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Buffalo River land tangled in crosscurrents, Part 2 - Madison County Record

25 Oct 2023 10:03 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

Madison County Record

Buffalo River land tangled in crosscurrents

Preserve designation surfaced in July 2022

Part 2

In September, owners of Horseshoe Canyon, a dude ranch located near Jasper in

Newton County, announced after the 2023 season, they would be retiring, but

the “Ranch will continue to be open to the public, offering the same great

adventures and more. We are active in the transition taking place and are

incredibly excited about the future of HCR!”

Unconfirmed reports indicate Steuart and Tom Walton have made plans to

purchase Horseshoe Canyon. Owner Barry Johnson was on vacation and did not

respond to a request for comment.

Horseshoe Canyon’s season runs from March through November and the

property encompasses cabins and offers rock climbing, hiking, zip lining, archery

and horseback riding and floating the Buffalo National River.

Also in September, in an effort to gauge public opinion, the Runway Group hired

Selzer & Company, who polled 412 voters in Baxter, Madison, Marion, Newton

and Searcy counties about a change in land designation and produced a flyer

with the results.

“Polling is something Runway has engaged in in the past to understand how

people feel about certain topics before we advocate for an idea,” a statement

from the Runway Group said.

On Sept. 25, according to documents obtained through a Freedom of Information

Act request, Secretary of the Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism Shea

Lewis noted on a “To Do List” he needed to speak with “Teddy” regarding a

“Buffalo River update.”

Teddy Stewart is Bryan Sanders’ chief of staff.

That same “To Do List” included “assigning Buffalo River project to Katherine.”

Katherine Andrews is the Department of Tourism’s director of the Office of

Outdoor Recreation.

On Sept. 28, Lewis and Andrews exchanged emails regarding the development of

a “proposal related to Buffalo River area.”

Many of the documents tendered in response to the FOIA request have to do

with different projects pertaining to the river and do not mention specifically the

possibility of changing the public lands to a park preserve.

On Oct. 4, the public heard of the potential change to lands surrounding the

Buffalo National River when The Record published its story.

Citizens’ thoughts

Westerman said he’s hearing a mixture of reactions but most of the people

reaching out to his office are opposed.

“From my experience in Congress, when issues come up, it’s usually people who

are opposed to issues that reach out the strongest.”

King has remained opposed to any change and has been outspoken regarding

transparency around the issue, stating discussions needed to have started with

local officials and citizens.

Rep. Chad Puryear, R-Hindsville, said the prospect of changing the federal lands

“has brought a lot of speculation, emotion and concern to the otherwise quiet

region of Madison and Newton Counties.”

Puryear said, “Rural Arkansans have always been wary of trusting the

government and outsiders. This is especially true of the Newton County families

that are old enough to remember the sting of losing their family farms the last

time the government got involved with the Buffalo River.

“I did not have to do any polling to find my conclusion. As a 6th generation

Arkansas farmer whose family has lived and worked on the same land since

1887, I believe the good people of rural Arkansas do not want or need the advice

from the government or a special interest group to help them decide what is best

for their communities.”

Cowell lives within five to six miles of the Buffalo National River and near a

tributary that feeds into the river, “kind of right in the middle of the National


Cowell says the river can’t handle an increase in traffic and tourism. He said from

what he’s read he doesn’t believe the area would see an increase in

infrastructure funding.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, when everyone was getting outdoors, the crowds

were so large, “You couldn’t get within miles of the river at times,” Cowell said.

The crowds have remained.

“My little girl had soccer games in Jasper Saturday morning and you couldn’t find

anywhere to park,” he said. “It’s hard enough to get around as it is.”

Westerman said he sees pros and cons to increased tourism. He said owning a

business in the area and wanting more customers would be a pro, but increased

traffic could be a con.

“So all of those things, you’ve got to take into account,” he said.

Cowell said he’s worried about what changes a different land designation would

bring and is not happy with what he sees as secrecy and lack of transparency

surrounding the idea.

Because there’s no push for legislation at this point, Westerman said, “We’re

certainly not being secretive or hiding anything from anyone.”

If legislation is introduced, Westerman has thoughts about what would not be


“So the park’s about 95,000 acres already and I would be opposed to expanding

the park boundary. I will be opposed to taking in private land. I would be

opposed to private landowners losing any of their current access and rights to

their property. I would be opposed if you restricted fishing or hunting,” he said.

Survey results

The survey polled people about trails for walking, for bicycling, about the area’s

natural beauty, property taxes, retail and service businesses as well as

restaurants and lodging. It also quizzed people on their satisfaction of having

access to the river for water sports, fishing and hunting.

It asked those polled if they were aware the Buffalo National River had a national

river designation and whether they thought it would be a good idea to turn the

public land around it into a national park and preserve. Sixty-one percent said it

was a good idea, 32% said it was a bad idea and 7% said they were unsure.

According to the Runway Group’s survey, if federal lands were changed to a park

preserve, changes would include improved roads and access to the river, paved

parking lots near trails, campsites and boat ramps, new public restrooms, new

walking and hiking trails and improvements to existing trails, more opportunities

for local businesses and more management to retain the natural habitat of native

trees, plants and wildlife.

The survey quizzed respondents on not designating land as a national park

preserve, including their thoughts on leaving things the way they are, designating

land sounding like big government, having too many visitors and too many new

businesses, having more fees and permits, changing the river’s character by

paving roads and installing new signage and seeing an increase in alcohol sales.

Even after the pointing out the “bad” points, the Runway Group’s survey said 63%

thought changing the land designation was a good idea, 34% said it was a bad

thing and 3% were unsure.

King said he expressed his frustration to Runway Group officials in last Friday’s

meeting that the poll “was not done in a way I felt was best to get an accurate

representation of how local people feel about the idea changing the Bu#alo


Even though Cowell feels a little better about the Runway Group retracting its

position, he’s still concerned “with the amount of land that’s already been

purchased,” and people trying to buy land from current owners.

“There’s been no level of trust with the park service as there is and, you know,

we’ve kind of become accustomed to this and we’re just worried what changes

would bring,” Cowell said.

“I feel like they’re in too far now for nothing to happen,” Cowell said.

“I don’t feel like the issue is going away,” King said.

King is speaking at a town hall meeting about changes surrounding the river on

Oct. 26 at 6 p.m. at Jasper High School Cafeteria.

“For all voices to be heard without distractions, Runway will not be formally

attending,” a spokesperson said.

Westerman also said he would like to host a town hall in the future.

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