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  • 30 Oct 2023 4:07 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    KUAF Radio - Listen here

    Widespread opposition to efforts to re-designate the Buffalo National River emerges

    By Jacqueline Froelich

    Published October 30, 2023 at 2:20 PM CDT

    LISTEN  6:40

    Matthew Moore: I’m here with Jacqueline Froelich, Ozarks at Large senior news producer, to discuss a town hall meeting held Thursday in Jasper in Newton County about a controversial effort to expand the Buffalo National River into a national park preserve. As you’ve reported, the Walton-backed Runway Group in Bentonville has been leading this effort. They’ve met with state and federal officials – but not the public. So how many turned out for the town hall meeting and what was the tone?

    Jacqueline Froelich: I spoke with Wendy Finn, a co-organizer of the town hall, who along with Misty Langdon — a seventh generation Newton County farmer — have formed a group to thwart re-designating the river. Finn said 1,185 showed up for the town hall in person, with 1,900 attending virtually. The event was calm, she added, but attendees were upset and confused about how changing the park could impact their lives.

    “People were angry at the idea of possibly losing land," Finn said. "I think most people oppose a designation change to the Buffalo National River.”

    MM: The meeting featured a panel comprised of natives, several farmers, an attorney, a state senator, an Arkansas Farm Bureau official, an environmentalist and a scholar. All of them oppose a park preserve? 

    JF: Yes. The audio stream quality is not the best, but this is Newton County native Billy Bell. 

    “I have spent my entire life playing on or in the Buffalo National River or its tributaries," Bell said. "I am not for re-designation for the Buffalo National River.”

    JF: Reciting verse, Bell told the crowd that “rich men not from here are pushing to change a way of life.” He was referring to Runway Group LLC, based in Bentonville. The well-regarded private company, operated by Walmart heirs Tom and Steuart Walton, invest in real estate, businesses, outdoor recreation, and conservation. Runway’s interest in re-designating the Buffalo River came to light in September when the Waltons commissioned a survey, later posting results online as “The Coalition for Buffalo River National Park Preserve.” The five-county survey shows a majority would support a park preserve. But I’ve been told the survey failed to include an adequate number of residents in Newton County, which lies in the heart of Buffalo River watershed.

    MM: Why is Runway Group involved in this?

    JF: Runway’s spokesperson, J.T. Geren in an email to Ozarks at Large wrote that changing the national river to a national park preserve will provide benefits to surrounding communities and help with needed infrastructure improvement to support an ever-growing number of tourists. Data show that last year, the Buffalo National River attracted 1.3 million visitors who spent nearly $65 million dollars on food, accommodations and outfitters.

    MM: Re-designating a national river will require an act of Congress. You queried Arkansas Governor Sarah Sanders about her role in this, and were told Sanders had spoken with U.S. Congressman Bruce Westerman, R-AR. The watershed is located in his district. When she took office, Sanders vowed to make Arkansas a top recreation destination, signing an executive order establishing the Natural State Advisory Council, appointing her husband Bryan Sanders as chair?

    JF: Yes. But the thing is, key stakeholders including staff with the Buffalo River National Park Service and founder of the apex environmental group Buffalo River Watershed Alliance were excluded from this process. We spoke with Alliance president Gordon Watkins, after the town hall.

    "I think it was unfortunate the way they chose to proceed with this project," Watkins said, "and that began at the top with Congressman Westerman's office from what we can tell back in July of 2022.”

    JF: Which was startling to hear, that this has been in motion for well over a year. Watkins said that the best way to discuss major projects like this is to talk directly to the people and that means starting from the bottom, not at the top. He did say Runway Group agreed to meet with him virtually, the day before the town hall gathering. Nothing new was revealed, he said. But he was told the company is backing off leading what it's described as “an economic development project.” It’s unclear who will take over and what’s next. Congressman Westerman is reportedly planning his own town hall meeting. 

    MM:  But to better understand the consequence of a national park preserve, you spoke with Allan Franco, a lawyer who researches rural land use regulation who's familiar with Runway's effort?

    JF: Yes, Allan Franco told me it will be up to Congress to legislate what activities will be allowed on the preserve within a declared Buffalo River National Park boundary. But he also commented on the economic interests pushing for this change.

    “Well we know that they're going to be interested in making a profit off the Buffalo National River," Franco said. "One way that they could do that is through tourism and vacation rentals. Right now the current legislation doesn't expressly allow for vacation rentals. Other national preserve designations in more recent years have specifically allowed for vacation rentals within the park boundary.”

    JF: I was surprised to hear this as well. But it makes sense given several Arkansas lawmakers have sponsored legislation to nullify county and municipal codes to control short-term rental sprawl -- which has been shown to vastly reduce affordable residential housing. Franco also said if a national park preserve facility is approved by Congress, resulting in an expanded footprint, it's unlikely that private property — based on recent federal trends — would be taken thru eminent domain condemnation. Instead he says property would be acquired through purchase. As for what's called consumptive activities such as hunting, animal grazing, industrial agriculture, minerals and fuels extraction on a re-designated Buffalo National River Park Preserve? All of it is allowed, but again, the details will be up to Congress to decide.

    MM: You also asked Runway Group if the company has donated support to the Buffalo National River Foundation to improve things like trails and facilities. What was the response?

    JF: No comment. But a spokesperson did email me a link to a five-year old National Park Service study citing myriad problems within the Buffalo National River park, for example overcrowding, insufficient river access, inadequate facilities and water quality issues. 

    MM: The Buffalo River was declared our nations very first national river in 1972, after efforts to impound the stream for hydroelectricity were defeated. We’ll continue to follow this story. 

    Update: Runway Group's coalition page appears to have been removed, but the company continues to post news regarding it's efforts to re-designate the Buffalo River park.

  • 27 Oct 2023 3:11 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Arkansas Advocate


    Concern over possible Buffalo National River redesignation draws huge crowd to small Arkansas town

    Most speakers voice fears of what a national park preserve would do to area already stressed by visitors

    BY: JORDAN P. HICKEY - OCTOBER 27, 2023 3:56 PM

    JASPER — A sign on the way into this Newton County town states its population is 547.

    On Thursday evening, more than twice that number, upwards of 1,185 people, squeezed into the cafeteria at the local high school. The original 400 chairs had been supplemented by another 273 that students toted in from every classroom on campus — even then, the crowd spread along the walls of the gym, into the vestibule and hallways, past vending machines and photos of past graduates.

    Those numbers did not include the 500 people watching on the library’s Zoom livestream (their subscription caps streams at 500), or the more than 1,400 folks who tuned in via Facebook Live.

    “I was expecting this to be 75 people at Carroll Electric, so you’ll have to bear with me here,” event organizer Misty Langdon said from the crowded dais shortly after 6 p.m., apologizing that they didn’t have the ability to broadcast into the rest of the school.

