The downside of making Buffalo a national park
Today at 3:15 a.m.
by Bryan Hendricks
Glenn Wheeler, Newton County sheriff, says his county can't bear the burden of expanding the Buffalo National River into a national park.
Wheeler said he appreciates the Buffalo National River as a recreational resource. He is widely respected in the outdoor recreation industry, an accomplished outdoor photographer who served two terms on the board of directors for the defunct Southeastern Outdoor Press Association. He also served one term as its president and one term as its board chairman.
Wheeler can also do basic math, and he said that vastly inflating the number of people visiting his county will exceed the ability of his office to serve its constituents.
"We are the sheriff's office, but we do search and rescue and medical emergencies, too," Wheeler said. "We respond to all aspects of emergencies in this county."
Many of those responsibilities involve responding to emergencies on the Buffalo National River. They include search and rescue operations, recovering drowning victims, evacuating injured boaters from the river, evacuating injured hikers from the Buffalo River Trail and, according to Wheeler, evacuating people who are ill-conditioned to be on a wilderness trail in the first place. He said he has even been called to evacuate hikers who were simply too lazy to walk back to a trailhead.
On top of those duties, Wheeler's deputies manage traffic issues that occur from wildlife watchers admiring elk in Boxley Valley.
"At times I have one one deputy on duty to cover 822 square miles," Wheeler said. "When I have to send a deputy to deal with somebody blocking the highway at Ponca, and then we have to respond to a medical emergency in eastern Newton County, that's one hour just to get there. It puts that deputy in danger, but it also puts the public in danger because that deputy has to drive faster to respond to a critical medical situation or a motor vehicle accident where a timely response could be the difference between life or death."
Adding 200,000 visitors to Newton County by increasing visitation to a redesignated national park would stretch the sheriff's office beyond a breaking point, Wheeler said.
Wheeler said he computes that 200,000 number from estimates supplied by the Runway Group, which is promoting changing the Buffalo National River to a national park and preserve.
"I've heard different estimates from them, but they talked about 600,000 additional visitors a year to the entire Buffalo River," Wheeler said. "The Buffalo River is technically in four counties, but mainly it's in three counties. In the springtime and early summer, my county -- the upper Buffalo -- is the busiest. If you take a third of 600,000, and I'd say that's a conservative estimate, that's 200,000. To say that an extra 200,000 people a year in my county would overwhelm my resources would be a vast understatement."
Wouldn't nearly a quarter million additional visitors provide sufficient tax revenue to offset additional costs?
No, Wheeler said. He explained that county property taxes fund the sheriff's department, along with emergency medical services and fire protection services.
"The one message I'm trying to get out is that we value tourism in our county," Wheeler said. "As sheriff, I believe tourists are important to our economy. As a resident, I am very proud of my area, and I love sharing it with people.
"But with the resources and budget I have right now, it is a struggle to provide the services that Newton County residents and visitors deserve. If you add that much to my workload, I won't be able to do it."
Additionally, Wheeler said, the county does not have sufficient water, sewer or waste management to accommodate nearly a quarter million additional visitors every year. The roads are also inadequate to accommodate that many extra vehicles.
Wheeler said that the annual salary for a Newton County deputy sheriff is about $27,000, and that his department has bought three new vehicles since 2019.
"You're asking for someone to work for $27,000 in a hand-me-down car," Wheeler said. "That's a tough sell, and the Runway Group sure isn't offering to pitch in any extra money for salaries or to buy any vehicles."
The bottom line, Wheeler said, is that the Newton County Sheriff's Office has all it can do with the current level of visitation to the Buffalo National River. Intensifying its burden would be a disservice to Newton County residents and visitors, Wheeler said. It would reflect badly on the county, on the state, and on the Buffalo River.