OPINION | REX NELSON: The perfect storm
December 10, 2023 at 2:20 a.m.
by Rex Nelson
Tourism is the second-largest sector of the Arkansas economy (behind agriculture), and promises to become even more important to the state during the next several decades. That's because Arkansas finds itself in a sweet spot demographically. Many of those who study population trends believe the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex will pass Chicago by the end of this decade as the nation's third-largest metropolitan area.
Some of the closest mountains (and thus best cycling, hiking, camping, floating and flyfishing opportunities) to that growing DFW population base are in Arkansas. This explosion in the number of potential visitors comes at the same time significant investments are being made in the state's outdoor recreation economy. They're coming from the likes of brothers Tom and Steuart Walton and Bass Pro Shop founder Johnny Morris.
It's the perfect storm. Folks with vision and deep pockets believe Arkansas can be for the central third of the country what Colorado is for the western third.
I wrote a series of columns about social media disinformation that has flowed largely from Newton County in recent months. The disinformation campaign began after a telephone poll to see if people would favor changing the status of the Buffalo National River to a national park-preserve. I don't know if that's the right thing to do. What I do know is that we must have a rational discussion about how to attract more resources from the National Park Service. You can't address that funding problem while villifying well-intentioned people with lies on social media.
Those who think that keeping things as they are will hold down visitor numbers are deluding themselves. The aforementioned demographic trends mean that more people are coming regardless of whether the Buffalo is a national river or national park. Additional resources--more rangers, parking lots and restrooms--will be required regardless of status.
A prolonged discussion on how to obtain more federal resources must take place. We should be thankful it has started. And we must hope that the six members of Arkansas' congressional delegation become more engaged in seeking those resources.
Newton County saw its population fall from 11,199 to 7,255 in the century between 1920 and 2020. We finally have a chance to pump funds into the county's economy without clear-cutting its woods, mining gravel from its streams and adding commercial hog farms. It will be done with environmentally sensitive development on private lands, an issue that's separate from the Buffalo debate.
Residents shouldn't worry about becoming an overcrowded Branson or Gatlinburg. Newton County is too isolated for that (as the failure of Dogpatch USA proved). The visitors who come here will be high-income cycling, hiking and rock climbing enthusiasts who want the land to stay pristine. It's in everyone's best interest to welcome these people with open arms.
Suspicion of outsiders runs deep, though, as the past few months have shown. Certain natives don't like folks who come from "off," though Native Americans might suggest a more nuanced sense of history. After all, the Osage claimed this region until 1808. From 1818-28, it was part of a Cherokee reservation.
"The area was part of Carroll County when that county was created in 1833, and white settlers quickly moved in," C.J. Miller and David Sesser write for the Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas. "A block of marble taken from a hillside near present-day Marble Falls was used to build the Washington Monument. Although Jasper appeared on maps in 1840, it wasn't incorporated until 1896.
"The Legislature created Newton County on Dec. 14, 1842, naming it after U.S. marshal Thomas Willoughby Newton. After beginning his career as a mail carrier and serving as U.S. marshal, Newton was elected to Congress after the resignation of Archibald Yell. John Belleh's house on Shop Creek was designated the county seat until the designation was given to Jasper in 1843. The county had 10 post offices by 1856. The terrain made the area unattractive to land speculators, which was encouraging to people who couldn't afford land in other parts of the state."
The 1850 census showed there were 51 slaves in the county. That number dropped to 24 (along with 3,369 white residents) by 1860.
"While neighboring Carroll, Boone, Madison and Searcy counties saw a decrease in population and livestock in the Civil War years, the isolation of Newton County resulted in an increase in both at the start of the war," Miller and Sesser write. "Neighbors and families split as loyalties were divided between the Union and Confederacy. Guerrilla warfare and skirmishes between Union and Confederate troops caused turmoil. Some residents lived in caves, while others fled.
"John Cecil, a former sheriff, led a guerrilla band, operating against Union forces. Union soldiers destroyed Confederate saltpeter works at Boxley, and Jasper was burned. Engagements included three skirmishes in April 1864 at Whiteley's Mills, Richland Creek and Limestone Valley."
After the war, people continued to live on small farms that grew corn, wheat, rye, oats, tobacco, potatoes, apples and peaches. Some cotton was grown along the Buffalo River.
"A legend was born as Beaver Jim Villines became known for his trapping ability," Miller and Sesser write. "Visitors went to Marble Falls and Tom Thumb Spring for the water's supposed healing power. The 1900s brought increased population as outsiders moved to the county. ... Lead and zinc mining increased briefly to support World War I efforts."
By the 1930 census, no Black residents lived in the county. One-room schools began consolidating after 1930. The rough terrain, lack of a railroad and bad roads prevented growth. The county's population tumbled from 10,881 in 1940 to 5,963 in 1960.
"Change came slowly," Miller and Sesser write. "Newton County resident Ted Richmond opened the first library, a private endeavor called Wilderness Library. Jay Smith opened the first airports, one at Piercetown in 1946 and the other in neighboring Boone County in 1951. Also in 1951, Newton County got its first paved road when Arkansas 7 was paved from Jasper to Harrison. The 1960s and 1970s saw residents arrive with the back-to-the-land movement.
"Santuario Arco Iris, an intentional land community founded by Maria Christian DeColores Moroles, served as a refuge for women and children, especially those of color. The popularity of the comic strip Li'l Abner created interest in an amusement park. Dogpatch USA opened in 1968 and employed residents of Boone and Newton counties, both in the construction of the park and as employees.
"When the comic strip ceased publication, free publicity disappeared, and the park's isolated location failed to draw the anticipated traffic. Financial problems brought changes in ownership. After several attempts to revive the park, it closed in 1993. At the request of residents, Dogpatch again became Marble Falls."
Morris is turning the Dogpatch site into a nature center. The federal Economic Development Administration recently awarded a $1 million grant, which will be matched by $1.9 million in state funds, to the Marble Falls Sewer Improvement District for wastewater improvements. Morris estimated in the application that there will be $40 million in private investment at the site and 166 jobs. It's the largest private investment in the county's history.
While Morris attracts those who like nature centers (and caves, since he's excavating underground pockets beneath the property), expect the Waltons to attract well-heeled mountain bikers, hikers and rock climbers. None of these people will further crowd the Buffalo. They instead will be using the county's other outdoor recreational attributes.
Given that the future of Newton County relies on tourism, it's incumbent on residents to make these visitors feel welcome.
Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.