    The only reason so many people would turn out on a Thursday night? The Buffalo River.

    For more than three weeks, news stories and rumors had stirred concerns and lingering distrust among residents who live in the towns and communities along the Buffalo — that once again wealthy outsiders were trying to alter the river’s protected status as the nation’s first National River.

    Thursday night, that concern and distrust came to a head as ten different speakers — including Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forest, and people from organizations ranging from the National Audubon Society to the local chapter of the Farm Bureau — voiced wariness and opposition to a nascent proposal to re-designate the federal lands along the Buffalo National River, just over 94,000 acres today, as a national park preserve.

    The difference is a significant one: a national river designation preserves free-flowing streams, protects the waterway from industrial uses, and allows for hiking, canoeing and hunting. A national park preserve loosens those restrictions, opens the door for potential mineral extraction, and allows management to be transferred to local or state control.

    “I see history repeating itself there,” Langdon said in an interview the day before the meeting, noting parallels between the 1970s and today. “These are wealthy people that do not live here and do not know the culture here. And yet they are proposing to make sweeping changes to our landscape. And I think that frightens the people that live in the community.”

    ‘Shouldn’t we have a meeting?’

    Langdon — a seventh-generation resident of nearby Steel Creek whose “cultural heritage and historical preservation group” the Remnants Project organized the evening — had spent the past few days organizing the event. But the real work had started roughly two weeks before, when rumors about a phone survey were circulating in the community.

    As reported by The Madison County Record on Oct. 4, Iowa-based Selzer & Company, which was later linked to Walton-run Runway Group LLC, polled 412 voters in Baxter, Madison, Marion, Newton and Searcy counties between Sept. 11-13 about their thoughts concerning the proposed re-designation.

    Wendy Finn, one of the first speakers of the evening, took a close look at the survey and the fact sheets that re-designation proponents had developed from those results, flagging some problematic language and omissions.

    For example, Finn said, 64 percent of those surveyed were in favor of designating the Buffalo River as a National Park and Preserve, but the surveyors didn’t define what those terms meant. Finn also noted that nearly half of the survey respondents (43%) had been from Baxter County, which contains the least amount of Buffalo River watershed of the counties surveyed (2.5%). Newton County, on the other hand, which has 46% of the Buffalo River watershed, made up only 7% percent of those surveyed, or 29 people.

    After getting wind of the survey, Langdon had reached out to some local county elected officials, asking them, “Shouldn’t we have a meeting to get to the bottom of this?” Nothing had materialized. She then reached out to the Runway Group on Oct. 11 and asked if they’d be interested in participating in a town hall style meeting on Oct. 26. Absolutely, was the answer.

    She’d hoped to bring them in to answer some questions about the survey — and why there had even been a survey, “because nobody had really been able to understand the ‘why’ behind it.”

    Adding to the uncertainty was another piece of information first reported by The Madison County Record in its Oct. 4 story — that Walton Enterprises-owned Kings Creek LLC had purchased land near Kingston, accumulating “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.”

    To this, Langdon said: “I’m not fearing eminent domain, I’m fearing being taxed out of my home. You know, I hear people saying, ‘how am I going to pay my taxes, I can barely pay my taxes now.’ And these are people that are older and on a fixed income.”

    ‘Opportunity for transparency’

    After opening Thursday’s meeting and explaining the reason for holding it, Langdon addressed the lack of an elephant in the room: The no-show from the Runway Group. Although Runway had originally agreed to attend, they pulled out as the winds of public opinion shifted around the meeting and the projected attendance snowballed.

    Runway’s presence “would have provided an opportunity for transparency and an opportunity to meet the community that they have been researching,” Langdon told the crowd. “I did receive a call this morning from Runway wishing us well and asking me to make a comment on their behalf. However, I feel that any statement would be better coming from their team.”

    On the flier that provided the event schedule, there was a list of those who had also “declined or not responded”: Johnny Morris; National (sic) State Advisory Council; Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders; 1st Gentleman Bryan Sanders; National Parks Service.

    “I think that whenever we’re looking at this, we need to be transparent,” said King, the lawmaker who’s been most vocal about needing to involve the local community in decision-making. “That’s just not flat happening right now.”

    ‘Too many people and an expensive price tag’

    Over the course of an hour and a half, 10 different speakers stood and took their place at the microphone.

    Although each person approached the issue at hand through their own lens, whether that was agriculture, recreation, politics, history, preservation, and so forth, they all echoed the same sentiment that had drawn such large crowds to the room that evening — that they were not about to be left out of a conversation that would so directly affect their lives. (Gordon Watkins, who spoke on behalf of the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance, summed this up when he said, “Someone said that if you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re on the menu.”)

    Langdon, whose family has owned Steel Creek Cabins since 2004, addressed the effects of past increased tourism, showing photographs of roads lined with cars and the river log-jammed with kayaks. This, Langdon explained, is what a 6.5% percent increase in tourism looked like — which is what the area had experienced during the COVID years — before noting that the Runway Group had projected a 60% increase.

    One of the most crowd-rousing speeches of the night came from Billy Bell, whose bio simply stated, “Billy Bell is a Newton County resident.”

    “The propaganda that I have seen in the watershed map tells us that these rich men are going to protect our rights to hunt and fish — but what I see is a bait and switch operation,” Bell said to whistles, claps, and a “that’s right.” “The questions I have are: One, who are they protecting us from? Two, do we actually need protection? And three, is telling us that we need protection a scare tactic?”

    Bell said he’d worked 20 years in resource management and protection for the Buffalo River and U.S. Forest Service, then listed a series of protected activities on the river, including different veins of fishing and hunting — “deer, bear, elk, turkey, squirrel, squirrel with a dog, rabbit, rabbit with a dog, coon, coon with a dog — ending each series with the statement “No permit required.” At the end of his speech, Bell was given the night’s only full standing ovation.

    The last speaker of the night, attorney Brinkley Cook-Campell, a native of Mount Judea, read a two-page open letter that was addressed to U.S. Reps. Bruce Westerman, Rick Crawford, Steve Womack and French Hill; U.S. Sens. John Boozman and Tom Cotton; Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders “and all Arkansas elected officials.”

    Runway Group representatives approached Westerman about designating the federal lands surrounding the Buffalo as a park preserve in July 2022, The Madison County Record reported this week.

    Cook-Campbell’s letter read in part:

    “As time passes, the Buffalo River will likely succumb to what ruins all natural wonders — too many people and an expensive price tag. Let’s not hasten that result by changing the river’s designation. Our community should be left as it is, beautiful, pristine and wild. Because when it changes — when the visitor centers and hotels come, when the hay field becomes a parking lot, and the gravel bar around the bend becomes a plaza of restrooms — there will be no going back. The locals will see their way of life lost forever.”

