Madison County Record
Resolution opposing re-designation sails through
Newton County preps to protect land rights
Posted Wednesday, November 8, 2023 9:45 am
By Ellen Kreth, For The Record
Newton County Quorum Court members passed a resolution at their Nov. 6 meeting opposing “the changing of the name designation or expansion of the Buffalo National River, and any further negative impact on the agricultural lands or infringement on private ownership on the Buffalo National River Watershed.”
The vote was unanimous with approximately 25 citizens in attendance.
Justice of the Peace Jamie Mefford said the court wanted to show its opposition to any name change, park expansion, private land rights restrictions and any agricultural restrictions.
Mefford said little discussion by court members took place before the vote because, “We’re all in agreement that we just don’t want the changes.”
The resolution follows recent discussions of making public lands around the Buffalo National River into a national park preserve.
In July 2022, the Runway Group approached U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., who represents Arkansas’ 4th Congressional District and chairs the Natural Resources Committee, with the idea re-designating the land.
The Buffalo National River became America’s first national river in 1972. At that time, the federal government used eminent domain on some landowners.
The Runway Group is owned by Steuart and Tom Walton, grandsons of Walmart founders Helen and Sam Walton.
Proponents of the idea emphasize re-designating federal land around the river will bring more tourism, jobs, and money, which could be used to improve the park’s infrastructure, as well as enhance economic benefits and growth to Newton and Searcy counties and their gateway communities.
In September, in an effort to gauge public opinion, the Runway Group hired Selzer & Co., who polled 412 voters in Baxter, Madison, Marion, Newton and Searcy counties about a change and produced a flyer with the results.
However, locals say they are opposed to the change. Mefford said no constituents have approached him in support of the idea.
“I couldn’t understand why they didn’t bring it to the local cities, and the local county governments before they ever even started anything with it,” Mefford said.
The Record broke the story on Oct. 4, making the public aware of discussions about re-designating lands.
Recently, Runway Group’s Vice President of Corporate and Community Affairs Krista Cupp said the group is not pressing forward with a re-designation. There are “no next steps,” she said.
Cupp said when the group approached Westerman, it didn’t present a proposal but asked if the re-designation was worth exploring.
Westerman has stated that no plans exist now to draft legislation turning the lands into a preserve.
Mefford realizes the county’s resolution holds no weight if a federal law were passed.
“We have no power over the federal government,” he said.
Mefford said even though the Runway Group has said it is no longer pursuing the option, “I think the next time we’ll hear about it, it’ll be up in Congress.
“You know, the people that are pushing this are very powerful and they have the money and they have the lobbyists.”
Mefford, who is serving his third two-year term, said people in his district and in Newton County remain on edge based upon recent large land purchases in the area.
Walton Enterprises, owned by the Walton family, owns more than 6,000 acres in Kingston in Madison County and has purchased three historic buildings on the Kingston Square they plan to renovate.
Unconfirmed reports indicate the Runway Group has made plans to purchase Horseshoe Canyon, a large dude ranch near Jasper in Newton County.
In 2020, Bass Pro Shop Founder Johnny Morris bought Dogpatch U.S.A., a theme park in Newton County that opened in 1968 but was shuttered in 1993.
Mefford said the recent land purchases have the court members considering ordinances that were passed in approximately 1998 dealing with county landowners rights.
“And we’re in the process of dragging that out and getting the dust off of it.”
Currently, the county has no zoning ordinances and requires no building permits.
Even though zoning requirements were brought up at Monday’s meeting, Mefford said, “We know what’s coming. It’s everywhere. But we don’t want to infringe on anybody’s property rights.
“Things have been simple, ’til now,” he said.
But “big growth” is coming and he’s worried about how the county will pay for it.
The county is at least “62 percent government owned,” but with very little tax base, receiving payments in lieu of taxes [PILT], Mefford said. PILT payments are “federal payments that help local governments offset losses in property taxes due to the existence of nontaxable Federal lands within their boundaries,” according to the U.S. Department of Interior.
“So we’re sitting here with 1,500 miles of dirt roads in this county. And we’ve got a $1.3 million budget, $1.4, a little more than that with FEMA, but it takes $800,000 to pay our employees in the road department and that don’t leave a lot,” Mefford said.