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  • 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 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


    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


    “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


    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


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


    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.”


    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


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


    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


    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


    “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


    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.

  • 24 Oct 2023 11:12 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Axios NW Arkansas

    Oct 24, 2023 - 


    Buffalo National River town hall set for Thursday in Jasper


    The Runway Group won't participate in an informational town hall to provide locals clarity about the future of Buffalo National River's designation.

    • The meeting is scheduled for 6pm Thursday at the Jasper public school.

    Driving the news: Runway — a holding company owned by Walmart heirs Steuart and Tom Walton — posted results of a poll online this month that said nearly two-thirds of respondentswould support changing the national river to a national park and preserve.

    • Those results and the poll itself have driven fear of what the change could mean to the river and its neighbors.

    "We think the town hall is a great idea and the first step to bringing this idea to the table," a spokesperson for Runway said in an email. 

    • "For all voices to be heard without distractions, Runway will not be formally attending."

    Why it matters: A national park designation could boost the state's tourism economy by bringing in more federal money to develop modern amenities like roads, campsites and bathrooms.

    • Yes, but: More tourists could have a negative impact on the river and the environment.

    Catch up quick: Survey results were published on a website titled "Coalition for the Future of the Buffalo National River." The site says the coalition is "made of people who want to sit around a table and discuss new ideas."

    • While it's noted that the Runway Group commissioned the poll, the motivation behind it isn't apparent to many living near the river, Misty Langdon, a representative of a Newton County historical group, the Remnants Project, told Axios.
    • In a statement on its website, Runway said it does not support drilling or taking of private land.

    Langdon and state Sen. Bryan King (R-Green Forest) said they feel Runway hasn't been transparent about the poll.

    • After several conversations with the group and her neighbors, Langdon organized the town hall as an educational platform for communities that could be impacted.

    King; Gordon Watkins, president of the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance;  Jack Stewart of the Audubon Society; and others will be panelists at the meeting. 

    Context: The Buffalo became the first national river in 1972. Changing it from a national river to a national park and preserve would safeguard hunting and fishing access but could lead to land-use restrictions.

    By the numbers: 412 registered voters in Baxter, Madison, Marion, Newton and Searcy counties were asked 14 questions about the issue.

  • 24 Oct 2023 10:17 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Deltaplex News

    Arkansas Tourism Has Never Been Stronger OP-Ed by Governor Sarah Sanders

    Tue, October 24, 2023 by Greg

    Arkansas Tourism Has Never Been Stronger

    Column of Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Secretary Shea Lewis

    You may have seen them paddling down the Buffalo River last spring. Maybe you ran into them mountain biking one of our state park Monument Trails this summer. Or you may see their out of state plates en route to the Delta to go duck hunting this winter.

    They’re tourists. Arkansas has never seen so many.

    Our State’s Department of Tourism just completed its comprehensive tourism economic study for last year. The numbers are staggering.

    48.3 million people visited Arkansas in 2022, about sixteen times our state’s population. They spent $9.2 billion while here. That’s an annual increase of 17.1% and 15.4%, respectively.

    And as any Arkansan will tell you, the flood isn’t letting up any time soon.

    This is all especially good news given that just three years ago, Arkansas’ tourism industry was headed for disaster. The pandemic brought empty hotel rooms and shuttered restaurants, leaving many to wonder if our tourism industry would ever recover.

    Well, you can put those concerns to rest. When you combine its direct and indirect impacts, the tourism industry created $15.7 billion in economic activity in our state. That makes it our state’s second-largest industry after agriculture.

    Even better, all those full hotel rooms and crowded restaurants generated $24.3 million in Tourism Reinvestment Tax revenue. That’s up 15.8% over the previous year and the highest sum ever. This revenue will be invested right back into marketing our beautiful state, driving even more tourists to Arkansas.

    This is all great news for the nearly 70,000 Arkansans employed in the tourism industry, towns big and small, and rural communities all across the Natural State.

    But we know we can do even better.

