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  • 19 Nov 2023 10:50 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Democrat Gazette

    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.

  • 15 Nov 2023 2:42 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Madison County Record

    Changes afloat for nation’s newest park and preserve

    Groups tout it as model for Buffalo River area

    At the end of 2020 in the back of a Covid Relief Bill, legislation made New River Gorge the newest national park and preserve. An investment group and a coalition are touting it as a model for exploring whether to turn land around the Buffalo National River into either a national preserve or a national park.

    Posted Wednesday, November 15, 2023 10:06 am

    By Ellen Kreth, Record Publisher

    First in a two-part series

    FAYETTEVILLE, WEST VIRGINIA — New River Gorge became the nation’s second national river in 1978, its’ designation following the country’s first national river established in 1972: Arkansas’ Buffalo National River.

    In December 2020, Congress re-designated New River Gorge National River to a national park and preserve, the only place in the country to have the combined distinction.

    A coalition and business group in Arkansas have touted it as a model for re-designating public land around the Buffalo National River as a “national park preserve.”

    In June 2022, the Runway Group, LLC, owned by brothers Steuart and Tom Walton, grandsons of Walmart founders Helen and Sam Walton and heirs to the Walmart fortune, quietly approached U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., who represents Arkansas’ 4th Congressional District and chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, with the idea of re-designation.

    The Runway Group is also a part of the Coalition for the Future of the Buffalo River National Park Preserve, who claims re-designating lands would make the “area the most active-use National Park in the country for outdoor recreation.”

    The Record traveled to Fayetteville, W. Va., and interviewed elected officials, business owners, national park service employees, service-industry workers, Realtors, and vacation property managers to find out how re-designating the New River Gorge has changed the area and their way of life.

    A town with a population of approximately 2,800, according to the U.S. Census, Fayetteville, W. Va. is the town closest to the new park and preserve. The town square and county courthouse anchor the downtown area. It has a mayor, town council, town manager, a visitors center, and convention and visitors bureau and other parks visited by people from all over the world for outdoor recreation.

    Three hotels, more than 100 vacation rentals and private and public campgrounds provide tourists a place to stay. The square and downtown boast locally owned restaurants.

    U.S. Route 19, a four-lane highway, runs through the town and leads to several larger gateway communities.

    Wendy Bayes, a Realtor and owner of a favorite local restaurant, Cathedral Cafe in downtown Fayetteville, moved to the area in 1994.

    “There’s a fine line between the ‘from here’s’ and ‘the not-from-here’s.’ And by having a local cafe and raising my kids in the area, I’ve gotten very lucky to be embraced,” Bayes said.

    The re-designation of New River Gorge to a national park and preserve changed the community. It boosted tourism by 30 to 35%, increased business by at least the same figures and prompted local and outside investors to buy and renovate properties and build hotels and apartments. Vacation rentals have increased, money is being pumped into the local economy, and private campgrounds are popping up. Locals are happy that lands they grew up on are protected from being developed by the park designation. 

    They are prideful of their area and community, touting the landscape and the kind-hearted and friendly people. They noted their distaste for a hillbilly reputation.

    Even with the positive economic indicators brought by the re-designation, people disagreed on whether the change, coupled with the increase in outdoor recreation during Covid, have been good for their community. 

    “I feel there’s a huge animosity between locals non-willing to change and a person, like myself,” who embraces growth and is an outdoor-recreation enthusiast, said Fayetteville town councilman Brian Good, who manages the city parks and some private vacation rentals.

    But they all agreed the current infrastructure is lacking, housing and lodging are in short supply, eating in their favorite restaurants can be problematic, property values and taxes have increased, parking “is horrible” and traffic is congested, and the school system continues to rank near the bottom of the state’s school districts.

    Even though the area saw tourism explode in 2020 due to people getting outside during Covid, some locals think the re-designation happened too fast and the area was unprepared.

    “We were on a 20-year plan and it got pushed to a two-year plan,” Bayes said.

    Local business owner, Andy Forron, owner of New River Bikes, advised people around the Buffalo to “brace for impact,” if the land was to be re-designated.

    Mayor Sharon Cruikshank says she’s “happy but not satisfied” and would have preferred “a little more support with infrastructure, parking, signage from the National Park Service,” but realizes it is “strapped as well.”

    Town Manager Matt Diederich doesn’t see a lot of cons, but, “Some of the locals want it to be a quiet town and it’s not a quiet town anymore.”

    Larry Nibert’s business, West Virginia Experience, a fishing and hunting guide service, has experienced an increase in calls, but “with a lot more business comes a lot more traffic, comes a lot more stress and a lot more headaches.”

    Nibert said locals are not happy with the change. “When you talk to people, ask them if they’re local or are they an implant. I think you’ll find the implants are less opposed than the locals who run businesses.”

    Lizzie Watts, who was park superintendent when New River Gorge became a national park and preserve, said some “really good things” come from re-designation but the process has to be handled well.

    Watts, who worked for the NPS for 45 years, said its’ mission is to “preserve and protect the park’s resources, our American history, our stories, our culture for the next generation. As long as we’re true to that, even making good money, it’s not a bad thing if it’s done the right way for the business side of things.

    “But for all the ranchers and farmers that live on that river, your stories are just as important. Their way of life has been farming the pastures and their way of passing that down to the next generation has to be honored,” Watts said.

    Park and Preserve 


    Talk began of turning the New River Gorge area into a national park when it was designated a national river, but those plans stalled because of hunters’ opposition.

    The prospect resurfaced around 2018.

    Re-designating the land “was driven by locals, convention bureaus, local tourism boards, people who were looking to benefit from the economic benefits of having a national park,” according to Dave Bieri, district supervisor for interpretation at New River Gorge Park and Preserve.

    Rafting companies pushed for the re-designation, according to Becky Sullivan, director of the New River Gorge Convention and Visitors Bureau. Some of the concessionaires hired lobbyists to push the change.

    They wanted to attract more visitors, spur economic activity and increase tax revenue for infrastructure, and they had the support of West Virginia’s U.S. Senators, Joe Manchin III, a Democrat, and Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican.

    Manchin and Capito “wanted to see it happen really bad, so they just kept pursuing it,” Sullivan said. “Being a national park state, they knew what it would do for the area bringing in tourism, bringing in the people, and increasing a positive awareness for the state.”

    The process took about two years.

    To become a national park, the U.S. Secretary of Interior must value the area for its national significance and stories it can tell. The New River Gorge National Park and Preserve tells the stories of the area’s geology, coal mining, railroading, logging and natural resources, Watts said.

    Manchin and Capito held town hall meetings, in which quizzical, concerned and angry citizens asked questions and voiced frustrations.

    Watts testified on Capitol Hill before the Senate Natural Resources Committee and again when that committee came to Beckley, W. Va., a larger town, 22 miles from Fayetteville.

    “They don’t do that very often, have a meeting outside of D.C.,” Watts said.

    But Manchin and Capito wanted to hear from local citizens.

    “They wanted their side of the story,” Watts said. “How did they feel? What were their concerns? Anything they wanted to ask was put on the record.”

    Conversations about the change “became heated quite often,” Watts said.

    Bayes said most attending were opposed. “Others were just like, ‘Yeah, ok, let’s go.’”

