OPINION | MIKE MASTERSON: Leave Buffalo as is
by Mike Masterson | November 4, 2023
An Arkansas LLC's exploratory idea to change the designation of our half-century-old Buffalo National River into a national park and preserve to promote "the best path forward to conserve our national treasure" drew an unfavorable earful from about 1,000 Newton County residents and others at a town-hall meeting in Jasper last week.
Reporters for the Harrison Daily Times and other media outlets squeezed into the wall-to-wall crowd at the school cafeteria to document the responses of those who would be directly affected by the concept.
A Newton County heritage preservation group called the Remnants Project had invited the Runway Group, which had been heading conversations and conducting a poll about the economic growth potential of the Buffalo National River region and making into a national park, the Times reported in an in-depth account. Representatives of Runway chose not to attend the Jasper gathering, which many found surprising.
Founded by Tom and Steuart Walton, Runway is a holding company that invests in real estate and businesses in northwest Arkansas including outdoor initiatives, but hasn't made any formal statement except to say it is in early-stage conversations around the Buffalo's designation and are eager to listen and collaborate with the community.
Of the 10 speakers, some like Gordon Watkins of Parthenon with the Buffalo Watershed Alliance (and friend from the Buffalo River hog factory struggles a few years back) said that due to the influx of tourists to the river and large surrounding land acquisitions, the people who live in Newton County and the immediate region need a seat at the table when it comes to proposing changes so they're not taken by surprise.
He said his organization would be opposed to acquisition of an unwilling seller's property, or any plan that failed to ensure sustainable preservation of the water quality.
The level of government mistrust in the national park idea was apparent in the room in a community that has grown up enjoying, appreciating and making a living from the river.
Billy Bell of Newton County, who grew up on the Buffalo and its tributaries, expressed some of those feelings, the paper wrote. "Playing on the popularity of a recent song, he said, 'Rich Men Not From Here' are pushing to change residents' way of life. He said he sees a bait and switch operation playing on the people's emotions and as a scare tactic. The river is public land and it and its public uses are already adequately protected, he said. Re-designation is not needed and we do not need other people to decide how to change 'our' Buffalo River. He said proponents of re-designation are using the old battle cry, 'Save the Buffalo River,' to spin public opinion and exploit the Buffalo National River for their own personal gain."
Wendy Finn of Fayetteville reviewed survey results and said they were confusing and lacked sufficient facts for a respondent to give an informed answer, and the data can possibly be skewed.
Finn also pointed out that Runway concluded 64 percent of those surveyed were in favor of changing the river to a national park or preserve. However, surveyors failed to explain what the terms in the survey meant, which is critical to understand the implications and conclusions drawn from it.
State Sen. Bryan King of Green Forest, whose district includes portions of the Buffalo, offered thoughts on those results and said he felt obligated to make certain his constituents understood what was happening with the river. "This train had been rolling down the track. I didn't want the people I represent to be railroaded," he said.
Referring to the survey. King said only those living in the watershed should have been polled; his investigation of the survey showed that though 14 percent of the watershed is in Baxter County, 47 percent of the respondents lived there.
As someone born 20 minutes from the Buffalo, I spent many a childhood summer's day wading, fishing, swimming and enjoying its magnificence. Little wonder it attracts scores of thousands from around the country that annually leave behind millions of dollars in these hills. And with a late uncle who in 1972 was a key political figure in designating our Buffalo as the country's first national river, I naturally have an interest in this idea to commercialize the natural beauty beyond what exists.
True, it would bring additional millions of people to the region to enjoy what is already a crowded stream during seasonal months. Bumper-to-bumper canoes floating through groups of swimmers and fishermen isn't an attractive way to attract tourism.
True, it would bring in more money as a tradeoff for what we have. True, it would bring additional commercial ventures with thousands more T-shirts, knick-knacks, peanut brittle and canoe rentals. And I really can't fault anyone for floating the idea of expanding and enlarging the gift God has given us to preserve and protect.
But I've never considered the Buffalo a commercial draw to lucrative traffic from many more visitors to further overcrowd the sanctuary. That strikes me as neither necessary nor wise.
While I do appreciate the way this idea has been approached--asking the people for their thoughts before simply barging ahead behind the scenes then announcing a plan as a done deal--I believe the "best path forward" is leaving well enough alone in our Buffalo's busy, pristine and well-protected waters.
Now go out into the world and treat everyone you meet exactly like you want them to treat you.
Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at email@example.com.