The Waltons, the first gentleman and the future of the Buffalo River
BY Debra Hale-Shelton ON December 3, 2023
It was a town hall fit for the movies. On Oct. 26, more than 1,000 people turned out for a community meeting at the school cafeteria in Jasper, an Ozarks town and home to about 500 residents. Almost 2,000 more watched the meeting online. But the big names of the night were absent: two grandsons of Walmart founder Sam Walton and the Arkansas governor’s husband, Bryan Sanders.
The topic was the Buffalo National River, where folks have been swimming, fishing and canoeing longer than anyone can remember. Outdoor enthusiasts Steuart and Tom Walton, co-founders of the investment firm Runway Group LLC, want the beloved river preserved — but also changed. For at least 1 1/2 years, they’ve been promoting the idea of asking Congress to redesignate the area as a national park and preserve.
But those plans only became public knowledge in September, when residents of five north Arkansas counties began getting phone surveys asking them about a possible change. Runway posted survey results online, saying nearly 64% of the 412 voters polled were in favor of the idea. Critics said the survey’s questions seemed designed to encourage participants to give just such a response.
The public outcry was so loud that Runway later told legislators it was backing off. Still, residents remain suspicious about the company’s goals.
“I don’t think this issue is going away,” said state Sen. Bryan King (R-Green Forest), whose district includes some of the Buffalo region. King said he fears Runway’s retreat is only a delay, especially considering the more than 6,000 acres Walton Enterprises owns in Madison County after a property buying spree.
Darryl Treat, executive director of the Greater Searcy County Chamber of Commerce, agreed. He cited recent newspaper editorials in support of the change and the fact that we’ve heard no definitive rejection of the idea from Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders or Arkansas’s congressional delegation and the governor’s office.
What exactly would the change from a “national river” to a “national park and preserve” mean for the Buffalo? It’s not fully clear.
The current “national river” designation allows folks to fish and hunt along the 150-mile river. National parks generally don’t allow hunting, but national preserves may have less stringent land use rules. Activities such as mining and drilling may be allowed on preserves.
If the Buffalo were a “national park and preserve,” the arrangement might resemble the New River Gorge national park and preserve in West Virginia. The public lands at New River Gorge include a core 7,000-acre national park and a much larger, 65,000-acre preserve.
Regardless of the name, the specific activities allowed in a particular National Park Service-administered territory are spelled out by Congress. The law authorizing the Buffalo National River specifically allows hunting and fishing and prohibits the establishment of hydropower projects.
Tina Boehle, a National Park Service spokeswoman, said mining and drilling “would currently not be allowed” in or along the Buffalo.
“Nothing in the enabling legislation of Buffalo National River explicitly mentions mining/drilling, but any activity such as that would ‘unreasonably diminish the scenic, recreational, and fish and wildlife values present in the area,’” Boehle said, referring to a phrase contained in the enabling legislation.
Asked whether mining and drilling could take place in a national park and preserve, Boehle said, “It centers on whether there is a valid pre-existing mineral right and the various laws and regulations that apply to the exercise of that right.”
If Congress were to change the Buffalo’s designation, it is possible that it could make other changes to land use restrictions.
Runway has said it does not support the idea of mining or drilling along the Buffalo. The Madison County Record recently reported that gubernatorial spokeswoman Alexa Henning said Bryan Sanders “does not support nor has he even discussed the idea of drilling or mining in the Buffalo National River.”
Even if mineral exploration is not in the cards, though, many residents fear the proposed change could overwhelm the region with tourists, infrastructure and additional federal regulation. And regardless of the details, the secretive nature of the planning has many people in north Arkansas feeling suspicious of the planners’ motives.
King, Treat and state Sen. Missy Irvin (R-Mountain View) indicated residents were frustrated that neither Runway nor Bryan Sanders sought residents’ input before the September phone poll.
“It seems elementary to never try to push a major change without first engaging with the people it affects most and maintaining transparency. A lot can be accomplished with open dialog,” Treat said. “We heard the siren song of economic prosperity 51 years ago when the Buffalo became a National River. The economic claims did not come close to being realized. The local people are very wise to not trust anyone’s promises today without seeing detailed plans which we have been told do not exist.”
King said an early discussion with residents would have been tough because of lingering unhappiness with the designation of the Buffalo National River back in 1972, which displaced some people living in the area.
Still, he said “that route, even being difficult, would have been far better than the Bryan Sanders route.” As things stand now, “Any trust factor has been blown out of the water.”
Rumors of the first gentleman’s involvement surfaced months ago, though he, his chief of staff and the governor’s spokeswoman have not responded to requests for comment from the Arkansas Times.
Sanders is a friend of the Walton brothers, a fellow cycling enthusiast and the chairman of the Natural State Advisory Council, on which Tom Walton serves.
Irvin said Sanders contacted her in May about the Buffalo.
“I told him he needed to meet directly with my constituents,” she wrote on Facebook. “At which point I reached out to … the Searcy County Chamber of Commerce director who was ready to meet. Then we never heard back from the first gentleman’s office and no meeting ever occurred.”
In an online statement, Irvin wrote, “I stand with my constituents in opposing a change in the designation of the Buffalo National River.
“It is critically important to respect the people who have forged their lives from these mountains & who continue to live with the pain of losing their homesteads, their heritage,” she added.
Runway said it approached U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman, now chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, in July 2022 about the idea of designating the river as a national park and preserve.
The Arkansas Republican has acknowledged the river discussion but said, “There has not been any legislation drafted or introduced in … Congress to change the current designation. Currently, my top priority is hearing the thoughts of my constituents on the matter and collecting as much feedback as possible.”
Westerman said he supports “the rights of private property owners, and I do not support any forced sale of privately held lands.”
Treat, who said his family settled in Searcy County before Arkansas was a state, called it “disrespectful and paternalistic behavior” to discuss making major changes to the area without consulting local leaders. “After all, we live here and we are the reason there is infrastructure here and our tax money maintains the very roads that many people use to access the Buffalo National River.”
Treat said he believes “the vast majority of people who live here, whether from founding families or recent newcomers, are against the change.”
Runway has been publicly quiet about the proposal since the Oct. 26 town hall. A flier at the meeting said Runway representatives, the governor and her husband were all invited to the meeting but did not attend, the Arkansas Advocate reported.
Shortly before the town hall, Runway released a statement indicating it was backing off. “A designation change for the Buffalo National River is not our decision to make, but we believe it’s an idea worth exploring,” the company said.