    Nibert attended the meetings, saying, “It was pretty obvious to me from the get-go that there were certain local monies who were going to benefit a lot more than small businesses like mine.”

    The prevalent concern was taking away hunting rights.

    “Property values were a concern but hunting was a huge issue because hunters didn’t want to lose the property that they’ve hunted on for years and years and years,” Sullivan said.

    Distinctions exist between a national park, a national preserve and a national reserve.

    A national park is the highest of all statuses, bringing in far more tourists, but also restricting hunting and fishing rights. “It must be found to be nationally unique and significant enough to become a national park instead of a river,” Watts said.

    A national preserve may allow hunting and fishing rights, oil and gas exploration and mineral extractions and the re-designation is easier to achieve.

    “A preserve allows the community to do what has always been done,” Watts said.

    A national reserve has even less restrictions, continuing to allow hunting, fishing, and oil and gas exploration and mineral extractions and allows the land management to be turned over to a state.

    In December 2020, a time when the area was still experiencing an influx of visitors due to Covid, a clause in the back of a Covid relief bill made some land around New River Gorge a national park and other lands a preserve, expanding the area by 3,000 acres and giving hunters rights on the preserve but not in the park.

    Buffalo National 

    River Process

    The processes used to make the Buffalo River a national one and the prospect of making it a park or preserve or both have differed from those used for New River Gorge’s re-designation.

    Before becoming a national river, land ownership around New River Gorge was varied, some lands were privately owned while others were owned by former coal-mining companies. Some owners chose to sell their property. The government did not use eminent domain or condemn any lands while establishing New River Gorge National River.

    Lands around the Buffalo River were mostly privately owned. Eminent domain was used to make some land part of the Buffalo National River. Strong feelings about the public taking of private lands remain a source of deep anger and consternation more than 50 years later.

    Legislation making the Buffalo River a national one enacted on March 1, 1972, maintained hunting and fishing rights but did not provide rights for mineral extractions or oil and gas exploration.

    Confusion surrounds what was being pursued by the Runway Group and the coalition. In some comments, the Runway Group insisted the designation would be only a preserve.  

    However, in informational “fact sheets” produced by the Runway Group, it used terminology of park and preserve interchangeably, sometimes touting the success of a national park, other times, stating it only intended to seek information on a preserve and at other times stating the “path to action is clear” for turning the land into a “national park preserve.”

    The fact sheets’ first page states, “A National Park would preserve the Buffalo River way of life.”

    Some people living around the Buffalo National River do not want the land open to gas and oil exploration or mineral extraction.

    “The First Gentleman [Bryan Sanders, chair of a state tourism council] does not support nor has he even discussed the idea of drilling or mining in the Buffalo National River,” Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ spokesperson Alexa Henning said recently in a written statement.

    The Runway Group stated through its literature that mineral extraction and oil and gas exploration would be allowed if the land were re-designated as a preserve.

    Big money often comes from mineral extractions and oil and gas explorations, Watts said.

    Unlike the public meetings about the re-designation at New River Gorge, several actions took place quietly in the 15 months between the Runway Group’s meeting with Westerman and the public learning about the re-designation possibility, including discussions with Gov. Sanders and Westerman and the Runway Group and Bryan Sanders.

    In January, Gov. Sanders signed an executive order establishing the 18-member Natural State Advisory Council in an effort to increase the state’s tourism business. She appointed Bryan Sanders as chairman and Tom Walton as a member. 

    This spring, Bryan Sanders, who spoke alongside Tom Walton, told members of the Rotary Club of Little Rock that he wanted to double the state’s outdoor recreation economy from its current $3.5 billion to $7 billion in the next 10 years. At the same time, Bryan Sanders began contacting state officials about re-designation.

    Austin Albers, a member of the Natural State Advisory Council and president and owner of Buffalo Outdoor Center, a concessionaire, reached out to Watts asking about New River Gorge Park and Preserve’s re-designation.

    In September, in an effort to gauge public opinion about the potential re-designation, the Runway Group hired Selzer & Co., who polled 412 voters in Baxter, Madison, Marion, Newton and Searcy counties about the proposal. Most of those surveyed indicated they were in favor.

    No legislation is currently being written, according to Westerman and Gov. Sanders. After local pushback during a town hall meeting, the Runway Group said they are pulling back and taking no further steps. 

    “The designation change for the Buffalo National River is not our decision to make, but we believe it’s an idea worth exploring,” a Runway Group statement said. 

    The coalition took down its website. The Runway Group declined to name coalition members.


    Change came fast to the New River Gorge area.

    “We thought we were going to have time to prepare and then all of a sudden, bam, it’s done,” Cruikshank said.

    Lack of infrastructure caught everyone off guard when federal funding did not accompany re-designation.

    “When I talk infrastructure, I’m talking about roads, the boat ramps, I’m talking the trails. I’m talking the parking,” Nibert said.

    Nibert lives within 200 yards of NPS land and near a popular hiking trail. “Any given Friday, Saturday or Sunday, that parking lot is full and people are out there parked along the road. Half the time, their vehicles are parked in the way,” he said.

    “We have more parking violations, people parking in handicapped or no-parking or loading zones only,” Cruikshank said.

    The towing business increased, Sullivan said.

    And people are not accustomed to one-lane dirt roads.

    “You definitely want people who know how to drive on a dirt road, rather than trying to go 55, especially in the summer when you’re going to have a nice dust cloud,” Cruikshank said.

    Recently, Nibert was driving clients to the river in his 1994 Chevrolet Suburban when he had to slam on the brakes. “Here comes probably 10 sports cars. I’m not talking a Camaro. I’m talking Lamborghinis, Porsches and they’re about to run us in the ditch,” he said.

    “They drive like bats out of hell. I’m talking a small percentage of folks, but it goes back to infrastructure. We were not prepared to deal with this, in my opinion.”

    Nibert said he’s seen RVs parked on boat ramps and “People sitting out there having coffee because they ain’t got enough sense to realize that’s a boat ramp.”

    People think since it’s a national park, they can do whatever they want, he said. “Well, no you can’t. There’s still those of us out there trying to make a living,” Nibert said.

    Visitors cause traffic jams by driving at a snail’s pace across the four-lane New River Gorge Bridge, an iconic bridge and one of the most photographed places in West Virginia. Locals know to travel the inside lane and prepare to suddenly stop at times.

    Though Nibert said everyone “should get out there to enjoy God’s creation,” he would like to see fewer people on his road.  

    “There’s too many doggone people going in and out of these roads and using these areas at times and it is, it’s stressful.”

    Nibert doubted when Manchin told those attending the meetings not to worry about infrastructure because Manchin was on the appropriations committee and he would just delegate more funds to the area.

    Progress is being made, but with growing pains.

    Diederich said the city is “doing a bunch of planning right now. It’s key to get the community involved in it,” to hear their thoughts and assessments of the town’s strengths and weaknesses.

    The city is studying zoning laws and looking to increase parking by building lots on city-owned property or buying private property to build parking lots.

    The park and preserve is working with the state to provide more parking.

    But, parking is a double-edged sword.

    Providing too much parking will bring in more people and the trails will become more crowded and deteriorate.

    Bayes believes infrastructure will be in place in 10 years and notes the town has made a lot of progress in just two years.

    The locals have built more trails on private property, Forron said.