    After the meeting, Langdon said that seeing such varied and often diametrically opposed interests sharing a stage felt like being in “The Twilight Zone”: “These are the two most polarized groups in our community that have come together to say this will not benefit our community or the river in any way.”

    She went on to say that she was so proud of her community, but that this was likely far from the last time that the community would need to draw together. Although the Runway Group had been reported as saying they planned to retract the plans, skepticism remained strong. One of the prevailing notions during the meeting had been the need for a unified vision — and as Langdon said the day before, they needed to have that vision heard well before legislation was crafted.

    “One thing that we learned is once it starts the process of going through legislation, we have very little input in how that bill is written.”

    In the meantime, however, as she looked over the 673 chairs being pulled into stacks and the diminishing clusters of conversations, she seemed pleased with the event — and said she was also looking forward to some well-deserved rest.

    “We have an off-the-grid cabin,” Langdon said. “I plan on being there for about the next three days with no cell service.”

     

  • 27 Oct 2023 2:53 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Arkansas Times


    Over 1,100 attend Jasper town hall on Buffalo National River’s future

    NEWS

    BY

     Debra Hale-Shelton  

    ON 

    October 27, 2023

    Jasper, a tiny Ozarks town in Newton County, is home to only about 525 residents. But Thursday night, it hosted a town hall attended by 1,185 people.

    If you think that’s a lot, there were another 500 watching the meeting on Zoom and 1,400 on Facebook live, according to the town hall’s organizer, the Remnants Project, an Ozarks-based preservation group.

    The topic bringing so many people together was the future of the Buffalo National River, which a Walton-founded company, Runway Group LLC, wants to turn into a national park preserve.

    That’s an idea many locals near the nation’s first national river don’t like. But they even more dislike the idea of outsiders pushing the proposal without talking with residents up front.

    Reports early this week were that Runway, an investment business founded by two third-generation Walton brothers, was backing off the idea. But in a statement on its website Wednesday, Runway still seemed enamored with its idea.

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

    The Remnants Project invited Runway to the town hall, but Runway did not attend. Runway’s founders are Steuart Walton and Tom Walton, grandsons of Walmart founder Sam Walton.

    Runway also confirmed that it approached U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman in July 2022 to discuss the possibility of redesignating the river to a national park preserve — a move that would require congressional approval.

    “We wanted to get the congressman’s thoughts, first because part of the BNR is within his district, and because he holds a position on the Natural Resources Committee,” Runway said. “Congressman Westerman made it clear to us that the idea needed support from various groups, state and local officials and the local community.”

    Debra Hale-Shelton

    Debra Hale-Shelton is a reporter for the Arkansas Times. She has previously worked for The Associated Press and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

  • 27 Oct 2023 2:33 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Democrat Gazette

    More than 1,100 people attend meeting on redesignating Buffalo National River

    by Bill Bowden | October 26, 2023 at 11:59 p.m. | Updated October 27, 2023 at 7:06 a.m.

    JASPER — An overflow crowd of 1,135 people packed the Jasper School District cafeteria Thursday night to hear speakers talk about the Buffalo National River.

    One entity that wasn’t there was Runway Group, the Bentonville-based firm that has floated the idea of getting the Buffalo redesignated as a national park and preserve.

    Their absence did not go unnoticed.

    “Thank you, Runway Group, for being here — I mean, Remnants group,” said Jacque Alexander with Backcountry Horsemen. The town-hall meeting was organized by the Remnants Project, a historical and cultural heritage preservation project founded by Misty Langdon.

    Langdon said Runway Group had agreed to come to the meeting, then backed out after it became apparent there would be a big crowd.

    “Unfortunately, last week Runway told me they would no longer participate in the meeting,” Langdon told the crowd on Thursday night. “It would have provided an opportunity for transparency and an opportunity to meet the community that they’ve been researching. I did receive a call this morning from Runway wishing us well and asking me to make a comment on their behalf. However, I feel that any statement would be better coming from their team.”

    Her comment drew applause.

    Landon said that in addition to the crowd at the school, another 500 people watched the meeting via Zoom, and more than 1,400 people watched it on Facebook.

    Jasper has a population of 547.

    Runway Group is a privately held company founded by Steuart and Tom Walton that invests in part in “outdoor recreation experiences.” The Walton brothers are grandsons of Sam Walton, founder of Walmart Stores Inc.

    “Change of this type needs to be considered by all who are affected,” said Alexander. “All classes of citizens need to be considered, not just people with a lot of money”

    Billy Bell of Newton County hit a similar note, referring to the song “Rich Men North of Richmond.”

    “But in this situation, the name of the song should be ‘Rich Men Not From Here,’” said Bell. “Today it appears rich men not from here are pushing to change our way of life once again. … We do not need their redesignation, and we definitely do not need them deciding how to change our Buffalo River.”

    Jared Phillips, a farmer who teaches Ozarks history at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, also spoke Thursday.

    “At the end of the day, what the Runway Group proposal has done here … is tell us we regular folks in the Ozarks are in the way of what rich folks who want to have a playground are trying to do,” said Phillips, who is also the author of the book “Hipbillies: Deep Revolution in the Arkansas Ozarks.”

    Several speakers said Runway Group should have talked to area residents first.

    “It’s great to throw out some ideas. That’s where planning starts,” said Gordon Watkins, president of the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance. “But they started from the top down instead of the bottom up.”

    In July 2022, Runway Group staff met with U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., about the redesignation idea.

    Westerman is chair of the House Natural Resources Committee. A bill to change the designation would have to go through his committee before going to the full House for a vote, then to the Senate, then to the president. But no such bill has been drafted.

    Westerman said such a change would require much public input before anything is done, and it’s just in the early discussion phase right now.

    Locals found out about the idea when a Runway-funded poll was conducted in September. The poll included 412 voters from Baxter, Madison, Marion, Newton, and Searcy counties.

    According to the poll results, 64% of respondents said "for" when asked, "If there were a vote in Congress to designate the river as the Buffalo River National Park & Preserve, would you want your member of Congress to vote for or against it?" 

    The Buffalo National River — which is administered by the National Park Service — attracted 1.3 million visitors last year and contributed over $64.9 million in spending to “local gateway regions.” The Buffalo National River became the first national river in the United States on March 1, 1972, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. It is one of the few remaining free-flowing rivers in the lower 48 states.

    Proponents say changing the Buffalo National River’s designation to a national park and preserve would bring in more visitors and more federal funding for infrastructure, while preserving hunting and fishing access. That would translate, in theory, to more money for businesses and communities in the vicinity.

    Opponents are concerned about overcrowding and the possibility of additional land-use restrictions.

