Populism & Southern Lands Pt. 1: From Ozarks to Oz
"Rich men not from here are pushing to change a way of life"
I’ve been thinking a lot about public lands lately, in part because the federal government has launched an initiative to “conserve” at least 30% of the country by 2030. Over the next two weeks, I’ll look at two controversies over public lands and conservation in the South. Up first: the Buffalo River.
NOV 7, 2023
For the people along the Buffalo River, in northwestern Arkansas, it was a lose-lose.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers wanted to build a dam that would flood their land. A bunch of nature lovers wanted to stop the dam by turning the river into one long park—what one local called a “130-mile-long zoo.”
The nature-lovers won, which is why in 1972 the Buffalo became the country’s first “national river,” a designation that protects the scenic character of this river. The federal government bought up the surrounding property, a fact that still stings. When I visited in 2021, one resident told me that local house fires are sometimes blamed on arson—the result of a still-simmering schism between those who would invite in tourists and those who would rather keep their old way of life intact.
Now, a half-century later, the Walton family is backing an effort to bring more attention to the Buffalo River—which has set off a new wave of anger.
A reader emailed me last week to tell me that more than a thousand people had turned up for a recent public meeting in the town of Jasper, Ark. That’s more than twice the town’s population.
The Buffalo winds through the Arkansas Ozarks, through proudly rural communities. The first time I visited, I didn’t realize that many of the surrounding counties are dry. My friends and I had to track down a “bootlegger” who sold cases of beer out of a backyard shed. You can go a bit north and get lost in the neon glitz of Branson, Missouri, but along the Buffalo the amenities are minimal. I fell in love with the region.
By the time I began to visit, the decision to turn the Buffalo River into a national river had been accepted as the “right course,” at least according to the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. (As one old-timer told the paper in 2012, “They took our land away, but it’s still there, and it’s not covered up by water.”) Back in September, locals began to receive phone calls from a research firm asking questions about whether they’d like to take the protections even further. The idea was to bump up the Buffalo from a “national river” to a “national park and preserve.”
A national park is a bigger deal than a national river.1 A mysterious group konwn as the “Coalition for the Buffalo River National Park Preserve” had sponsored the survey; a representative later said the hope is that a redesignation could “generate more funding” that can help with the upkeep of infrastructure along the river. The upgrade would require an act of Congress, and according to a flyer printed by the coalition (and cited by the Madison County Record, which has lifted its paywall on its excellent coverage of this issue), two-thirds of survey recipients would want their representatives to vote for such a bill.
The crowd in Jasper, though, saw things differently.
Our country’s national parks were, according to Wallace Stegner, “America’s best idea”—“absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”
I’m generally sympathetic to this idea, though, as always, if you zoom in close, you’ll find some blemishes. I’ll skip over the fact that establishing many parks required a process of ethnic cleansing, since I imagine that’s an idea familiar to most of my readers. But consider how the country’s first national park, at Yellowstone, came to be: a railroad company realized it stood to profit mightily if it could convince the federal government to establish a tourist park. For all the beauty of the national parks, this great American idea doubled as a scheme to help turn wealthy men even wealthier.
Fifty years after Yellowstone was founded, the federal government officially ended its program of lands sales. Nearly half the U.S. West remains public land. That sparked simmering resentment—a long effort to turn the vast expanses of public land into state or private property. (One prominent recent manifestation is the Bundy family.) But the self-dubbed “Sagebrush Rebellion” never gained much foothold in the South, for an obvious reason: by the late nineteenth century, almost all of the South had been privatized. The federal government owns 10% or less of most Southern states.
That created its own complications over public land, as the story of the Buffalo National River shows: parkland had to be wrested back from private owners, sometimes unwilling owners. What remains most salient here are issues of class; the fear in the Ozarks now is that the Yellowstone history is being repeated. At the meeting in Jasper—which was organized by various locals who were worried that the survey’s results were misleading—one resident declared that “rich men not from here are pushing to change a way of life.”
The Coalition for the Buffalo River National Park Preserve was eventually revealed to include one key member: a company called Runway LLC, which was launched by two of the grandsons of Walmart founder Sam Walton. Dogged reporting in the Recordrevealed that Runway’s leadership had been discussing the redesignation of the Buffalo River with state officials since at least the summer of 2022—long before any public discussion was held on the local level.
The Record also noted that another Walton-affiliated LLC has bought thousands of contiguous acres of land just west of the Buffalo, as well as three historic buildings on a town square, which are now undergoing renovation. The Waltons are working to rebrand the Ozarks as “Oz”—as an exciting, liveable place for young professionals. (The Walton family is not alone: Johnny Morris, the owner of Bass Pro Shops, has already opened a private “nature park” near the Buffalo River.) It’s easy enough to connect the dots, then: “The proposed project appears to be primarily a marketing tool to increase economic development of the surrounding area,” as the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance has put it.
One point of contention is the murky label “national park and preserve.” National parks and national preserves are different categories, as the latter designation allows certain “consumptive uses” on the land, including hunting and fishing. That seems to be key to the Buffalo River proposal, given that its advocates are calling the river a potential sportsman’s paradise.2 The “park and preserve” concept would include various parcels, with the “preserve” land open to hunting, while the “park” land would be devoted to nonconsumptive recreation.
These conflicting labels, though, mean that what sounds like increased protection is not necessarily. Preserve is a looser category. Sometimes the management of national preserves is transferred to state or local authorities, who may not be as rigorous as the federal government in protecting the land.3
In the wake of the outrage, the Runway Group has “retracted” its proposal, according to according to the Record. Though they’ve also said there’s nothing to retract since they just wanted to start a conversation. But having a conversation seems to be another matter: after initially expressing their intention to attend, representatives from Runway decided not to join the meeting in Jasper.
I get the sense that some of the opponents of the new proposal don’t necessarily want more promotion—or more tourists. During coronavirus lockdowns, the Buffalo was mobbed by crowds, and it’s not clear that a new national park and preserve would receive enough funding to keep up with the increased tourism it might attract. The Buffalo River and the surrounding parkland may technically belong to every American, at this point, but if every American came to visit, that would not be great for the river itself.
Here we get to an essential but little-asked question when it comes to “protecting” and “conserving” nature: what are we trying to achieve? Is this for the sake of nature? Or is it so that we—the rest of the country—have a store of lands where we can go out and see beauty? Some along the Buffalo believe this land will be best protected by being left alone, in relative obscurity. It doesn’t need to be everyone’s river, because it’s theirs.
The debate over public land is not only a debate over the future of nature—but also over how society as a whole should relate to that nature. Next week, in part two of this series, we’ll turn our attention to Florida, where the pressures of capitalism have forged unusual alliances between people who typically fight over conservation.
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