    The Sanders Administration was elected to shake up the status quo. Last year’s tourism numbers were great, but we want to keep smashing records in 2023.

    That starts with smart policymaking. At the beginning of this administration, Arkansas’ First Gentleman, Bryan Sanders, spearheaded a new working group called the Natural State Initiative to bring together the greatest minds in the public and private sectors and make Arkansas’ outdoor economy even stronger.

    Their work paid off quickly, with the legislature passing sweeping reforms last spring to expand access to world class outdoor recreation, including hunting, fishing, cycling, mountain biking, rock climbing, and paddling. We cut red tape at state parks to improve maintenance and amenities for state park visitors.

    We established the Natural State Initiative Pilot Program to empower entrepreneurs to test out new concepts in existing recreation areas – things like food, beverage, lodging, and guide services.

    We expanded grant initiatives to fund high-impact recreation projects in small towns and broadened the Historic Tax Credit to encourage main street revitalization. And the Sanders Family’s favorite: we cut the price in half for lifetime hunting and fishing licenses for Arkansans under ten to get more kids off screens and outdoors.

    All this government action is matching a flurry of activity from businesses and nonprofits. Little Rock’s Museum of Fine Arts recently reopened its doors with a comprehensive facelift, while the long-awaited Marshals Museum in Fort Smith opened this summer. Crystal Bridges is undergoing a massive expansion to cement its status as one of the best museums in America.

    Outdoor Magazine just named Arkansas’ state park Monument Trails the best mountain biking trails in the United States, showcasing the natural beauty of four of our finest state parks. The Arkansas Graveler’s inaugural race next year will take riders from around the world on an epic journey through the Ozark Mountains from Fayetteville to Jonesboro.

    The Mississippi Flyway is teeming with ducks. Our lakes are teeming with boats. Our roadways and airports are teeming with visitors. And they’ll be even busier next April when Arkansas will be one of the best viewing sites in the country for the Great American Eclipse.

    Our tourism industry is taking off, and the Sanders Administration is adding rocket fuel.

    What does this mean for Arkansans? More jobs, more investment, and more ways to have fun, for starters. But it also puts Arkansas on the map as the best place to live, work, and raise a family – something we think can be even more important to the growth of our state.

    Get ready to see a whole lot more tourists here in Arkansas. The rest of the world is about to discover that there is no better place than the Natural State.

  • 23 Oct 2023 10:22 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    By Senator Greg Leding


    In early October, the Madison County Record published a story about a new coalition looking to make the federal lands along the Buffalo National River a national park and preserve. Why might someone want to see such a change? While a national park restricts hunting, mining and consumptive-use activities, a preserve protects hunting, fishing, trapping, and—whew—oil and gas extraction.

    One of the groups promoting the change is Runway Group, LLC, founded by Walmart heirs Tom and Steuart Walton. Runway invests in outdoor recreation, real estate, art, and hospitality.

    One of Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders’s first actions as governor was to form an advisory council, chaired by her husband, First Gentleman Bryan Sanders, to guide the governor’s plan to expand our state’s recreational assets. Among those named to the council by our governor is Tom Walton.

    Developing recreational assets isn’t necessarily a bad idea, but most Arkansans rightfully cherish the Buffalo River as a national treasure and are right to question any proposed changes—especially when the first gentleman appears to have some kind of financial connection to Glen Johnson, who, among other things, is president of an oil and gas company that invests in mineral rights across the US, including the Fayetteville Shale. Johnson contributed to Governor Sanders’s campaign and was named by our governor to the Arkansas Economic Development Commission.

    Could the push for change be nothing more than a sincere desire to responsibly develop an incredible natural asset? Maybe! And maybe if this administration were more transparent, less confrontational, and not tangled up in controversy, Arkansans would be less suspicious.

    As far as legislative support goes—and to be clear, lawmakers can't make the change, only Congress can—there’s bipartisan opposition. Senator Bryan King of Green Forest and Senator Missy Irvin of Mountain View, both Republicans, have expressed concerns, as have I and others.