    “When do we as people from the hills get to sit at the table and have a say in what happens to us?” Phillips asked. “This stuff is personal for us.”

    “We need to be a part of these decisions so they don’t make decisions about our lives without us,” Wendy Finn of Fayetteville, who grew up in Newton County, told the crowd on Thursday night.

    She went through the poll line by line and talked about two flyers distributed in the area by the Coalition for Buffalo River National Park Preserve, of which Runway Group is a member.

    “The Runway Group drew conclusions and put them on something they called fact sheets,” she said, getting a laugh from the crowd.

    She noted that only 7% of the survey respondents were from Newton County.

    Jack Stewart, former president of the Arkansas Audubon Society, said part of the problem was that “we lack an agreed-upon vision for the future.”

    “Without an agreed-upon vision, it will be easy for some group to divide us and conquer,” he said.

    Brinkley Cook-Campbell, who is from Mt. Judea, said “I feel like we were the last to know.”

    “We’ve got a pretty good status quo going on right now,” he said. “And if it’s not broke, don’t try to fix it.”

    If the national river and preserve idea were implemented, Cook-Campbell said, the area would be overrun with tourists.

    State Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forest, said 14% of the Buffalo River watershed is in Baxter County, but 47% of the respondents to the Runway poll were from Baxter County.

    King said that only people who live in the Buffalo River watershed should have been included in the poll.

    “Is this an accurate representation tonight of the poll?” he asked, referring to the crowd in the school cafeteria. “I don’t think so.”

    Runway has been issuing statements about its interest in the Buffalo National River on its website at runwaynwa.com.

    “We believe a change in status is one idea that would provide needed infrastructure support to a growing number of tourists; would support the preservation of the river and its current boundaries; and would create new ways to benefit the surrounding communities,” according to a statement that Runway posted Wednesday.

    Runway researched preserve status because it’s the only national park status that can maintain hunting and other public recreation access, according to the website.

    Runway said it got valuable information from the survey it conducted: “We learned a lot from the survey, including where we have shared values with the community: Runway doesn’t support the taking of private lands and doesn’t support mining or drilling on the Buffalo River. We are in favor of maintaining public access to traditional forms of recreation, such as hunting. We were also looking at the success of West Virginia’s New River Gorge, which recently celebrated $3.7B in federal funding since it was designated a National Park.

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


  • 27 Oct 2023 2:18 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Arkansas Times

    It’s time for a fight: Ozarkers bite back at town hall over Buffalo River proposal

    by Jared Phillips

    Last night in Jasper, Ozarkers finally got to have their say, though the folks who needed to hear what was said couldn’t be bothered to come.

    Nearly 1,200 angry people packed the high school cafeteria in Jasper on Thursday to protest proposed changes to the Buffalo National River and the broader region. The anger was palpable — and it should be. Once again, hill folks are being ignored in discussions about their fate. And this time they’re ready for the fight.

    Locals first heard about plans to change the Buffalo’s designation from a national river to a “national park preserve” when Runway Group, a Northwest Arkansas investment company backed by third-generation Walmart heirs Tom Walton and Steuart Walton, began surveying residents in the Buffalo River area about the proposal. First Gentleman Bryan Sanders, the governor’s husband, has been involved in the hush-hush planning process, according to state legislators.

    During Thursday’s meeting, the crowd listened as speakers cleared up confusion surrounding the survey and what the designation change would mean. As former Newton County resident Wendy Finn outlined just how skewed the Runway Group survey was, the room erupted in outrage and laughter. Misty Langdon, the meeting’s organizer, explained what the increase in tourism would mean for daily life in the impacted counties. The real moments of impact were when local Billy Bell and state Sen. Bryan King outlined how hard it was to get a straight answer from the Waltons and Bryan Sanders. When they and others (including myself) pointed out that nobody impacted was at the table but should be, the cafeteria erupted in angry shouts and clapping.

    This anger makes sense. For the last several generations, residents haven’t had a seat at the table when big changes have come to the Ozarks. Agriculture regulations, zoning laws, redistricting, economic development, and the creation of state and national reserves and parks all occur without any meaningful input from local communities most directly impacted. The proposed redesignation of the Buffalo is more of the same. And it’s part of a broader pattern by  Runway Group, the Walton family and some politicians in Little Rock to remove Ozarkers from the Ozarks.

    What does that look like? Well, it starts slow. A museum was built in 2011, proclaiming the arrival of culture and arts into the region. Then came an effort to build not just a commuter bike trail, but to take over gravel roads and rocky hillsides with bikes that cost more than most people’s mortgages. From there, a rebranding effort appeared. No longer are we the Ozarks, we are “Oz,” full of exciting, crafted adventures by groups like 37 North, who are as out of place in the hills as the Walton boys are throwing hay bales. All of this has been supported by a gradual taking control of the land itself as thousands of acres throughout the region have been bought up by the Walton family and an ever-shifting landscape of LLCs and environmental nonprofits.

    These kinds of activities have real consequences. As a historian, I spend a lot of time looking at the changes in North and Central Arkansas over the last 100 or so years. Of particular interest to me are the small towns and small farms that once populated our landscape. As a rule, that story is not a happy one. Farms fold and are lost. Families leave, schools close and towns shrink and fade. A vacuum is left, and where once the rhythm of Ozark life thrived, only outsiders interested in the next adventure are found.

    Right now, nobody is being burned out or forced by the sheriff to leave, like when Beaver Lake or Bull Shoals Lake were built (or when the Buffalo River was nationalized). But if a family can’t afford their property taxes because absentee landowners and tourism drives property values sky high, what choice do they have? Sell to somebody and come out ahead, or watch the family farm sell on the courthouse steps.

    For those who want to stay — like the folks in Jasper Thursday night —neither is a choice they want. It’s still removal, even if it pretends to offer a choice.

    We’ve been overrun with progress, and it’s reweaving the very fabric of hill life. The changes of the last decade or so, though, cut deeper than the shifts of the past. Its masters assume we won’t question anything — that we’ll accept the bulldozers and the end of rural life and the loss of ourselves. Be quiet, take the money, things are good. After all, we’ve got festivals, bike trails, fancy places to eat. Culture has arrived in the hills. Don’t bite the hand, they say.

    Last night it was clear, though, that this has gone far enough. People from across the Ozarks voiced their anger and support for pushing back against an idle class’s efforts to turn our homes into a playground for the rich.

    Last night, the Ozarks decided to bite back.

  • 26 Oct 2023 10:13 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    AR Democrat Gazette


    W.Va. Gorge sets example for Buffalo River

    by Bill Bowden | Today at 6:40 a.m.

    Runway Group of Bentonville has touted the success of New River Gorge National Park & Preserve in West Virginia as a model for the Buffalo National River.

