Log in

Buffalo River Watershed Alliance

Log in

OPINION | REX NELSON: Change is coming - Democrat Gazette

12 Nov 2023 12:02 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

Democrat Gazette

OPINION | REX NELSON: Change is coming


Neil Compton hailed from Bentonville, making him an outsider to the folks in Searcy and Newton counties.

Writing for the Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas, John Heuston describes Compton as "a physician of obstetrics by profession and a conservationist by avocation." Compton joined a group in Fayetteville in May 1962 to form what at the time was known as the Ozark Society to Save the Buffalo River.

Compton, who died in 1999, is now fondly remembered as one of the greatest conservationists in this state's history. But he was hated at the time by many of the locals in Searcy and Newton counties because he led the effort to stop construction of two proposed U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dams on the Buffalo River.

Local residents thought the dams would bring economic development to a desperately poor area of the state and resented a "rich doctor" from "off" telling them what to do.

Compton was born in 1912 at Falling Springs Flats in Benton County. He was educated in rural schools near Gentry before attending junior and senior high school at Bentonville. He graduated from the University of Arkansas in 1935 with degrees in zoology and geology and graduated four years later from what's now the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences at Little Rock.

Following an internship in New Jersey, Compton began his Arkansas medical career as a state health officer in Bradley and Washington counties. His residency in obstetrics was at St. Vincent in Little Rock in 1948-49 after naval service during World War II. Compton later would joke that he had delivered enough babies to staff his own navy.

"In the early 1960s, Compton, an avid hiker and canoeist, found himself embroiled in another type of war -- a conservation battle to save the Buffalo River from being impeded by dams at Lone Rock and Gilbert," Heuston writes.

"During Compton's 12-year tenure as its president, the Ozark Society conducted a vigorous and eventually successful campaign to stop construction of the dams. On March 1, 1972, President Richard Nixon signed the bill that made the Buffalo the first designated national river."

Compton's 1992 book "The Battle for the Buffalo River: A Conservation Crisis in the Ozarks," which was published by the University of Arkansas Press, was nominated for a National Book Award.

I think of Neil Compton these days when I hear folks spread rumors--none of which are based on facts-- about two current Bentonville residents, brothers Tom and Steuart Walton. These two grandsons of Sam Walton have been a blessing for our state. With the ability to live anywhere in the world, they've decided to devote their time to turning Arkansas into an outdoor recreational paradise. They're environmentally sensitive and respectful of the history of areas where they make investments. Like Compton, they want the best for Arkansas.

Bass Pro Shops founder Johnny Morris, who also is making massive capital investments in Newton County, shares those attributes. The investments of these three men might be the best thing to happen to this area in its history. It's not a timber company buying land with plans to turn hardwood forests into pine plantations. It's not a commercial hog or poultry operation. Instead, it's people whose investments depend on preserving the region's natural beauty.

The Madison County Record recently reported: "Kings Creek LLC has been purchasing property in the Kingston area. So far that corporation owns more than 6,000 contiguous acres, according to records from the Madison County assessor's office, making it one of the largest landowners in Madison County. Kings Creek LLC is owned by Walton Enterprises, which is controlled by the Walton family. ... Before some of the land was placed into the LLC, taxes on it were paid by Jim Walton, son of Walmart founder Sam Walton.

"For years, the family has owned property in Kingston, but recently they have begun to buy land that comes up for sale. ... Interest in buying property in Kingston is active. Madison County Clerk Austin Boatright said someone told him that she is asked on a monthly, if not weekly, basis to sell her property south of Kingston. Kings Creek LLC has 'been purchasing up a large amount of that acreage in and around, basically Red Star through Boston and south of Kingston,' Boatright said."

Kingston, with its charming downtown, is 18 miles east of Huntsville and 35 miles southwest of Harrison. It was platted in 1853 by King Johnson and named for him. Kingston's population was just 97 in the 2020 census. I have no idea what's planned for Kingston, but I know the quality of work Tom and Steuart Walton do. I can picture a coffee shop, a store for hikers and cyclists, and a bed-and-breakfast inn.

This can only be good for the locals. It will bring in visitors with money to spend, leading to entrepreneurial opportunities for those residents. At the same time, it will be development that protects the environment and the historic nature of the community's structures. Where's the downside?

We can attract and retain the talented people needed to propel this state's economy (and perhaps finally see a meaningful increase in the per capita income of Arkansans) by increasing the number of quality-of-life amenities. Among our top attributes as a state are the outdoor recreational opportunities Arkansas offers. We must seize the moment by protecting and enhancing those natural qualities.

That's what Tom Walton, Steuart Walton and Johnny Morris are trying to do.

Joe Jacobs, who writes for Arkansas Outside, said: "Towns like Marshall and Jasper could use dining and accommodation improvement that would allow visitors to stay near the park and pump tourism dollars into those communities directly."

We're about to see that happen--and in a high-quality way far different from the tacky Ozark tourist shops of my childhood--despite the conspiracy theories floating through these hills.

The hurtful rumors appear to have started after a coalition floated the idea of making the Buffalo National River a national park preserve. The group is using as a model New River Gorge National Park and Preserve in West Virginia. The coalition pushing the status change hired a company to poll voters during September in Baxter, Madison, Marion, Newton and Searcy counties.

Disregard most of what you read on social media. A change to national park status wouldn't lead to eminent domain or additional fees. It wouldn't ban hunting or fishing. What it might do is bring more federal resources to properly handle the crowds that already are coming to this part of Arkansas.

A National Park Service flack might tell you there's no funding difference between a national park and a national river. Don't believe it. Having lived and worked in Washington, D.C., I can assure you that national parks rule the roost inside NPS when it comes to setting priorities. In Arkansas, Hot Springs is a national park. Though operated by NPS, Buffalo National River, Pea Ridge, Arkansas Post, Little Rock Central, Fort Smith and Clinton Birthplace at Hope aren't.

As one outdoor outfitter said: "The national park system of the United States is the gold standard in the world of conservation and stewardship."

According to an NPS report, more than 327 million visitors spent $21 billion in communities within 60 miles of national park-designated sites in 2019. Of the 340,500 jobs supported by visitor spending, more than 278,000 jobs exist in communities adjacent to parks.

This is not to say that we shouldn't proceed slowly on a designation change along the Buffalo. Those hunting and fishing rights I mentioned are important. Residents' concerns must be heard. At the same time, though, residents have an obligation to deal in facts rather than rumor and innuendo.

Change is coming. Knowing the players involved, I'm convinced the change is for the better.

Buffalo River Watershed Alliance is a non profit 501(c)(3) organization

Copyright @ 2019

Powered by Wild Apricot Membership Software