    If you care about the Buffalo River, follow this story closely. Consider subscribing to the Madison County Record. Write letters to the editor, participate in meetings and town halls when you can, and do contact your state lawmakers. While they can’t change the river’s designation, they can certainly signal their support or opposition to our governor and congressional delegation.

  • 23 Oct 2023 9:24 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Arkansas Times

    Runway Group steps back, first gent’s role in plan to change Buffalo National River designation is revealed



     Debra Hale-Shelton 


    October 23, 2023

    6:57 pm

    Faced with angry pushback from rural Arkansans, the Walton-founded Runway Group is setting aside a campaign to turn the Buffalo National River and nearby land into a national park preserve.

    Further, the name of a long-suspected player in the ill-fated effort has now emerged, though he remains mum: It’s Bryan Sanders, husband of Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

    For months, rumors circulated that the first gentleman was working with Runway on efforts to change the federal status of the Buffalo National River. But no one with any political credentials dared to make the connection publicly.

    “My understanding is they’re backing off at this point in time,” King (R-Green Forest) told the Arkansas Times after fewer than a dozen legislators met Friday in Little Rock with Runway Group representatives, including the investment company’s lobbyist, John Burris.

    “They didn’t expect the backlash,” said King, whose legislative district includes some of the Buffalo region. King also took to X, formerly known as Twitter, where he said, “The runway group said they have no plans to move forward at this time.”

    Now, two state lawmakers — Sens. Bryan King and Missy Irvin — have linked Bryan Sanders to the discussion, though Irvin said she did not know Sanders’ position on the matter.

    Irvin (R-Mountain View) told the Arkansas Times that she learned about the matter belatedly as well, and said she called U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman, chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, earlier this month.

    Irvin said Westerman told her Runway representatives had met with him about the idea. She said she then called Burris to learn more. Burris told her the Waltons were backing off their plans.

    Burris declined comment for this article.

    Runway has made no public comment since last week when it posted a brief statement online amid residents’ loud pushback after a Runway-commissioned survey of Buffalo-area residents brought rumors into the open.

    “We wanted to explore a new idea for our home state together. However, this is not our decision to make. There is no new action being taken,” Runway said last Tuesday. About the same time, Runway told the Arkansas Times it would not participate in a town hall planned for Thursday night in Jasper about this issue.

    Pressed for further comment Monday, Runway spokesman J.T. Geren said only, “What we shared Friday is what we continue to share.” He then repeated a statement given last Tuesday.

    The only statement Friday was one that appeared in an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette article in which Runway spokeswoman Krista Cupp said, “This re-designation is just an idea that’s being floated out there.

    “This is an idea that we certainly think is worth exploring, but there’s nothing new happening right now,” Cupp added.

    King said he fears Runway’s step back is only a delay, especially considering the more than 6,000 acres Walton Enterprises now owns in Madison County after a recent property buying spree. “I don’t think this issue is going away,” King said.

    The land purchase in the Kingston area by King’s Creek LLC, owned by Walton Enterprises, looks “bad and is a major reason for the mistrust,” King said in a separate statement given to the Madison County Record. The Record reported the land purchases last week.

    In the statement, King said Runway representatives told the legislators that “this conversation started back in April and May with state officials.”

    “My understanding, these conversations started with the governor, the governor’s husband and Sen. Irvin,” King said. Irvin called King’s statement about her role a “lie.”

    Further, Irvin said she believed Runway representatives told legislators that it was 1 1/2 years ago that they first met with Westerman about the matter.

    “So I believe that may have been June of 2022 and only with him, and then had ongoing meetings with his staff for his committee,” she said in a statement shared on the Madison County Record‘s Facebook page.

    Congressional approval would be needed to make the Buffalo National River a national park or a national park preserve. Unlike in a national park, people can still hunt and trap in a park preserve. There also can be oil and gas exploration and mining extraction in a park preserve, though Runway said it doesn’t support either in the area.