    Forron said if re-designation is being proposed, the government needs to “give the park money, put money into the infrastructure, build the park first and give the towns and communities a chance. That would be the ideal situation.”

    He said the town could have benefitted from three-year notice to “get our ducks in a row and get a couple more trails built.”

    Increased Business

    No one disputes business in the area increased.

    Business was on the upswing during the end of Covid, but when the national river changed to a national park and preserve, “It went crazy,” Bayes said.

    Business at Bayes’s cafe doubled in one year and is now beginning to even out.

    Calls to Nibert’s business increased by 50 to 60%. That equated to a 40% gain for the number of trips he booked, “Because at some point you gotta be able to say, ‘No.’”

    Nibert noted it’s only been about three years.

    “You know, I’m going to say this and definitely quote me on this. I am very happy with what the New River Gorge and National Preserve designation has done for me and my family financially. As a local, it needs a heck of a lot of work.”

    While Nibert acknowledges the good economics of having a national park near his property and business, he laments losing a quiet lifestyle.

    “Money ain’t everything. Way of life and having a little bit of peace in life and not seeing 40% more traffic on your road that comes by your house, you know what I mean. There’s so much of it that I just don’t give a s**t for.”

    Forron’s business has also increased.

    “Everybody in town that works in the service industry has more money,” he said.

    But, “We’re poor. We are poor here.”

    The resort-type concessionaires offering more activities, such as horseback riding, zip lining, rock climbing, have taken business away from the smaller whitewater rafting resorts, Sullivan said. Whitewater rafting has declined a bit but rock climbing has increased, she said.

    “When I started guiding in 1991, there was probably about 20 whitewater companies,” Nibert said. “There was a handful of fishing companies — two or three or four. And what happened is the big fish started eating the little fish and you turned all these little companies into huge companies.”

    Nibert estimates one local rafting business handles 50,000 people a year. Nibert’s business has about 1,000 on a good year.

    When the land was re-designated, the state maintained control of licensing and permits for the whitewater rafting companies.

    As the Buffalo National River, anyone can float or raft New River Gorge, provided they have the experience to handle some of the whitewater currents. They do not have to have a permit.

    But Nibert and Forron expect that to change, despite the national park and preserve not having a gated main entrance and no way to monitor those using the river.

    The New River Gorge Park and Preserve has not announced any type of permitting requirement.

    Still, Nibert thinks in the future, permits will be required.

    “Because how else do you expect to pay for the improvement of infrastructure, the employing of people to take care of this infrastructure from law enforcement to trash cleanup and road building? How else do you propose to pay for this, without either charging more taxes and/or fees to users?”

    Nibert says the park and preserve could install gates and booths at access points.

    “Joe Manchin looked at several of us and said that’ll never happen, you guys will basically be grandfathered in. You’ll never have to pay fees, permits. Bulls**t. It’s coming.”

    Evans believes fees will be required if the park service expects to make money.

    “They’ll figure out how to monetize it,” Forron said.

    Good is glad to see the town have more income, despite some outfitters capitalizing on it more than others.

    “I have zero more money than I had before because of the national park. I guess I have more opportunity to go do stuff,” Good said.

    “It depends on what perspective you’re looking at it. If you own a hotel or a business, you’re going to make a lot more money,” Bieri said. “But, we also have people complain about the increase in traffic and housing, it’s hard to find, stuff like that. So again, it depends on your perspective and where you’re coming from.”

    Before the park designation, New River Gorge was an unknown place.

    “And now everybody knows about us. So you know that comes with the good and the bad,” Bieri said.

    Bayes welcomes the influx of tourists.

    “There are people from all over the place and they’re always very excited to be here and I love playing tour guide. I’ll go out and hike with people that I don’t know. It’s very small-town here,” Bayes said.

    Laurel Johnson, who works in the service industry, grew up in the area.

    “I lived on this super awesome secret river. I didn’t even know that people paid money to do the things I was doing,” she said.

    Forron hopes the people visiting will like the area and decide to move, “And be contributing members of our community.”

    No matter the local opinion, the park and preserve re-designation will continue to bring more and more people to the area.

    Good tells his “buddies … you can get right or get left. You either get a ride and get on board with this or make plan B.”

    Johnson said her grandparents, who opposed the progress, are learning to adapt.


  • 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.

  • 12 Nov 2023 9:50 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Democrat Gazette

    OPINION | ARKANSAS SPORTSMAN: Buffalo River boat rentals will get more expensive

    As reported Friday in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the National Park Service has proposed prohibiting Buffalo River outfitters from shuttling customer vehicles to their takeout points. Instead, outfitters will be required to transport customers back to their points of origin.

    The new policy, if adopted, will take effect in 2026. However, outfitters will probably increase canoe rental fees in 2024 to raise capital to purchase new buses to handle larger numbers of passengers. Most will probably implement the new policy ahead of schedule.

    Currently, outfitters use a mishmash of tactics to transport canoeists and kayakers to and from the river. Wild Bill's Canoe Rental in Yellville offers two popular floats from Spring Creek Recreation Area to the Arkansas 14 bridge, and a longer float from Spring Creek to Rush. In 2023, similar to the proposed policy, customers left their vehicles at the Highway 14 Access and met the outfitter at scheduled times at either takeout point. The outfitter shuttled large groups back to Arkansas 14 in a small bus, and shuttled individuals in a van or pickup truck.

    Crockett's Canoe Rental at Harriet operates primarily between Maumee and Spring Creek. They take large groups to the launch point in buses or trucks and shuttled individual vehicles to takeout points, as does Silver Hill Canoe Rental at Silver Hill.

    Outfitters on the middle part of the river often have canoes waiting at access points like Woolum, Baker Ford or Tyler Bend. Customers drive their own vehicles to the put-ins, and the outfitters shuttle their vehicles to the takeouts at Tyler Bend Recreation Area, Grinder's Ferry (U.S. 65), or Gilbert.

    Outfitters on the upper river typically offer day floats from Steel Creek to Kyle's Landing, and overnight floats from Steel Creek to Pruitt.

    Supposedly, the new policy intends to relieve vehicle congestion and traffic at small access areas like Kyles, Rush, Grinder's Ferry and Gilbert, which don't have much parking capacity. It will consolidate vehicle congestion at the river's main launch areas at Steel Creek, Tyler Bend, Pruitt and Arkansas 14.

    To transport a greater number of people in a more orderly fashion, outfitters say they will have to buy bigger buses, and also buses with four-wheel drive.

    The roads to Kyle's Landing and Baker Ford are steep and narrow. A vehicle traversing the roads often will need new brake pads frequently, but we haven't seen road conditions that would require four-wheel drive.

    However, those roads are too narrow in places to accommodate two-way traffic for regular passenger vehicles. If you meet somebody coming the other way, one vehicle often must pull to the side. It would be very difficult for buses to traverse that road without a lot of coordination.

    On the other hand, discontinuing vehicle shuttles will ease staffing pressure on outfitters because they won't have to dispatch employees to shuttle customer vehicles.

    Currently, outfitters charges about $40 to shuttle customer vehicles. Since outfitters will assume the entire cost of the effort and assets to comply with the policy, they will probably transfer the cost of shuttling to the cost of renting a boat.

