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Buffalo River land tangled in crosscurrents, Part 1 - Madison County Record

25 Oct 2023 9:31 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

Madison County Record

Buffalo River land tangled in crosscurrents

Preserve designation surfaced in July 2022

Posted Wednesday, October 25, 2023 9:45 am

By Ellen Kreth, For the Record

Part 1

The Runway Group of Bentonville is “retracting” the idea of turning federal land

around the Buffalo National River into a national park preserve, according to

State Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forest, who represents District 28, which includes

Madison County.

After meeting last Friday with Runway Group’s Director of State and Federal

Affairs Mary Robin Casteel and lobbyist John Burris, King said the Runway Group

“seemed to be open to more dialogue.”

“There’s nothing to pause because we’ve kind of done what we set out to do,

which was to present an idea. We definitely think the idea is worth exploring,”

Runway Group’s Vice President of Corporate and Community A!airs Krista Cupp


“There’s no next steps right now because it’s not our decision to make,” Cupp


Designating public lands around the Buffalo National River as a national park

preserve requires federal legislation.

Legislation has not been drafted and there’s been no attempt to do so, according

to U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., who represents Arkansas’ 4th

Congressional District and chairs the Natural Resources Committee.

“I would say we’re in listening mode. People have ideas and I know there’s folks

debating the pros and cons of it,” Westerman said on Monday.

Steuart and Tom Walton own the Runway Group, a holding company investing in

real estate, outdoor initiatives, conservation and recreation as well as hospitality

and businesses in Northwest Arkansas.

They are grandsons of Walmart founder Sam Walton and sons of Jim Walton, who

owns thousands of acres of land in Kington in Madison County.

In addition to the land, a spokesperson for Runway Group told The Record, “As

part of a restoration effort, members of the Walton family acquired three historic

buildings on the square in downtown Kingston, intending to update them and

open their doors to the community. While we don’t yet have a timeline for the

opening, we will share more when we do.”

The Walton family purchased the buildings a couple of years ago. A spokesperson

for the family said they have no other plans to develop the Kingston property.

Burris invited legislators representing counties in close proximity to the Buffalo

National River to breakfast at the state Capitol to explain recent poll results

conducted by Runway about the possible change in land designation and to “get

your feedback moving forward. There isn’t a plan yet of any kind. We just want to

start the dialogue with y’all.”

A group calling itself a Coalition for Buffalo River National Park Preserve began

exploring the idea of making public land near the Bu!alo National River a

national park preserve touting the designation as a way to make the area the

“most active-use National Park in the country for outdoor recreation.”

The coalition states its’ purpose “is exploring new ideas to preserve, enhance, and

drive economic benefit for the Buffalo National River.” Officials have neither

divulged members of the coalition nor established a meeting date.

Increased infrastructure

Designating public lands around the river as a national park preserve “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,” a statement from the

Runway Group said.

The coalition is using the New River Gorge Park and Preserve in West Virginia as a

model, which does not require fees or permits, allows fishing and hunting and

access to the river at multiple public access points.

Westerman said infrastructure around the Bu!alo National River gets stressed

with more traffic.

“Even if it just remains a national river and doesn’t get a park designation, there

needs to be some investment in the infrastructure and restrooms is one of those

things and the roads leading to the river. A lot of those places are not in the best

of shape.

“So there’s many things that could be improved to enhance the experience on the

river and also to, you know, harden the infrastructure so that you’re not doing

damage on the river with all the visitors.”


In July 2022, the Runway Group approached Westerman about designating the

river’s public lands as a national park preserve.

In January 2023, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed an executive order

establishing the Natural State Advisory Group and appointed Bryan Sanders, her

husband, as chairman. The council is tasked with growing tourism in Arkansas

and the “outdoor economy,” according to a news release.

Gov. Sanders also appointed Tom Walton as one of the 18 members of the

advisory group. So far no meetings have been announced or open to the public,

but the group has been active in exchanging emails regarding tourism and parks


The Record requested minutes from any meetings but has not received a


King said he is “gravely disappointed and concerned about the natural state

working group,” and its’ lack of transparency, which he said is contributing to


In April, according to King, conversations about changing the land to a national

park preserve began “with state officials. My understanding these conversations

started with the governor, governor’s husband and Sen. (Missy Thomas) Irvin,” R Mountain View.

King said he was disappointed local officials in his district were not notified.

“If I had been informed about conversations about the Buffalo, the first phone call I would of made would have been to my local folks,” King said.

In May, Bryan Sanders contacted Irvin “to discuss the Buffalo River,” Irvin wrote

on social media.

She 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 wrote.

Irvin stated she did not discuss the change with Gov. Sanders or Runway Group


“Mr. Sanders needed to hear directly from my constituents,” Irvin wrote about

issues concerning the river.

Also in May, when Bryan Sanders spoke to the Rotary Club of Little Rock, he told

the crowd 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.

The Runway Group emphasized making the federal lands abutting the river into a

national preserve would spark more tourism, increasing money for


On Monday, Gov. Sanders appointed Dalaney Thomas director of tourism.

Thomas worked at an advertising agency handling the state’s parks and tourism

account. On the advertising agency’s website, Thomas said her favorite place to

visit is the Buffalo National River area.

About six months ago, a former representative reached out to Dustin Cowell, a

Real Estate appraiser in Mt. Judea, about serving on a committee to explore

turning the land around the river into a national park.

Even though Cowell opposes making any changes, he said he would be willing to

serve on the committee, but he “never heard anything else about it.”

Cowell said, “They even mentioned that it was kind of from the governor’s office.”

End of Part 1. See Part 2 

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