    Neither Westerman nor his spokeswoman could be reached for comment.

    Irvin said Bryan Sanders contacted her in May “to discuss the Buffalo River.”

    “I told him he needed to meet directly with my constituents,” she wrote on Facebook. “At which point I reached out to … the Searcy County Chamber of Commerce director who was ready to meet. Then we never heard back from the first gentleman’s office and no meeting ever occurred.”

    Irvin said she “never once discussed this” matter with the governor.

    Referring to King’s comment about Irvin’s early involvement in conversations about the Buffalo, Irvin said, “This is an outright lie and misrepresentation. I never had a single conversation with the the Runway Group. I was contacted once and said any conversation had to start local. I have always advocated for anyone to meet directly with my constituents. Unfortunately that never happened.”

    Irvin said she and others involved with the Buffalo River Conservation Committee have repeatedly and clearly stated their opposition to any change in the Buffalo’s current status.

    In a statement Thursday on X, Irvin wrote, “I stand with my constituents in opposing a change in the designation of the Buffalo National River.

    “It is critically important to respect the people who have forged their lives from these mountains & who continue to live with the pain of losing their homesteads, their heritage,” she added.

    Irvin said in an interview that she had “no idea Runway was even involved” in the Buffalo effort until the survey, conducted in September in five counties along the river, came out.

    She questioned why the federal government would want to expand its footprint when it “can’t even take care of what we’ve got.”

    King told the Arkansas Times he had also been unaware of these discussions about changing the Buffalo River designation. Not talking with local residents upfront was “disrespectful and uncaring,” he said.

    He said he told Runway officials that he “was very disappointed that the local government and people were not notified of the discussion.”

    Despite reportedly stepping back from the Buffalo effort, a fact sheet on Runway Group’s website still refers to the “shared objective” of a “coalition for the future of the Buffalo River National Park Preserve.” It does not identify any coalition members.

    Referring to the newly created Natural State Advisory Council chaired by First Gent Bryan Sanders, King said, “I have a real issue with the Natural State committee not being transparent and accountable to local communities.”

    A Sept. 6 council meeting’s agenda, obtained under the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act, lists the item “Buffalo National River Discussion” but gives no details and no speaker.

    Bryan Sanders is friends of Tom Walton and Steuart Walton, co-founders of the Runway Group and grandsons of Walmart founder Sam Walton. Tom Walton also serves on the advisory council, as did Mike Mills, whom the governor fired in June from his position as secretary of the state Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism. Shea Lewis, the department’s new secretary, succeeded Mills on the council.

    Bryan Sanders, his chief of staff and the governor’s spokeswoman have not responded to repeated requests for comment.

    Rumors about the Buffalo have simmered since June when Mills was fired. Those rumors gained credibility and went viral when the Runway survey was done in September in Baxter, Madison, Marion, Newton and Searcy counties.

    King said the first gentleman is the one who “needs to answer questions.”

    Darryl Treat, executive director of the Greater Searcy County Chamber of Commerce, released a statement Monday saying, “We reject a change in [the Buffalo National River’s] name and status.”

    “There is no place for the exclusion of local people from discussions about changes that have consequential impacts to their lands, homes, and future,” said Treat, noting that Searcy County is home to about 48 miles of the river.

    Reflecting how little residents and civic leaders were informed, an FOI request showed that Treat contacted an official with Parks, Heritage and Tourism on Sept. 29 to ask about “any possible discussion” regarding a change in the river’s status.

    Katherine Andrews, director of the department’s Office of Outdoor Recreation, replied to Treat, “We’re fielding a lot of questions about this. It falls in a couple divisions within [the state department] and we are looking at it.”

    Treat replied, “This is going to be a MAJOR FIGHT! We have close to zero trust in the National Park Service.”

    In his statement to the Arkansas Times, Treat said local people should have the largest part to play in their own self determination and future. “We have been told that a change to the river’s federal status would bring us an economic benefit, but when we asked to see a plan we were told there was no plan to see,” Treat said.