    Annual visitation at New River Gorge increased by 60% from 2020 to 2021, the first year after its designation changed from a national river to a national park and preserve.

    But attendance at New River Gorge decreased by 5% in 2022, according to the National Park Service.

    A flyer distributed by the Coalition for Buffalo River National Park Preserve didn't mention the visitation decrease at New River Gorge in 2022.

    There are at least two reasons for the huge spike in visitors in 2021: It was the first year after the covid-19 pandemic began (visitation numbers decreased by 12% in 2020), and New River Gorge was in the spotlight as America's newest national park.

    Still, the 2022 visitation number at New River Gorge is a 33% increase over the pre-pandemic number of visitors in 2019. (The Buffalo National River had a 1.5% decrease over the same time period.)

    Roger Wilson, CEO of Adventures on the Gorge -- which has 128 cabins, 15 RV sites and 150 campsites on land bordering the West Virginia national park -- said the change has been a good one.

    "I'm very happy," he said. "The little stores are seeing more business now. Little restaurants are opening. I think this is a long-term thing. It may take 15 or 20 years for the full effect of having a national park here."

    New River Gorge is famous for its whitewater rafting. Canoeing is the main attraction on the slower-flowing Buffalo River.

    Wilson was among a small group who got the change underway in West Virginia, first by getting the approval of U.S. senators and congressmen and the governor.

    Runway Group has floated the idea of making a similar designation change for the Buffalo National River, but their strategy of approaching U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., first seems to have chafed some of the locals, who see the idea as drifting down from Washington, D.C., or over from Bentonville.

    "I don't know how they went about it in West Virginia, but here in Arkansas it's going over about as well as a screen door in a submarine," said state Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forest, whose Senate District 28 includes 34% of the Buffalo River watershed.

    "If this was so well planned, then why are so many people upset?" said King. "I think they should have started locally down there and started visiting with them about it. Why would you not?"

    King will be one of the speakers at a public town-hall meeting on the re-designation idea for the Buffalo National River that's scheduled for tonight in Jasper. More information can be found on the Remnants Project's Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/remnantsproject. Runway Group said it won't have a representative at the meeting.

    The Buffalo National River -- which is administered by the National Park Service -- attracted 1.3 million visitors last year and contributed over $64.9 million in spending to "local gateway regions." The Buffalo National River became the first national river in the United States on March 1, 1972, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. It is one of the few remaining free-flowing rivers in the lower 48 states.

    Proponents say changing the Buffalo National River's designation to a national park and preserve would bring in more visitors and more federal funding for infrastructure, while preserving hunting and fishing access. That would translate, in theory, to more money for businesses and communities in the vicinity.

    Opponents are concerned about overcrowding and the possibility of additional land-use restrictions.

    Runway Group is a privately held company founded by Steuart and Tom Walton that invests in part in "outdoor recreation experiences." The Walton brothers are grandsons of Sam Walton, founder of Walmart Stores Inc.

    On Wednesday, a spokesman said Runway Group remains a member of the Coalition for Buffalo River National Park Preserve. He didn't respond to a text message asking who other members of the coalition are.

    "For more than a decade, we have invested resources throughout the state to expand access to the outdoors," Runway Group said in a statement posted Wednesday on its website at https://runwaynwa.com/statement-on-the-future-of-the-buffalo-national-river/.

    "Our team develops unique experiences that benefit quality of life and create economic opportunities for our communities to thrive," the statement continued. "We believe a change in status is one idea that would provide needed infrastructure support to a growing number of tourists; would support the preservation of the river and its current boundaries; and would create new ways to benefit the surrounding communities."

    Runway approached Westerman about the idea over a year ago.

    "It was with all of that in mind when we approached Congressman Westerman in July 2022 to discuss an idea about the redesignation of the BNR to National Park Preserve," according to Runway. "We studied Preserve status because it's the only park status that can maintain hunting and other public recreation access."

    Runway wanted Westerman's thoughts first because part of the Buffalo National River is within his Fourth Congressional District and because of his position on the House Natural Resources Committee, according to the company's statement.

    Westerman became chairman of that committee in January. A bill to make the designation change would have to go through the Natural Resources Committee before going to the full House for a vote, then to the Senate, then to the president. But no such bill has been drafted.

    "We're a long ways from me even writing a bill," Westerman told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette last week.

    "Congressman Westerman made it clear to us that the idea needed support from various groups, state and local officials and the local community," according to Runway.

    More conversations led to Runway's funding a poll that was conducted in September, according to the statement on its website. The poll included 412 voters from Baxter, Madison, Marion, Newton, and Searcy counties.

    According to the poll results, 64% of respondents would ask their congressman to vote for legislation to change the Buffalo's designation to that of a national park preserve.

    An overwhelming majority of respondents said they didn't want the federal government to take any additional private land for the park and they didn't want their taxes to increase.

    "Polling is something Runway has engaged in in the past to understand how people feel about certain topics before we advocate for an idea," the company said on its website. "We instructed the polling company to be transparent about who funded the study if asked."

    King described it as a push poll, which is a poll in which the person asking questions attempts to influence the response.

    "I don't think there's any question that it's a push poll," said King. "I think that's the result they wanted."

    Runway said it got valuable information from the survey.

    "We learned a lot from the survey, including where we have shared values with the community: Runway doesn't support the taking of private lands and doesn't support mining or drilling on the Buffalo River. We are in favor of maintaining public access to traditional forms of recreation, such as hunting. We were also looking at the success of West Virginia's New River Gorge, which recently celebrated $3.7B in federal funding since it was designated a National Park.

    "A designation change for the Buffalo National River is not our decision to make, but we believe it's an idea worth exploring," according to Runway.

    Regarding property purchased in the Madison County town of Kingston, near the Buffalo National River, Runway Group said in its online statement: "As part of a restoration effort, members of the Walton family acquired three historic buildings on the square in downtown Kingston, intending to update them and open their doors to the community. While we don't yet have a timeline for the opening, we will share more when we do."

    The Madison County Record of Huntsville, which broke the story on Oct. 4 about the survey being conducted, reported that Walton family entities own thousands of acres of land near Kingston through a limited liability company.

    New River Gorge National Park & Preserve consists of 7,021 acres at the heart of the gorge, spanned by the New River Gorge Bridge, and another 65,000 acres of the park that is a preserve on which hunting and fishing are permitted, according to the Encyclopedia of West Virginia.

    Wilson said he couldn't put an estimate on how much his business has increased since the national park designation because of restrictions during the pandemic on things like how many people he could put on a bus to send them to the river.

    Wilson said he hopes the national park status will help the town of Fayetteville, W.Va., population 2,887, by bringing in business and providing jobs for local kids.