    Outfitters will have to buy additional vans or buses, and that will translate directly to additional maintenance costs. Multiple daily trips on rutted, potholed mountain roads damages vehicles. Shuttling more people will require more road exposure, which will require more maintenance.

    Ultimately, the cost of implementing new policy will regulate small outfitters out of business.

    Influential people in the state's tourism industry want to transform the Buffalo National River into a model similar to the New River Gorge National Park and Preserve in West Virginia. That will change a lot of things, many of which are beyond the scope of this column.

    In the short term, most visitors will notice only a higher cost to rent a boat.

  • 10 Nov 2023 11:02 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Democrat Gazette

    Buffalo shuttling to change in 2026

    Operators can’t move clients’ cars


    Beginning in 2026, canoe and kayak concessioners along the Buffalo National River will no longer be allowed to shuttle the private vehicles of park visitors to locations up or down river, according to a prospectus released Monday by the National Park Service.

    Instead, customers should be transported in buses or vans owned, leased or rented by the concessioners, according to the prospectus.

    The change is an effort to relieve vehicle congestion at river access points, where parking is limited.

    But it will be “almost impossible” to get buses down the narrow, curving gravel road leading to Kyle’s Landing Campground to pick up floaters, said Austin Albers, president/owner of Buffalo Outdoor Center in Ponca.

    Since the 1960s, outfitters on the upper Buffalo River have shuttled customer vehicles to Kyle’s Landing, a popular take-out spot for people who begin their float at Ponca or Steel Creek Campground.

    “This section [from Ponca to Kyle’s Landing] is 10.7-miles long and takes around 4 to 6 hours to complete, depending upon the individual, the river level and the amount of time you linger along the way,” according to the Buffalo Outdoor Center’s website. “It features the scenic icons of the upper Buffalo River — majestic Big Bluff and Hemmed-In Hollow, both the tallest of their kind (bluff face and waterfall, respectively) between the Rockies and the Appalachians.” The reason outfitters on the upper Buffalo haven’t been using buses — which are used on the middle and lower sections of the river — is that the 2.6-mile stretch of Newton County Road 56 that leads from Arkansas 74 to Kyle’s Landing is difficult to traverse, Albers said.

    “They have signs up on Kyle’s road that say ‘recommended for four-wheel drive, high-clearance vehicles only,’” he said. “How many four-wheel drive buses do you know of? Or vans?” According to a “business opportunity” document that’s part of the prospectus packet, “Parking visitors’ vehicles at the Concessioner’s place of business, transporting (shuttling) people in Concession-owned vans and buses to the put-in location, and picking up people at the take-out location greatly relieves congestion issues while mitigating park resource damage.” And a draft operating plan in the packet states: “Concessioners must shuttle their clients and their rental vessels only in concession-owned or leased/rented vehicles after December 31, 2025. They may not shuttle private vehicles for either their clients or other park visitors after December 31, 2025.” It will be particularly difficult when a bus meets another vehicle on the road to Kyle’s Landing, said Albers.

    “That’s why everybody in the upper district has always operated the way we have, in essence valeting people’s vehicles from Point A to Point B, because you can get smaller vehicles in and out versus the buses,” he said. “It’s almost impossible.” The concessioners in the upper Buffalo region who have operated buses primarily did so from the Pruitt to Hasty section, where it’s easier to get buses in and out, Albers said.

    He said the shuttling of private vehicles is also a more “curated experience.” “When you get off the river, especially in early spring, and you’re cold and you’re wet, the last thing you want to do is wait for a bus to get there and then the bus getting out of there,” said Albers. “It’s going to take a lot longer.” Floaters arriving at Kyle’s Landing usually have a dry change of clothes in the car, Albers said. And from there, they can drive home without heading back up river in a bus or van to get to their vehicle.

    “In this upper district, where it’s an early springtime [float], you’ve got colder temperatures,” said Albers. “People get wet, they’re cold, they’re ready to put dry clothes on and get in their warm vehicle and leave. People become accustomed to that, to having their stuff there when they get there. Now, it’s going to add a whole ‘nuther hour on the end of their trip just to get back to their vehicles.” Albers said he doesn’t know yet if the outfitters have any options to get the National Park Service to change this rule before it’s implemented in 2026.

    Albers said the park needs more federal funding to help with infrastructure such as roads, parking lots and access to restrooms.

    “This is their way of doing it, to constrain the concessioners more,” he said.

    Aaron Jones, the river manager at Lost Valley Canoe & Lodging in Ponca, said the change could cost his family’s business about $250,000 if they have to buy four new vans.

    He found a used Ford Transit van that can seat 15 passengers for $20,000. But it has 100,000 miles on it.

    “This is definitely going to change our operating plan,” he said.

    Running a shuttle round trip to Kyle’s Landing takes at least 45 minutes, but customers may have to wait until several boaters arrive at the pick-up location before being hauled the 12 miles back to Ponca, Jones said. They’ll also have a vehicle there to pick up rented canoes and kayaks.

    Some boaters take multi-day trips from the upper to the lower Buffalo. In that case, the shuttle can take four hours round trip, he said.

    Also, noted Jones, bus drivers would have to have a commercial driver’s license.

    Both Jones and Albers said they don’t have sufficient parking at their businesses for all the customers who have been leaving vehicles at Kyle’s Landing to be picked up after a float.

    Outfitters say the new rule could cause more parking problems if couples or groups who bring their own water vessels decide to drive two vehicles so they can shuttle themselves. That would take up two parking spaces in the park.

    The park service intends to award 12 concession contracts to provide canoe/kayak and shuttle services for a term of 10 years beginning Jan. 1, 2025, according to the prospectus.

    There are currently 12 concession contracts to provide canoe and shuttle services at the Buffalo National River.

    The existing contracts, started on Jan. 1, 2013, expired on Dec. 31, 2022, and will be extended through Dec. 31, 2024.

    The Buffalo National River had 1.3 million visitors in 2022, according to the park service.

    Albers is a member of the Natural State Advisory Council, which was established by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders in January to promote tourism and outdoor recreation in Arkansas.

  • 08 Nov 2023 2:18 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Madison County Record

    Resolution opposing re-designation sails through

    Newton County preps to protect land rights

    Posted Wednesday, November 8, 2023 9:45 am

    By Ellen Kreth, For The Record

    Newton County Quorum Court members passed a resolution at their Nov. 6 meeting opposing “the changing of the name designation or expansion of the Buffalo National River, and any further negative impact on the agricultural lands or infringement on private ownership on the Buffalo National River Watershed.”

    The vote was unanimous with approximately 25 citizens in attendance.

    Justice of the Peace Jamie Mefford said the court wanted to show its opposition to any name change, park expansion, private land rights restrictions and any agricultural restrictions.

    Mefford said little discussion by court members took place before the vote because, “We’re all in agreement that we just don’t want the changes.”

    The resolution follows recent discussions of making public lands around the Buffalo National River into a national park preserve.

    In July 2022, the Runway Group approached U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., who represents Arkansas’ 4th Congressional District and chairs the Natural Resources Committee, with the idea re-designating the land.

    The Buffalo National River became America’s first national river in 1972. At that time, the federal government used eminent domain on some landowners.

    The Runway Group is owned by Steuart and Tom Walton, grandsons of Walmart founders Helen and Sam Walton.

