OPINION | REX NELSON: Loving it to death
by Rex Nelson | Today at 4:10 a.m.
History is repeating itself in the Arkansas Ozarks.
When a brave band of environmentalists began the fight decades ago to have the Buffalo River designated as the nation’s first national river, their strongest opposition came from area residents. Now that a new group is attempting to have the river upgraded to national park status, complaints are again being heard.
The difference in this era of social media is that misinformation spreads like wildfire, people become upset, and politicians feel the need to demagogue an issue rather than simply explain the facts.
“The continual threat of a dam on the Buffalo caught the attention of Arkansas conservation groups and those who had begun using the river for recreation,” Suzie Rogers writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “In the early 1960s, advocates for dams and advocates for a free-flowing stream formed opposing organizations. The pro-dam Buffalo River Improvement Association, established by James Tudor of Marshall, and the anti-dam Ozark Society, which included environmentalist Neil Compton, emerged as the leading players in the drama.
“The dam proponents worked with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Rep. James Trimble. The free-flowing stream advocates made overtures to the U.S. Department of the Interior. In 1961, a National Park Service planning team undertook a site survey of the Buffalo River area. The team was favorably impressed and recommended establishment of a park on the Buffalo River to be called a national river.” Years of intense political and public relations battles followed.
“A decade of political maneuverings, speeches and media attention—including a canoe trip on the Buffalo by Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas—came to a head in December 1965 when Gov. Orval Faubus wrote the Corps that he could not support the idea of a dam on the Buffalo,” Rogers writes. “The Corps withdrew its proposal. In 1966, John Paul Hammerschmidt of Harrison defeated Trimble and indicated that he would support the concept of creating a park along the river.
“Hammerschmidt and Sens. J. William Fulbright and John L. McClellan introduced the first Buffalo National River park legislation in 1967. The final park legislation was introduced in 1971, and hearings were held in late 1971. In February 1972, Congress voted to establish the nation’s first national river.” President Richard Nixon signed legislation to put the river under the protection of the National Park Service on March 1, 1972, a century after the establishment of Yellowstone, the first national park.
The law states: “That for the purposes of conserving and interpreting an area containing unique scenic and scientific features, and preserving as a free-flowing stream an important segment of the Buffalo River in Arkansas for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations, the Secretary of the Interior … may establish and administer the Buffalo National River.” The area overseen by NPS encompasses 135 miles of the 150-mile-long river. According to the law, total acreage can’t exceed 95,730 acres. Hunting and fishing are allowed as traditional uses. Many residents were given an option to use their land for up to 25 years. Still, eminent domain proceedings were necessary, and feelings were hurt.
There has always been a deep distrust of government in the hills of Newton, Searcy, Marion, Madison and Baxter counties. That distrust erupted again this fall with word that a coalition is floating the idea of making the Buffalo National River a national park preserve. A regular national park restricts hunting and other activities. A national park preserve would protect hunting, fishing and trapping rights.
The group is using as a model New River Gorge National Park and Preserve in West Virginia. It allows hunting and fishing and doesn’t require fees or permits.
New River Gorge National River was established in 1978. It was redesignated in 2021 as New River Gorge National Park and Preserve. It encompasses more than 70,000 acres along 53 miles of the New River. The river, thought to be among the oldest rivers in the world, carved the deepest and longest river gorge in the Appalachian Mountains.
Why the status change? Because national park status will make the Buffalo a higher priority inside the National Park Service. And adding “preserve” prohibits additional restrictions and fees. Rumors about use of eminent domain and stringent restrictions are simply false. Elected officials need to have the guts to tell their constituents that the rumors have no basis in fact.
“We’re loving the Buffalo to death,” says Mike Mills, the Arkansas outdoors icon who knows more about the river than anyone alive. Mills says more federal funding is needed for parking at trailheads and for public restrooms. People now park along roads, often blocking traffic. They also use the woods as their restroom. Most of the current infrastructure dates back to the late 1970s.
Austin Albers, president and owner of Buffalo Outdoor Center, told The Madison County Record: “You’re looking at positive economic impact, prolonging and protecting the national park, the national river, protecting what brings people here—hunting, fishing, floating, all of that. None of that changes. And that’s why it’s a national park preserve and not just a national park.
“So if we can transition to a national park preserve versus a national river …. and get more infrastructure put into place, I think it’s a win for everybody.” Rumors began to spread when the coalition hired Selzer & Co. to poll 412 voters in Baxter, Madison, Marion, Newton and Searcy counties. The survey was conducted Sept. 11-13. It found that: m 95 percent were in favor of no private land being taken to create a national park preserve.
m 93 percent were in favor of rules protecting the river from pollution and industrial uses.
m 89 percent opposed any new taxes to support the national park preserve.
m 86 percent were in favor of grandfathering local businesses into any new commercial business rules.
m 83 percent were in favor of hunting regulations staying the same.
m 64 percent said they would want their member of Congress to vote for designation of the river as a national park preserve.
Nearly a fifth of Americans are within 500 miles of the Buffalo National River. In that area, there are only three national parks: Hot Springs, Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, and Gateway Arch in Missouri. None of those are recreation-focused areas.
“More visitors are coming,” a flyer from the coalition states. “Our natural lands must be actively preserved—or be lost. Private investments are certainly expected to increase interest and visitors. . . . In this rural part of the country, nature is treasured and many make their living from an economy that depends on tourism. Requiring only a change in the lands’s designation, more visitors will bring more jobs and more economic benefits.” In addition to their distrust of government, those who live in these hills distrust outsiders. They’re concerned by the large amounts of land being bought by entities associated with brothers Tom and Steuart Walton of Bentonville. I know the Walton brothers, and I want to make one thing clear: Their motives are pure. They realize that our state’s ability to attract and keep talented people in the decades ahead will rest in part on our protecting and enhancing outdoor recreational attributes.
The Walton brothers could live anywhere in the world and do anything they want. But their focus these days is on enhancing quality of life in Arkansas. Other states should be so lucky. Their involvement in the Coalition for Buffalo River National Park Preserve doesn’t worry me. It gives me hope that this effort will succeed.
Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.