    Wilson said not much has really changed at the park, other than the influx of visitors.

    "Basically, they changed the name on the sign, from a national river to a national park and preserve," he said. "That's the biggest change, other than the little bit of land that you can't hunt on."

    Wilson said four or five public meetings were held before New River Gorge was designated as a national river and preserve.

    "Other than the original fear of losing rights and property by really a small handful, a majorly of locals supported it and still do and see the benefit," he said.


    Print Headline: W. Virginia gorge held as example for Buffalo


  • 25 Oct 2023 12:37 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Democrat Gazette

    OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: Selling the state down the river?

    by John Brummett | October 25, 2023 at 3:21 a.m.

    Closed-door maneuvering at the rich and powerful levels to mess with the Buffalo National River has run into a mighty mite from the past.

    It is a thing called a good community newspaper.

    They have a dandy in Huntsville near the Buffalo River. It is the Madison County Record, with a circulation of 4,000 and a staff of five. Its publisher is Ellen Kreth, who once ran the Style section of this newspaper.

    She and the Record copped a national award last year from the Nieman Foundation at Harvard. It was for articles revealing a cover-up by the local school board of sexual-abuse allegations against junior-high boys basketball players.

    Stories like that are more easily told from a high-rise in Manhattan than the little newspaper office down the block in a small town.

    Runners-up for the prize were other small community newspapers such as The Washington Post and the Miami Herald, the latter in partnership with the online Pulitzer winner called ProPublica.

    This time, the little paper broke the news a couple of weeks ago that previously quiet efforts were afoot to get the Buffalo National River re-designated a national park preserve. The idea was to draw federal infrastructure money and more visitors ... and, if someone wanted, land excavation for minerals, which is allowed under certain conditions in a national park.

    The paper nosed around on a flurry of land purchases in the nearby Huntsville area. It found information connecting some of those purchases to the Walton brothers, Steuart and Tom.

    From that--indirectly--came revelations of quiet high-level interest in a Buffalo River redesignation by a mostly unidentified coalition called the Runway Group including those brothers.

    The idea is that Newton County and surrounding environs could become a major resort or destination, which would be good for the rich and powerful and presumably good for the locals.

    More cross-country vacationers will go to a national park--touted for beauty, hiking, camping and private-enterprise services and attractions nearby--than a national river that sounds like a place to put in a canoe if that happens to be your thing. A national river in West Virginia gained more than a half-million additional visitors from such a redesignation.

    U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman, whose sprawling low-population-density district extends from south Arkansas northward to parts of the Buffalo River, happens to be chairperson of a House committee on national parks and national preservation.

    He was briefed by Runway Group advocates last year. He tells a reporter he chatted months ago about the idea with the governor, Sarah Sanders, who has made her husband the unofficial and unpaid czar of all Arkansas outdoors. He is a bicyclist, they say. And he has engaged in discussions with Runway.

    Sometimes a national preserve's oversight can be federally delegated to a state. So ponder that little detail.

    Westerman is quoted this morning in the Madison County Record--or at least I am reliably advised that he will be--as saying everyone is now in a "listening mode" on these previously private maneuverings.

    That translates to "your newspaper exposed the thing and now the advocates need to put on the brakes while the locals berate us, and we try to mend fences and show them what is factual and good about the idea."

    Money, that is, meaning what is good.

    There seems to be some local sentiment that river and highway traffic is fine if not a little on the high side already. I am reminded of driving into Vermont from New Hampshire and coming up behind a pickup bearing a bumper sticker saying, "Welcome to Vermont. Now please leave."

    There are several significant issues that would arise eventually in this matter. And that makes the first issue especially important. And that first issue is transparency.

    A lack of transparency feeds low information, misinformation, fear, resentment, and anger--none of which needs much feeding these days.

    So, before we get to those issues--and to the over-arching question of whether you want to preserve the Buffalo River area as it is or convert it to a more money-making operation--we need to attend to basic information.

    Facts will not end low information, misinformation, fear, resentment, or anger. Some people just like those things. But facts still have currency, especially when introduced to a situation with few if any known facts.

    It should be said that, while the newspaper indeed pushed out this issue, state Sen. Bryan King of Green Forest, who is emerging as quite the force for old-fashioned conservative populism--cowboy conservatism, I call it--has been sounding an alarm as well.

    All of that has the makings of a fine debate. It pits the economically driven proponents against the legitimate citizen and preservationist concerns about having a rugged rural lifestyle of choice ruined because certain rich people and politicians want to make even more money, or have even more power, or enjoy a new playground, or all of the above.

    Through it all, maybe the Madison County Record can cop another prize.

    John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at jbrummett@arkansasonline.com. Read his @johnbrummett feed on X, formerly Twitter.

  • 25 Oct 2023 10:03 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Madison County Record

    Buffalo River land tangled in crosscurrents

    Preserve designation surfaced in July 2022

    Part 2

    In September, owners of Horseshoe Canyon, a dude ranch located near Jasper in

    Newton County, announced after the 2023 season, they would be retiring, but

    the “Ranch will continue to be open to the public, offering the same great

    adventures and more. We are active in the transition taking place and are

    incredibly excited about the future of HCR!”

    Unconfirmed reports indicate Steuart and Tom Walton have made plans to

    purchase Horseshoe Canyon. Owner Barry Johnson was on vacation and did not

    respond to a request for comment.

    Horseshoe Canyon’s season runs from March through November and the

    property encompasses cabins and offers rock climbing, hiking, zip lining, archery

    and horseback riding and floating the Buffalo National River.

    Also in September, in an effort to gauge public opinion, the Runway Group hired

    Selzer & Company, who polled 412 voters in Baxter, Madison, Marion, Newton

    and Searcy counties about a change in land designation and produced a flyer

    with the results.

    “Polling is something Runway has engaged in in the past to understand how

    people feel about certain topics before we advocate for an idea,” a statement

    from the Runway Group said.

    On Sept. 25, according to documents obtained through a Freedom of Information

    Act request, Secretary of the Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism Shea

    Lewis noted on a “To Do List” he needed to speak with “Teddy” regarding a

    “Buffalo River update.”

    Teddy Stewart is Bryan Sanders’ chief of staff.

    That same “To Do List” included “assigning Buffalo River project to Katherine.”

    Katherine Andrews is the Department of Tourism’s director of the Office of

    Outdoor Recreation.

    On Sept. 28, Lewis and Andrews exchanged emails regarding the development of

    a “proposal related to Buffalo River area.”

    Many of the documents tendered in response to the FOIA request have to do

    with different projects pertaining to the river and do not mention specifically the

    possibility of changing the public lands to a park preserve.

    On Oct. 4, the public heard of the potential change to lands surrounding the

    Buffalo National River when The Record published its story.