    Proponents of the idea emphasize re-designating federal land around the river will bring more tourism, jobs, and money, which could be used to improve the park’s infrastructure, as well as enhance economic benefits and growth to Newton and Searcy counties and their gateway communities.

    In September, in an effort to gauge public opinion, the Runway Group hired Selzer & Co., who polled 412 voters in Baxter, Madison, Marion, Newton and Searcy counties about a change and produced a flyer with the results.

    However, locals say they are opposed to the change. Mefford said no constituents have approached him in support of the idea.

    “I couldn’t understand why they didn’t bring it to the local cities, and the local county governments before they ever even started anything with it,” Mefford said.

    The Record broke the story on Oct. 4, making the public aware of discussions about re-designating lands.

    Recently, Runway Group’s Vice President of Corporate and Community Affairs Krista Cupp said the group is not pressing forward with a re-designation. There are “no next steps,” she said.

    Cupp said when the group approached Westerman, it didn’t present a proposal but asked if the re-designation was worth exploring.     

    Westerman has stated that no plans exist now to draft legislation turning the lands into a preserve.

    Mefford realizes the county’s resolution holds no weight if a federal law were passed.

    “We have no power over the federal government,” he said.

    Mefford said even though the Runway Group has said it is no longer pursuing the option, “I think the next time we’ll hear about it, it’ll be up in Congress.

    “You know, the people that are pushing this are very powerful and they have the money and they have the lobbyists.”

    Mefford, who is serving his third two-year term, said people in his district and in Newton County remain on edge based upon recent large land purchases in the area.

    Walton Enterprises, owned by the Walton family, owns more than 6,000 acres in Kingston in Madison County and has purchased three historic buildings on the Kingston Square they plan to renovate.

    Unconfirmed reports indicate the Runway Group has made plans to purchase Horseshoe Canyon, a large dude ranch near Jasper in Newton County.

    In 2020, Bass Pro Shop Founder Johnny Morris bought Dogpatch U.S.A., a theme park in Newton County that opened in 1968 but was shuttered in 1993.

    Mefford said the recent land purchases have the court members considering ordinances that were passed in approximately 1998 dealing with county landowners rights.

    “And we’re in the process of dragging that out and getting the dust off of it.”

    Currently, the county has no zoning ordinances and requires no building permits.

    Even though zoning requirements were brought up at Monday’s meeting, Mefford said, “We know what’s coming. It’s everywhere. But we don’t want to infringe on anybody’s property rights.

    “Things have been simple, ’til now,” he said.

    But “big growth” is coming and he’s worried about how the county will pay for it.

    The county is at least “62 percent government owned,” but with very little tax base, receiving payments in lieu of taxes [PILT], Mefford said. PILT payments are “federal payments that help local governments offset losses in property taxes due to the existence of nontaxable Federal lands within their boundaries,” according to the U.S. Department of Interior.

    “So we’re sitting here with 1,500 miles of dirt roads in this county. And we’ve got a $1.3 million budget, $1.4, a little more than that with FEMA, but it takes $800,000 to pay our employees in the road department and that don’t leave a lot,” Mefford said.

  • 07 Nov 2023 11:14 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    southlands by Boyce Upholt

    Populism & Southern Lands Pt. 1: From Ozarks to Oz

    "Rich men not from here are pushing to change a way of life"

    I’ve been thinking a lot about public lands lately, in part because the federal government has launched an initiative to “conserve” at least 30% of the country by 2030. Over the next two weeks, I’ll look at two controversies over public lands and conservation in the South. Up first: the Buffalo River.

    NOV 7, 2023  

    For the people along the Buffalo River, in northwestern Arkansas, it was a lose-lose.

    The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers wanted to build a dam that would flood their land. A bunch of nature lovers wanted to stop the dam by turning the river into one long park—what one local called a “130-mile-long zoo.”

    The nature-lovers won, which is why in 1972 the Buffalo became the country’s first “national river,” a designation that protects the scenic character of this river. The federal government bought up the surrounding property, a fact that still stings. When I visited in 2021, one resident told me that local house fires are sometimes blamed on arson—the result of a still-simmering schism between those who would invite in tourists and those who would rather keep their old way of life intact.

    Now, a half-century later, the Walton family is backing an effort to bring more attention to the Buffalo River—which has set off a new wave of anger.

    A reader emailed me last week to tell me that more than a thousand people had turned up for a recent public meeting in the town of Jasper, Ark. That’s more than twice the town’s population.

    The Buffalo winds through the Arkansas Ozarks, through proudly rural communities. The first time I visited, I didn’t realize that many of the surrounding counties are dry. My friends and I had to track down a “bootlegger” who sold cases of beer out of a backyard shed. You can go a bit north and get lost in the neon glitz of Branson, Missouri, but along the Buffalo the amenities are minimal. I fell in love with the region.

    By the time I began to visit, the decision to turn the Buffalo River into a national river had been accepted as the “right course,” at least according to the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. (As one old-timer told the paper in 2012, “They took our land away, but it’s still there, and it’s not covered up by water.”) Back in September, locals began to receive phone calls from a research firm asking questions about whether they’d like to take the protections even further. The idea was to bump up the Buffalo from a “national river” to a “national park and preserve.”

    A national park is a bigger deal than a national river.1 A mysterious group konwn as the “Coalition for the Buffalo River National Park Preserve” had sponsored the survey; a representative later said the hope is that a redesignation could “generate more funding” that can help with the upkeep of infrastructure along the river. The upgrade would require an act of Congress, and according to a flyer printed by the coalition (and cited by the Madison County Record, which has lifted its paywall on its excellent coverage of this issue), two-thirds of survey recipients would want their representatives to vote for such a bill.

    The crowd in Jasper, though, saw things differently.

    Our country’s national parks were, according to Wallace Stegner, “America’s best idea”—“absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”

    I’m generally sympathetic to this idea, though, as always, if you zoom in close, you’ll find some blemishes. I’ll skip over the fact that establishing many parks required a process of ethnic cleansing, since I imagine that’s an idea familiar to most of my readers. But consider how the country’s first national park, at Yellowstone, came to be: a railroad company realized it stood to profit mightily if it could convince the federal government to establish a tourist park. For all the beauty of the national parks, this great American idea doubled as a scheme to help turn wealthy men even wealthier.

    Fifty years after Yellowstone was founded, the federal government officially ended its program of lands sales. Nearly half the U.S. West remains public land. That sparked simmering resentment—a long effort to turn the vast expanses of public land into state or private property. (One prominent recent manifestation is the Bundy family.) But the self-dubbed “Sagebrush Rebellion” never gained much foothold in the South, for an obvious reason: by the late nineteenth century, almost all of the South had been privatized. The federal government owns 10% or less of most Southern states.

    That created its own complications over public land, as the story of the Buffalo National River shows: parkland had to be wrested back from private owners, sometimes unwilling owners. What remains most salient here are issues of class; the fear in the Ozarks now is that the Yellowstone history is being repeated. At the meeting in Jasper—which was organized by various locals who were worried that the survey’s results were misleading—one resident declared that “rich men not from here are pushing to change a way of life.”

    The Coalition for the Buffalo River National Park Preserve was eventually revealed to include one key member: a company called Runway LLC, which was launched by two of the grandsons of Walmart founder Sam Walton. Dogged reporting in the Recordrevealed that Runway’s leadership had been discussing the redesignation of the Buffalo River with state officials since at least the summer of 2022—long before any public discussion was held on the local level. 

