

In the statement, King said Runway representatives told the legislators that “this conversation started back in April and May with state officials.”

“My understanding, these conversations started with the governor, the governor’s husband and Sen. Irvin,” King said. Irvin called King’s statement about her role a “lie.”

Further, Irvin said she believed Runway representatives told legislators that it was 1 1/2 years ago that they first met with Westerman about the matter.

“So I believe that may have been June of 2022 and only with him, and then had ongoing meetings with his staff for his committee,” she said in a statement shared on the Madison County Record‘s Facebook page.

Congressional approval would be needed to make the Buffalo National River a national park or a national park preserve. Unlike in a national park, people can still hunt and trap in a park preserve. There also can be oil and gas exploration and mining extraction in a park preserve, though Runway said it doesn’t support either in the area.

Neither Westerman nor his spokeswoman could be reached for comment.

Irvin said Bryan Sanders contacted her in May “to discuss the Buffalo River.”

“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.”

Irvin said she “never once discussed this” matter with the governor.

Referring to King’s comment about Irvin’s early involvement in conversations about the Buffalo, Irvin said, “This is an outright lie and misrepresentation. I never had a single conversation with the the Runway Group. I was contacted once and said any conversation had to start local. I have always advocated for anyone to meet directly with my constituents. Unfortunately that never happened.”

Irvin said she and others involved with the Buffalo River Conservation Committee have repeatedly and clearly stated their opposition to any change in the Buffalo’s current status.

In a statement Thursday on X, 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.

Irvin said in an interview that she had “no idea Runway was even involved” in the Buffalo effort until the survey, conducted in September in five counties along the river, came out.

She questioned why the federal government would want to expand its footprint when it “can’t even take care of what we’ve got.”

King told the Arkansas Times he had also been unaware of these discussions about changing the Buffalo River designation. Not talking with local residents upfront was “disrespectful and uncaring,” he said.

He said he told Runway officials that he “was very disappointed that the local government and people were not notified of the discussion.”

Despite reportedly stepping back from the Buffalo effort, a fact sheet on Runway Group’s website still refers to the “shared objective” of a “coalition for the future of the Buffalo River National Park Preserve.” It does not identify any coalition members.

Referring to the newly created Natural State Advisory Council chaired by First Gent Bryan Sanders, King said, “I have a real issue with the Natural State committee not being transparent and accountable to local communities.”

A Sept. 6 council meeting’s agenda, obtained under the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act, lists the item “Buffalo National River Discussion” but gives no details and no speaker.

Bryan Sanders is friends of Tom Walton and Steuart Walton, co-founders of the Runway Group and grandsons of Walmart founder Sam Walton. Tom Walton also serves on the advisory council, as did Mike Mills, whom the governor fired in June from his position as secretary of the state Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism. Shea Lewis, the department’s new secretary, succeeded Mills on the council.

Bryan Sanders, his chief of staff and the governor’s spokeswoman have not responded to repeated requests for comment.

Rumors about the Buffalo have simmered since June when Mills was fired. Those rumors gained credibility and went viral when the Runway survey was done in September in Baxter, Madison, Marion, Newton and Searcy counties.

King said the first gentleman is the one who “needs to answer questions.”

Darryl Treat, executive director of the Greater Searcy County Chamber of Commerce, released a statement Monday saying, “We reject a change in [the Buffalo National River’s] name and status.”

“There is no place for the exclusion of local people from discussions about changes that have consequential impacts to their lands, homes, and future,” said Treat, noting that Searcy County is home to about 48 miles of the river.

Reflecting how little residents and civic leaders were informed, an FOI request showed that Treat contacted an official with Parks, Heritage and Tourism on Sept. 29 to ask about “any possible discussion” regarding a change in the river’s status.

Katherine Andrews, director of the department’s Office of Outdoor Recreation, replied to Treat, “We’re fielding a lot of questions about this. It falls in a couple divisions within [the state department] and we are looking at it.”

Treat replied, “This is going to be a MAJOR FIGHT! We have close to zero trust in the National Park Service.”

In his statement to the Arkansas Times, Treat said local people should have the largest part to play in their own self determination and future. “We have been told that a change to the river’s federal status would bring us an economic benefit, but when we asked to see a plan we were told there was no plan to see,” Treat said.

“As the local people who live, die, farm, and raise our families here, we insist that we have a prominent and influential voice pertaining to all matters concerning the present and future of the Buffalo National River. We assert the rights of local people to decide local matters.”


Debra Hale-Shelton

Debra Hale-Shelton is a reporter for the Arkansas Times. She has previously worked for The Associated Press and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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