    Citizens’ thoughts

    Westerman said he’s hearing a mixture of reactions but most of the people

    reaching out to his office are opposed.

    “From my experience in Congress, when issues come up, it’s usually people who

    are opposed to issues that reach out the strongest.”

    King has remained opposed to any change and has been outspoken regarding

    transparency around the issue, stating discussions needed to have started with

    local officials and citizens.

    Rep. Chad Puryear, R-Hindsville, said the prospect of changing the federal lands

    “has brought a lot of speculation, emotion and concern to the otherwise quiet

    region of Madison and Newton Counties.”

    Puryear said, “Rural Arkansans have always been wary of trusting the

    government and outsiders. This is especially true of the Newton County families

    that are old enough to remember the sting of losing their family farms the last

    time the government got involved with the Buffalo River.

    “I did not have to do any polling to find my conclusion. As a 6th generation

    Arkansas farmer whose family has lived and worked on the same land since

    1887, I believe the good people of rural Arkansas do not want or need the advice

    from the government or a special interest group to help them decide what is best

    for their communities.”

    Cowell lives within five to six miles of the Buffalo National River and near a

    tributary that feeds into the river, “kind of right in the middle of the National

    Forest.”

    Cowell says the river can’t handle an increase in traffic and tourism. He said from

    what he’s read he doesn’t believe the area would see an increase in

    infrastructure funding.

    During the Covid-19 pandemic, when everyone was getting outdoors, the crowds

    were so large, “You couldn’t get within miles of the river at times,” Cowell said.

    The crowds have remained.

    “My little girl had soccer games in Jasper Saturday morning and you couldn’t find

    anywhere to park,” he said. “It’s hard enough to get around as it is.”

    Westerman said he sees pros and cons to increased tourism. He said owning a

    business in the area and wanting more customers would be a pro, but increased

    traffic could be a con.

    “So all of those things, you’ve got to take into account,” he said.

    Cowell said he’s worried about what changes a different land designation would

    bring and is not happy with what he sees as secrecy and lack of transparency

    surrounding the idea.

    Because there’s no push for legislation at this point, Westerman said, “We’re

    certainly not being secretive or hiding anything from anyone.”

    If legislation is introduced, Westerman has thoughts about what would not be

    included.

    “So the park’s about 95,000 acres already and I would be opposed to expanding

    the park boundary. I will be opposed to taking in private land. I would be

    opposed to private landowners losing any of their current access and rights to

    their property. I would be opposed if you restricted fishing or hunting,” he said.

    Survey results

    The survey polled people about trails for walking, for bicycling, about the area’s

    natural beauty, property taxes, retail and service businesses as well as

    restaurants and lodging. It also quizzed people on their satisfaction of having

    access to the river for water sports, fishing and hunting.

    It asked those polled if they were aware the Buffalo National River had a national

    river designation and whether they thought it would be a good idea to turn the

    public land around it into a national park and preserve. Sixty-one percent said it

    was a good idea, 32% said it was a bad idea and 7% said they were unsure.

    According to the Runway Group’s survey, if federal lands were changed to a park

    preserve, changes would include improved roads and access to the river, paved

    parking lots near trails, campsites and boat ramps, new public restrooms, new

    walking and hiking trails and improvements to existing trails, more opportunities

    for local businesses and more management to retain the natural habitat of native

    trees, plants and wildlife.

    The survey quizzed respondents on not designating land as a national park

    preserve, including their thoughts on leaving things the way they are, designating

    land sounding like big government, having too many visitors and too many new

    businesses, having more fees and permits, changing the river’s character by

    paving roads and installing new signage and seeing an increase in alcohol sales.

    Even after the pointing out the “bad” points, the Runway Group’s survey said 63%

    thought changing the land designation was a good idea, 34% said it was a bad

    thing and 3% were unsure.

    King said he expressed his frustration to Runway Group officials in last Friday’s

    meeting that the poll “was not done in a way I felt was best to get an accurate

    representation of how local people feel about the idea changing the Bu#alo

    River.”

    Even though Cowell feels a little better about the Runway Group retracting its

    position, he’s still concerned “with the amount of land that’s already been

    purchased,” and people trying to buy land from current owners.

    “There’s been no level of trust with the park service as there is and, you know,

    we’ve kind of become accustomed to this and we’re just worried what changes

    would bring,” Cowell said.

    “I feel like they’re in too far now for nothing to happen,” Cowell said.

    “I don’t feel like the issue is going away,” King said.

    King is speaking at a town hall meeting about changes surrounding the river on

    Oct. 26 at 6 p.m. at Jasper High School Cafeteria.

    “For all voices to be heard without distractions, Runway will not be formally

    attending,” a spokesperson said.

    Westerman also said he would like to host a town hall in the future.

  • 25 Oct 2023 9:31 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Madison County Record

    Buffalo River land tangled in crosscurrents

    Preserve designation surfaced in July 2022

    Posted Wednesday, October 25, 2023 9:45 am

    By Ellen Kreth, For the Record

    Part 1

    The Runway Group of Bentonville is “retracting” the idea of turning federal land

    around the Buffalo National River into a national park preserve, according to

    State Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forest, who represents District 28, which includes

    Madison County.

    After meeting last Friday with Runway Group’s Director of State and Federal

    Affairs Mary Robin Casteel and lobbyist John Burris, King said the Runway Group

    “seemed to be open to more dialogue.”

    “There’s nothing to pause because we’ve kind of done what we set out to do,

    which was to present an idea. We definitely think the idea is worth exploring,”

    Runway Group’s Vice President of Corporate and Community A!airs Krista Cupp

    said.

    “There’s no next steps right now because it’s not our decision to make,” Cupp

    said.

    Designating public lands around the Buffalo National River as a national park

    preserve requires federal legislation.

    Legislation has not been drafted and there’s been no attempt to do so, according

    to U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., who represents Arkansas’ 4th

    Congressional District and chairs the Natural Resources Committee.

    “I would say we’re in listening mode. People have ideas and I know there’s folks

    debating the pros and cons of it,” Westerman said on Monday.

    Steuart and Tom Walton own the Runway Group, a holding company investing in

    real estate, outdoor initiatives, conservation and recreation as well as hospitality

    and businesses in Northwest Arkansas.

    They are grandsons of Walmart founder Sam Walton and sons of Jim Walton, who

    owns thousands of acres of land in Kington in Madison County.

    In addition to the land, a spokesperson for Runway Group told The Record, “As

    part of a restoration effort, members of the Walton family acquired three historic

    buildings on the square in downtown Kingston, intending to update them and

    open their doors to the community. While we don’t yet have a timeline for the

    opening, we will share more when we do.”

    The Walton family purchased the buildings a couple of years ago. A spokesperson

    for the family said they have no other plans to develop the Kingston property.