    The Record also noted that another Walton-affiliated LLC has bought thousands of contiguous acres of land just west of the Buffalo, as well as three historic buildings on a town square, which are now undergoing renovation. The Waltons are working to rebrand the Ozarks as “Oz”—as an exciting, liveable place for young professionals. (The Walton family is not alone: Johnny Morris, the owner of Bass Pro Shops, has already opened a private “nature park” near the Buffalo River.) It’s easy enough to connect the dots, then: “The proposed project appears to be primarily a marketing tool to increase economic development of the surrounding area,” as the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance has put it

    One point of contention is the murky label “national park and preserve.” National parks and national preserves are different categories, as the latter designation allows certain “consumptive uses” on the land, including hunting and fishing. That seems to be key to the Buffalo River proposal, given that its advocates are calling the river a potential sportsman’s paradise.2 The “park and preserve” concept would include various parcels, with the “preserve” land open to hunting, while the “park” land would be devoted to nonconsumptive recreation.

    These conflicting labels, though, mean that what sounds like increased protection is not necessarily. Preserve is a looser category. Sometimes the management of national preserves is transferred to state or local authorities, who may not be as rigorous as the federal government in protecting the land.3

    In the wake of the outrage, the Runway Group has “retracted” its proposal, according to according to the Record. Though they’ve also said there’s nothing to retract since they just wanted to start a conversation. But having a conversation seems to be another matter: after initially expressing their intention to attend, representatives from Runway decided not to join the meeting in Jasper.

    I get the sense that some of the opponents of the new proposal don’t necessarily want more promotion—or more tourists. During coronavirus lockdowns, the Buffalo was mobbed by crowds, and it’s not clear that a new national park and preserve would receive enough funding to keep up with the increased tourism it might attract. The Buffalo River and the surrounding parkland may technically belong to every American, at this point, but if every American came to visit, that would not be great for the river itself.

    Here we get to an essential but little-asked question when it comes to “protecting” and “conserving” nature: what are we trying to achieve? Is this for the sake of nature? Or is it so that we—the rest of the country—have a store of lands where we can go out and see beauty? Some along the Buffalo believe this land will be best protected by being left alone, in relative obscurity. It doesn’t need to be everyone’s river, because it’s theirs.

    The debate over public land is not only a debate over the future of nature—but also over how society as a whole should relate to that nature. Next week, in part two of this series, we’ll turn our attention to Florida, where the pressures of capitalism have forged unusual alliances between people who typically fight over conservation.

    southlands is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.


  • 05 Nov 2023 11:15 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Democrat Gazette


    OPINION | REX NELSON: Loving it to death

    by Rex Nelson | Today at 4:10 a.m.

    History is repeating itself in the Arkansas Ozarks.

    When a brave band of environmentalists began the fight decades ago to have the Buffalo River designated as the nation’s first national river, their strongest opposition came from area residents. Now that a new group is attempting to have the river upgraded to national park status, complaints are again being heard.

    The difference in this era of social media is that misinformation spreads like wildfire, people become upset, and politicians feel the need to demagogue an issue rather than simply explain the facts.

    “The continual threat of a dam on the Buffalo caught the attention of Arkansas conservation groups and those who had begun using the river for recreation,” Suzie Rogers writes for the Central Arkansas Library System’s Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “In the early 1960s, advocates for dams and advocates for a free-flowing stream formed opposing organizations. The pro-dam Buffalo River Improvement Association, established by James Tudor of Marshall, and the anti-dam Ozark Society, which included environmentalist Neil Compton, emerged as the leading players in the drama.

    “The dam proponents worked with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Rep. James Trimble. The free-flowing stream advocates made overtures to the U.S. Department of the Interior. In 1961, a National Park Service planning team undertook a site survey of the Buffalo River area. The team was favorably impressed and recommended establishment of a park on the Buffalo River to be called a national river.” Years of intense political and public relations battles followed.

    “A decade of political maneuverings, speeches and media attention—including a canoe trip on the Buffalo by Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas—came to a head in December 1965 when Gov. Orval Faubus wrote the Corps that he could not support the idea of a dam on the Buffalo,” Rogers writes. “The Corps withdrew its proposal. In 1966, John Paul Hammerschmidt of Harrison defeated Trimble and indicated that he would support the concept of creating a park along the river.

    “Hammerschmidt and Sens. J. William Fulbright and John L. McClellan introduced the first Buffalo National River park legislation in 1967. The final park legislation was introduced in 1971, and hearings were held in late 1971. In February 1972, Congress voted to establish the nation’s first national river.” President Richard Nixon signed legislation to put the river under the protection of the National Park Service on March 1, 1972, a century after the establishment of Yellowstone, the first national park.

    The law states: “That for the purposes of conserving and interpreting an area containing unique scenic and scientific features, and preserving as a free-flowing stream an important segment of the Buffalo River in Arkansas for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations, the Secretary of the Interior … may establish and administer the Buffalo National River.” The area overseen by NPS encompasses 135 miles of the 150-mile-long river. According to the law, total acreage can’t exceed 95,730 acres. Hunting and fishing are allowed as traditional uses. Many residents were given an option to use their land for up to 25 years. Still, eminent domain proceedings were necessary, and feelings were hurt.

    There has always been a deep distrust of government in the hills of Newton, Searcy, Marion, Madison and Baxter counties. That distrust erupted again this fall with word that a coalition is floating the idea of making the Buffalo National River a national park preserve. A regular national park restricts hunting and other activities. A national park preserve would protect hunting, fishing and trapping rights.

    The group is using as a model New River Gorge National Park and Preserve in West Virginia. It allows hunting and fishing and doesn’t require fees or permits.

    New River Gorge National River was established in 1978. It was redesignated in 2021 as New River Gorge National Park and Preserve. It encompasses more than 70,000 acres along 53 miles of the New River. The river, thought to be among the oldest rivers in the world, carved the deepest and longest river gorge in the Appalachian Mountains.

    Why the status change? Because national park status will make the Buffalo a higher priority inside the National Park Service. And adding “preserve” prohibits additional restrictions and fees. Rumors about use of eminent domain and stringent restrictions are simply false. Elected officials need to have the guts to tell their constituents that the rumors have no basis in fact.

    “We’re loving the Buffalo to death,” says Mike Mills, the Arkansas outdoors icon who knows more about the river than anyone alive. Mills says more federal funding is needed for parking at trailheads and for public restrooms. People now park along roads, often blocking traffic. They also use the woods as their restroom. Most of the current infrastructure dates back to the late 1970s.

    Austin Albers, president and owner of Buffalo Outdoor Center, told The Madison County Record: “You’re looking at positive economic impact, prolonging and protecting the national park, the national river, protecting what brings people here—hunting, fishing, floating, all of that. None of that changes. And that’s why it’s a national park preserve and not just a national park.

