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26 Nov 2023 9:35 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

Democrat Gazette

Buffalo River rift shifts ire from D.C. to Arkansas

Author: Little Rock, not D.C., distrusted

Today at 7:34 a.m.

by Bill Bowden

For the past 50 years, the prevailing target of government distrust in the Ozark Mountains has been Washington, D.C.

But a dispute over the Buffalo National River seems to be shifting the dynamic.

"In recent decades, the rhetoric of rural resistance to government in Arkansas has mostly targeted distant Washington bureaucrats, but this one pointedly calls out Little Rock, connections to Governor Sanders, and the Waltons and other regional business elites," said Blake Perkins, author of the book "Hillbilly Hellraisers: Federal Power and Populist Defiance in the Ozarks."

"And it seems to be cutting across political party lines and takes on 'the rich' and 'big money' more directly than I've really seen in any significant way in the last 50 years or so," said Perkins.

He's talking about the idea of turning the Buffalo National River into a national park and preserve.

Runway Group of Bentonville floated the idea, saying it would bring in more visitors and more federal funding for the park. Runway was founded by Steuart and Tom Walton, grandsons of Sam Walton, the founder of Walmart Stores Inc.

A Runway representative asked Congressman Bruce Westerman about it in July 2022, and Runway paid for a poll of area residents in September.

Sixty-four percent of those surveyed said they were for the change, but some people have questioned the validity of the survey.

Meanwhile, Westerman said he's not going to propose any legislation to redesignate the Buffalo National River unless there's local support, and so far he said he's not seeing it.

Through a spokesperson, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders said she has had informal discussions with Westerman about the Buffalo National River. Sanders previously served as White House press secretary under President Donald Trump.

Her husband, Bryan Sanders, chairs the Natural State Advisory Council, which promotes tourism and growth in Arkansas' "outdoor recreation economy." Tom Walton is a member of that council.

Perkins said the opposition to the Buffalo's redesignation is much more in line with the historical "populist defiance" that reigned in the rural Arkansas Ozarks in the late 19th and first half of the 20th centuries, a defiance that targeted local and regional "moneyed interests" and "wire pullers" just as much as it did those feds far away in the nation's capital.

Perkins grew up on a cattle farm along the Strawberry River in western Lawrence and eastern Sharp counties near Smithville. He lives in Lynn in Lawrence County.

Besides being an author, Perkins also teaches history and serves as an administrator at Arkansas State University-Beebe. He said his comments are from a historical perspective and in no way reflect the opinions or positions of his employer.

A public meeting held Oct. 26 in Jasper drew a crowd of more than 1,100. Several people spoke out against the idea of turning the Buffalo National River into a national park and preserve.

Perkins said he wasn't surprised at the backlash over the idea.

"Public concerns raised at the Oct. 26 meeting in Jasper about dangers of 'development' loudly echo this long history of broken promises and raw deals," said Perkins.

"Ozarkers, notwithstanding all the popular hillbilly stereotypes, have typically clashed with government-sponsored 'improvement' ideas throughout history, in fact, because those efforts have usually benefited local business elites and well-to-do outsiders at the expense of rural folks's land and labor and their local communities," he said in an email. "Their responses have really been little or no different from other Americans who might happen to find themselves in similar circumstances.

"From a slew of state and federal agricultural reforms in the first half of the 20th century to the building of Corps of Engineers dams and economic development programs in the middle decades of the 20th century, rural Ozarkers with modest means rarely enjoyed the benefits of proponents' promises to 'improve' the region and 'raise all boats.' Instead, most of these initiatives sped up and contributed to the decline of family farming and family operated businesses and hastened the demise of hundreds of small towns and communities throughout the region -- and did so with little regard to the rural people they hurt."

Such initiatives have accelerated the migration of thousands of rural residents out of the Ozarks, said Perkins. According to one study, 431,000 people left the Ozarks in the 1950s alone. Perkins said they were replaced by more affluent migrants from American cities and suburbs.

Many of the concerns raised by speakers at the public meeting in Jasper were similar to those of local landowners a half century earlier who wanted neither a dam nor a national river, said Perkins.

The Buffalo became a national river in 1972.

The origin story of the Buffalo National River that's usually told concerns a battle between the pro-development dam proponents who lost and the Ozarks Society and other conservation groups that succeeded in "preserving" the free-flowing river and secured its place as a federally protected national river for the sake of the region and everyone's benefit, said Perkins.

But that leaves out a third group -- local residents who formed the Buffalo River Landowners' Association.

"Many of the concerns raised at the recent Jasper meeting, whether all those who voiced them are aware of the historical details or not, can trace their lineage to this third group of rural residents who opposed recreational development and encroachment posed by either a dam or a national park and the negative consequences the development would have for their families and ways of rural living" said Perkins. "In their eyes, in other words, the park proposal was mostly just another side of the same coin.

"Much like those expressing heated opposition today, they didn't see their land in the Buffalo Valley as part of an investment portfolio or a commodity to be traded or developed for new profit making ventures in the Natural State's tourism industry and state's image marketing agenda, but rather as precious and sentimental spaces they and their families claimed (sometimes for many generations), made a living on, and controlled for their own and chosen ways of rural life, as well as heirlooms they could pass down in their families to future generations.

"As they expected, the tourists who flocked to the national river brought new kinds of pressures and complications to these goals in places like Newton County, and many locals today apparently want no more stresses and hurdles that redesignating the river might bring about," wrote Perkins. "These places are their homes and communities, and they're not willing to sacrifice them for a bigger and better playground for tourists or a national image booster for the state. From what I've read so far, I think it's mostly a rational position, and not a bunch of obstinate hillbillies kicking up just because kicking up is somehow bred into the culture."

Perkins said the contention over the Buffalo National River has made for some interesting coalitions, particularly the coming together of local landowners, local environmentalists and certain corporate-oriented interests.

"For now, historical perspective would seem to suggest that local families in the Ozarks who are sincerely interested in rural living and in protecting the land and river for future generations ought to be carefully mindful of what interests are, indeed, at stake and who's pushing in what direction and for what reason," said Perkins. "They should work diligently to maintain healthy checks and balances in such coalitions, because interests with more money and resources can have a tendency to run away with the ball and suddenly leave their teammates standing in the dust. And they need to recognize real allies and keep them close, even if they look, talk, live, or otherwise do things a little differently than they do.

"And if government somehow does turn out to be the best answer for true protection in a given instance, they need to be open-minded enough to recognize lesser evils when warranted. Contrary to much popular political rhetoric, governments have no monopoly on taking freedoms and impeding rural livelihoods; sometimes they're actually necessary to keep the real foxes out of the hen house."

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