    Burris invited legislators representing counties in close proximity to the Buffalo

    National River to breakfast at the state Capitol to explain recent poll results

    conducted by Runway about the possible change in land designation and to “get

    your feedback moving forward. There isn’t a plan yet of any kind. We just want to

    start the dialogue with y’all.”

    A group calling itself a Coalition for Buffalo River National Park Preserve began

    exploring the idea of making public land near the Bu!alo National River a

    national park preserve touting the designation as a way to make the area the

    “most active-use National Park in the country for outdoor recreation.”

    The coalition states its’ purpose “is exploring new ideas to preserve, enhance, and

    drive economic benefit for the Buffalo National River.” Officials have neither

    divulged members of the coalition nor established a meeting date.

    Increased infrastructure

    Designating public lands around the river as a national park preserve “would

    provide needed infrastructure support to a growing number of tourists; would

    support the preservation of the river and its current boundaries; and would

    create new ways to benefit the surrounding communities,” a statement from the

    Runway Group said.

    The coalition is using the New River Gorge Park and Preserve in West Virginia as a

    model, which does not require fees or permits, allows fishing and hunting and

    access to the river at multiple public access points.

    Westerman said infrastructure around the Bu!alo National River gets stressed

    with more traffic.

    “Even if it just remains a national river and doesn’t get a park designation, there

    needs to be some investment in the infrastructure and restrooms is one of those

    things and the roads leading to the river. A lot of those places are not in the best

    of shape.

    “So there’s many things that could be improved to enhance the experience on the

    river and also to, you know, harden the infrastructure so that you’re not doing

    damage on the river with all the visitors.”

    Timeline

    In July 2022, the Runway Group approached Westerman about designating the

    river’s public lands as a national park preserve.

    In January 2023, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed an executive order

    establishing the Natural State Advisory Group and appointed Bryan Sanders, her

    husband, as chairman. The council is tasked with growing tourism in Arkansas

    and the “outdoor economy,” according to a news release.

    Gov. Sanders also appointed Tom Walton as one of the 18 members of the

    advisory group. So far no meetings have been announced or open to the public,

    but the group has been active in exchanging emails regarding tourism and parks

    plans.

    The Record requested minutes from any meetings but has not received a

    response.

    King said he is “gravely disappointed and concerned about the natural state

    working group,” and its’ lack of transparency, which he said is contributing to

    “mistrust.”

    In April, according to King, conversations about changing the land to a national

    park preserve began “with state officials. My understanding these conversations

    started with the governor, governor’s husband and Sen. (Missy Thomas) Irvin,” R Mountain View.

    King said he was disappointed local officials in his district were not notified.

    “If I had been informed about conversations about the Buffalo, the first phone call I would of made would have been to my local folks,” King said.

    In May, Bryan Sanders contacted Irvin “to discuss the Buffalo River,” Irvin wrote

    on social media.

    She reached out to the Searcy County Chamber of Commerce director, “who was

    ready to meet. Then we never heard back from the First Gentleman’s office and

    no meeting ever occurred,” Irvin wrote.

    Irvin stated she did not discuss the change with Gov. Sanders or Runway Group

    officials.

    “Mr. Sanders needed to hear directly from my constituents,” Irvin wrote about

    issues concerning the river.

    Also in May, when Bryan Sanders spoke to the Rotary Club of Little Rock, he told

    the crowd 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.

    The Runway Group emphasized making the federal lands abutting the river into a

    national preserve would spark more tourism, increasing money for

    infrastructure.

    On Monday, Gov. Sanders appointed Dalaney Thomas director of tourism.

    Thomas worked at an advertising agency handling the state’s parks and tourism

    account. On the advertising agency’s website, Thomas said her favorite place to

    visit is the Buffalo National River area.

    About six months ago, a former representative reached out to Dustin Cowell, a

    Real Estate appraiser in Mt. Judea, about serving on a committee to explore

    turning the land around the river into a national park.

    Even though Cowell opposes making any changes, he said he would be willing to

    serve on the committee, but he “never heard anything else about it.”

    Cowell said, “They even mentioned that it was kind of from the governor’s office.”

    End of Part 1. See Part 2 


  • 24 Oct 2023 12:40 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Democrat Gazette


    EDITORIAL: Where the Buffalo roams

    This calls for immediate discussion! 

    October 24, 2023 

    Recently, a suggestion was pushed forward that changing the Buffalo National River to a National Park might be a good thing. It's an interesting idea, and all interesting ideas evoke different reactions.

    The Runway Group of Bentonville, underwritten by Steuart and Tom Walton--heirs to a really big global retail store whose family does a whole lot of really good things for Arkansas--released the detailed results of a poll pondering the question.

    First, a little background. In 1972, the Buffalo, one of the few free-flowing rivers left in the United States, was designated as the first-ever National River. It provided a lot of good before it was designated and has since.

    Most Arkansans who are so inclined to get in a canoe for the sake of getting in a canoe have gently paddled alongside its high bluffs and breathtaking beauty at least once. It's a Natural State staple for any outdoors-minded Arkansan. A YouTube search will reveal numerous videos of out-of-staters who travel here to paddle specific sections, or its entirety in some cases.

    Last year alone, the Buffalo, already administered by the National Park Service, attracted 1.3 million visitors and contributed nearly $65 million in economic output to the state.

    That's good money, but could it be better?

    It was for West Virginia when the New River Gorge converted from National River to National Park in 2020. As a National Park, visitors increased from about 1 million to just south of 1.7 million in the first year. Economic activity increased from $152 million to $269 million. That's real money.

    But talking is all we're doing, at least for now.

    If this is going to happen, Arkansas Rep. Bruce Westerman will be key. The path (or river in this case) to becoming a National Park runs right through the House Natural Resources Committee, which Representative Westerman chairs.

    He says, "We're a long ways from me even writing a bill . . . What I've said all along is you need buy-in from the community. This is not a process that should be rushed. We're just discussing an issue and . . . hearing different sides . . . "

    This calls for immediate discussion! (Python, M.) That's where the Runway Group comes in as the first, but certainly not last, mover. This is some of what they found in their survey:

    40 percent of respondents said the river gets too many visitors already

    58 percent said they think that's a bad reason to be against re-designation

    82 percent said it was "very important" that no private land be taken for this purpose

    75 percent said it was "very important" that no new taxes be involved (14 percent said this was fairly important and 10 percent said it was unimportant)

    While it's true that opinions may change in light of any new details that may arise from public meetings, the Runway Group should be applauded for getting the ball rolling and getting a pulse on how the public feels about it today.

    It's not hard to see the foundation of what a piece of legislation could look like based on this data. It's a start. Where it ends will be up to the public.


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