    “So if we can transition to a national park preserve versus a national river …. and get more infrastructure put into place, I think it’s a win for everybody.” Rumors began to spread when the coalition hired Selzer & Co. to poll 412 voters in Baxter, Madison, Marion, Newton and Searcy counties. The survey was conducted Sept. 11-13. It found that: m 95 percent were in favor of no private land being taken to create a national park preserve.

    m 93 percent were in favor of rules protecting the river from pollution and industrial uses.

    m 89 percent opposed any new taxes to support the national park preserve.

    m 86 percent were in favor of grandfathering local businesses into any new commercial business rules.

    m 83 percent were in favor of hunting regulations staying the same.

    m 64 percent said they would want their member of Congress to vote for designation of the river as a national park preserve.

    Nearly a fifth of Americans are within 500 miles of the Buffalo National River. In that area, there are only three national parks: Hot Springs, Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, and Gateway Arch in Missouri. None of those are recreation-focused areas.

    “More visitors are coming,” a flyer from the coalition states. “Our natural lands must be actively preserved—or be lost. Private investments are certainly expected to increase interest and visitors. . . . In this rural part of the country, nature is treasured and many make their living from an economy that depends on tourism. Requiring only a change in the lands’s designation, more visitors will bring more jobs and more economic benefits.” In addition to their distrust of government, those who live in these hills distrust outsiders. They’re concerned by the large amounts of land being bought by entities associated with brothers Tom and Steuart Walton of Bentonville. I know the Walton brothers, and I want to make one thing clear: Their motives are pure. They realize that our state’s ability to attract and keep talented people in the decades ahead will rest in part on our protecting and enhancing outdoor recreational attributes.

    The Walton brothers could live anywhere in the world and do anything they want. But their focus these days is on enhancing quality of life in Arkansas. Other states should be so lucky. Their involvement in the Coalition for Buffalo River National Park Preserve doesn’t worry me. It gives me hope that this effort will succeed.

    —––––– –––––—

    Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

  • 04 Nov 2023 11:17 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Democrat Gazette

    OPINION | MIKE MASTERSON: Leave Buffalo as is

    by Mike Masterson | November 4, 2023 

    An Arkansas LLC's exploratory idea to change the designation of our half-century-old Buffalo National River into a national park and preserve to promote "the best path forward to conserve our national treasure" drew an unfavorable earful from about 1,000 Newton County residents and others at a town-hall meeting in Jasper last week.

    Reporters for the Harrison Daily Times and other media outlets squeezed into the wall-to-wall crowd at the school cafeteria to document the responses of those who would be directly affected by the concept.

    A Newton County heritage preservation group called the Remnants Project had invited the Runway Group, which had been heading conversations and conducting a poll about the economic growth potential of the Buffalo National River region and making into a national park, the Times reported in an in-depth account. Representatives of Runway chose not to attend the Jasper gathering, which many found surprising.

    Founded by Tom and Steuart Walton, Runway is a holding company that invests in real estate and businesses in northwest Arkansas including outdoor initiatives, but hasn't made any formal statement except to say it is in early-stage conversations around the Buffalo's designation and are eager to listen and collaborate with the community.

    Of the 10 speakers, some like Gordon Watkins of Parthenon with the Buffalo Watershed Alliance (and friend from the Buffalo River hog factory struggles a few years back) said that due to the influx of tourists to the river and large surrounding land acquisitions, the people who live in Newton County and the immediate region need a seat at the table when it comes to proposing changes so they're not taken by surprise.

    He said his organization would be opposed to acquisition of an unwilling seller's property, or any plan that failed to ensure sustainable preservation of the water quality.

    The level of government mistrust in the national park idea was apparent in the room in a community that has grown up enjoying, appreciating and making a living from the river.

    Billy Bell of Newton County, who grew up on the Buffalo and its tributaries, expressed some of those feelings, the paper wrote. "Playing on the popularity of a recent song, he said, 'Rich Men Not From Here' are pushing to change residents' way of life. He said he sees a bait and switch operation playing on the people's emotions and as a scare tactic. The river is public land and it and its public uses are already adequately protected, he said. Re-designation is not needed and we do not need other people to decide how to change 'our' Buffalo River. He said proponents of re-designation are using the old battle cry, 'Save the Buffalo River,' to spin public opinion and exploit the Buffalo National River for their own personal gain."

    Wendy Finn of Fayetteville reviewed survey results and said they were confusing and lacked sufficient facts for a respondent to give an informed answer, and the data can possibly be skewed.

    Finn also pointed out that Runway concluded 64 percent of those surveyed were in favor of changing the river to a national park or preserve. However, surveyors failed to explain what the terms in the survey meant, which is critical to understand the implications and conclusions drawn from it.

    State Sen. Bryan King of Green Forest, whose district includes portions of the Buffalo, offered thoughts on those results and said he felt obligated to make certain his constituents understood what was happening with the river. "This train had been rolling down the track. I didn't want the people I represent to be railroaded," he said.

    Referring to the survey. King said only those living in the watershed should have been polled; his investigation of the survey showed that though 14 percent of the watershed is in Baxter County, 47 percent of the respondents lived there.

    As someone born 20 minutes from the Buffalo, I spent many a childhood summer's day wading, fishing, swimming and enjoying its magnificence. Little wonder it attracts scores of thousands from around the country that annually leave behind millions of dollars in these hills. And with a late uncle who in 1972 was a key political figure in designating our Buffalo as the country's first national river, I naturally have an interest in this idea to commercialize the natural beauty beyond what exists.

    True, it would bring additional millions of people to the region to enjoy what is already a crowded stream during seasonal months. Bumper-to-bumper canoes floating through groups of swimmers and fishermen isn't an attractive way to attract tourism.

    True, it would bring in more money as a tradeoff for what we have. True, it would bring additional commercial ventures with thousands more T-shirts, knick-knacks, peanut brittle and canoe rentals. And I really can't fault anyone for floating the idea of expanding and enlarging the gift God has given us to preserve and protect.

    But I've never considered the Buffalo a commercial draw to lucrative traffic from many more visitors to further overcrowd the sanctuary. That strikes me as neither necessary nor wise.

    While I do appreciate the way this idea has been approached--asking the people for their thoughts before simply barging ahead behind the scenes then announcing a plan as a done deal--I believe the "best path forward" is leaving well enough alone in our Buffalo's busy, pristine and well-protected waters.

    Now go out into the world and treat everyone you meet exactly like you want them to treat you.

    Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at

  • 01 Nov 2023 2:04 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Newton County Times

    Runway no show; people say, no way

    Posted Wednesday, November 1, 2023 8:00 am

    Staff Report

    JASPER — A town hall meeting to hear from proponents of further conserving the Buffalo National River area was held as scheduled Thursday night, Oct. 26, at the Jasper School cafeteria in Jasper. But the main invitees did not attend. However, more than an estimated 1,000 people did show up with several publicly voicing opposition to a group's proposal to have the national river re-designated either a national park or preserve.
    Misty Langdon, creator of the Remnants Project, a nonprofit heritage preservation group in Newton County, called for the meeting with the Runway Group LLC, which was leading conversations and had conducted a poll among some residents about their feelings and beliefs about economic growth of the Buffalo National River region.
    Runway is a holding company that invests in real estate, outdoor initiatives, hospitality, and businesses in Northwest Arkansas. Its founders are brothers Tom and Steuart Walton.
    The company has not made any formal, or public statements, other than what it has published on its website and have been circulated over social media. It has also established, the Coalition for the Future of the Buffalo River National Park Preserve. “We are participating in early stage conversations around the Buffalo River designation. We are eager to listen and collaborate with the community to support the best path forward to conserve our national treasure here in Arkansas.”
    Langdon said she hoped the town hall event would give clarity to the proponents’ proposals, provide local residents with first-hand information and give them the opportunity to ask questions, she said, but was disappointed when Runway representatives contacted her Thursday morning and told her they would not attend.
    According to a statement appearing on the organization's website, "We think the town hall is a great idea and the first step to bringing this idea to the table. We’ve been informed of the upcoming town hall and shared with the organizer that we looked forward to hearing how the conversation unfolded. For all voices to be heard without distractions, Runway will not be formally attending."
    School officials said about 850 chairs were set up in the cafeteria. All were taken leaving standing room only. The overflow of people went out into the student union area and the adjoining hallway.
    The Newton County Library was also broadcasting the event on Zoom. Library director Kenya Windel said all 500 Zoom reservations were filled. The meeting, which lasted about an hour and 40 minutes, was also aired live on the library's Facebook page where she said it would be archived.
    Moderator for the evening was Jasper Mayor Michael Thomas. He said written questions would be accepted from the audience at the end of the presentation from a panel of speakers. Each question would be forwarded to the proper group or individual who could possibly answer it. Or, individuals could pose their question on Zoom after the meeting.
    The panel consisted of 10 speakers.
    Jackie Alexander representing Back Country Horsemen of Arkansas and America was the first presenter. The non-profit group's mission is the common sense use and enjoyment of horses in the back country and the wilderness, she said. It works to ensure public lands remain open to recreational stock use. She gave an accounting of the number of volunteers and the hours of service contributed to maintaining horse trails along the river. She said she was not attending the meeting to state a position on behalf of the organization, but to learn. None of the members' interests have been discussed or mentioned as being accommodated with whatever plan is coming to the river, Alexander said, adding the contributions of the organization have not been recognized, either. "We want to be included and be part of the conversation going forward."
    Wendy Finn, of Fayetteville, agreed. “We need to be a part of these decisions so they don't make decisions about our lives without us.”
    Finn reviewed some of the results of the survey Runway used to come to its conclusions.
    The survey can be confusing where there is a lack of information to make an informed decision as a respondent to the survey and where the data can possibly be skewed, she said.
    The conclusion the Runway Group drew from the survey was 64% of those surveyed were in favor of designating the Buffalo River a national park and preserve. But those surveyors did not define what those terms meant for the respondents and that is crucial to understand the implications and the conclusions that could be drawn from the survey, Finn pointed out.
    The national river designation has been in effect since 1972. It preserves free flowing streams and prohibits dams or alterations of the waterway. It protects it from industrial uses, but allows hiking, canoeing and hunting.

    A national park restricts hunting, mining, fishing and oil extraction. A preserve does allow hunting, fishing, and may allow extraction of minerals and fuels. Management may be transferred to local or state authorities.
    Also, contrary to Runway's justifications, there would be no change to how the park is funded based on its designation. That is according to a National Park Service public affairs specialist, Finn related.
    The survey only sampled a small number of people, 412 in five counties. The greatest number, 47%, of those surveyed were from Baxter County. Only 7% of people surveyed, nine, were from Newton County.
    Adding to the contrasting data was visitation data. Langdon, a small business owner, said data from the National Park Service shows that from 2020-2022 the number of recreation visits increased by 6.5% compared to the prior three years 2017-2019. Runway's projections call for a 60% increase in tourism. That would change the landscape, Langdon said. "I want growth at a sustainable rate, not at the cost of what makes this place our home."
    Jack Stewart, representing the Arkansas Audubon Society, a nonprofit, 100% volunteer-operated organization devoted to the study, conservation and enjoyment of birds, is affiliated with the nation-wide organization that has a far reach in contacting legislators. If it is shown the plan would harm the habitat, the Audubon Society will stand with you, he pledged.
    But he added some advice, too. "Part of the problem is we are not consulted at the start and are never given complete information on what these folks have in mind. Situations like this will keep happening. Change is unstoppable. But we can bend it to our will and shape it to our liking and our benefit. The second part of the problem is we lack an agreed upon vision of the future. Without some rules we are sitting ducks. We can't be against all regulation. Without an agreed upon vision it will be easy for some group to divide us and conquer."
    Billy Bell, a native of Newton County, gave the evening's passionate observation of the situation. He said he has spent his life on the river and its tributaries and a career spanning more than 20 years in resource enforcement. "I am not for the re-designation of the Buffalo River."
    Playing on the popularity of a recent song, he said, "Rich Men Not From Here" are pushing to change residents' way of life. He said he sees a bait and switch operation playing on the peoples' emotions and as a scare tactic. The river is public land and it and its public uses are already adequately protected, he said. Re-designation is not needed and we do not need other people to decide how to change "our" Buffalo River. He said proponents of re-designation are using the old battle cry, "Save the Buffalo River," to spin public opinion and exploit the Buffalo National River for their own personal gain.
    Jack Boles, president of the Newton County Farm Bureau, said the available information about the proposal was received by the board of directors. He said a deep look was made at every potential twist and turn. The board came to the conclusion there is no benefit and no advantage anywhere for agriculture or for the people in Newton County or for their way of life under this proposal. Newton County Farm Bureau's official position is that it opposes any change of the name, designation or expansion of the Buffalo National River, he declared. This has been put in the form of a resolution. It will be presented to the state organization for it to approve and send on to its lobbyists. "State and national legislative delegations will know where we stand."
    Another speaker was Gordon Watkins of Parthenon, a member of the Buffalo Watershed Alliance that watches over and protects the water quality of the area. He said higher visitation to the river and large acquisitions of land surrounding it are trending. We need a seat at the table to discuss planning for change or be victims of it. We need to get into a position where we aren't taken by surprise, he said. The alliance is opposed to any acquisition of land from unwilling sellers.
    Economic development is a good thing, but only if it is part of a long-range plan, protects water quality and is controlled, appropriate and sustainable, Watkins continued. He noted water quality is not addressed in the proposal.
    Watkins said there have been indications the Walton-funded Runway Group is apparently backing off the proposal, but that is not to say someone else may pick it up.
    Another speaker was Bryan King, state senator from Green Forest whose District 28 includes a portion of Newton County and several other areas of the Buffalo River region. He talked about his efforts investigating the Runway proposal and its poll results. I felt I had to bring this issue out, he said, referring to reports appearing in the Madison County Record. "I knew one thing," he said. "This train had been rolling down the track. I didn't want the people I represent to be railroaded." 
    Only the people who reside in the Buffalo River watershed should have been polled, he said. He said 14% of the watershed is in Baxter County yet 47% of the respondents were from Baxter County.
    Jared Phillips of Washington County is a farmer and teacher on the history faculty at the University of Arkansas. He put the river in the larger context of its importance to the north Arkansas region. He said a re-designation of the river would cost the entire region family land ownership, jobs and a way of life.
    Finally, Brinkley Cook-Campbell, an attorney in Ft. Smith who grew up and graduated from Mt. Judea High School, brought an open letter to the meeting to be signed by individual residents and sent to the state's Congressional delegation, to the governor and all state elected officials. A part of the letter reads that a re-designation as a national park preserve would mean... "an end to our way of life. It would mean visitors centers and asphalt, restrictions on access and parking, day use permits and lines of traffic."

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

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