    “As the local people who live, die, farm, and raise our families here, we insist that we have a prominent and influential voice pertaining to all matters concerning the present and future of the Buffalo National River. We assert the rights of local people to decide local matters.”


    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.

  • 20 Oct 2023 11:10 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Arkansas Times

    A historian considers the Buffalo’s future

    By Jared Phillips on October 20, 2023

    I think a lot about the past — partly because I’m a history lover and partly because I agree with Wendell Berry that sometimes going forward means going backward. This latest effort by the powers that be in the state, philanthropists, politicians and the like, to change how we deal with natural resources in the hill country is a refusal to reckon with the past. They’re trying to claim the future for themselves, regardless of what it costs the people and land of the Ozarks and Arkansas.

    This push by the heirs of Sam Walton to take control of Arkansas’s resources nakedly shows their true aim: control, not philanthropy. The news surrounding the proposal to change the designation of the Buffalo National River, alongside the reported purchase of Horseshoe Canyon, continued land grabs along the Kings River and more amount to only one thing: the wealthiest in the region are pushing the rest of us out. Removal by way of development and recreation is still removal. 

    The thing is, claims that this development will ease poverty and boost economic vitality in rural areas is suspect at best. Across the nation, developing rural outdoor recreation areas doesn’t produce a meaningful decline in poverty rates at a county level. In fact, in many cases — and Newton County is one — when poverty rates go down in these areas, it has less to do with a wage increase or better opportunity. Economic indicators look better simply because poor folk can’t afford to stay in their place any longer and must leave. That’s why we’ve seen both a drop in poverty in Newton County and a drop in population. The claim that this sort of transition brings about wholly positive things is, on its face, untrue.

    The current conversation about the Buffalo isn’t actually about the river. Bike trails, art parks, high-brow museum expansions — it’s not really about that. It’s about the future of the Ozarks.  All of us, old stock and new, need to ask ourselves if we are truly represented in the decision making that is shaping — often literally — the next generation’s hills. 

    And if we’re honest, the only answer is that we’re not. If we truly were, we’d see regional efforts to push the wealthiest and the powerful to put their money where their mouth is. We would see meaningful, long-term action to effectively address economic injustice and food security in the region. To address worker safety. To thoughtfully and wisely engage in land planning that preserves working, welcoming landscapes instead of putting fences around elite, enclosed playgrounds built on the bones of our grandparents.

    Instead, what we have is an idle class dictating the region’s future according to their own wishes. The region is more than the fevered dreams of the corporations that are attempting to claim the hills and hollers for their pleasure.

    The tagline of the museum in Bentonville is “You belong here.” It’s increasingly apparent that there’s a narrow definition of “you” applied, one that doesn’t include folks who disagree with the way things are going. And the hills and their people are suffering because of it.

    Our past tells us a better future is possible if we fight for it. It’s time we remembered the fierce independence of our best days. It’s time we took our future back from those interested in narrow, restrictive visions. We all belong here, after all.

    Jared Phillips is a historian and a farmer.

  • 20 Oct 2023 10:43 AM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

    Democrat Gazette

    Runway Group posts Buffalo River poll results online

    by Bill Bowden |  

    Runway Group of Bentonville has released the detailed results of a poll it commissioned to gauge people's interest in changing the Buffalo National River's designation to that of a national park and preserve.

    Forty percent of respondents indicated they believe the Buffalo National River gets too many visitors already, and bringing in more would just make it worse.

    But 58% of respondents disagreed with that idea, saying it wasn't a good reason to oppose the proposed designation change.

    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.

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

    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.

    One of the survey questions indicated it was "very important" to 82% of respondents that no private land be taken to create the national park and preserve.

    In a statement on its website at, Runway Group said it didn't support any taking of private land.

    This re-designation is just an idea that's being floated out there, said Krista Cupp, communications director for Runway Group, which commissioned the poll.

    "This is an idea that we certainly think is worth exploring, but there's nothing new happening right now," she said. "It's an idea out there that's being considered. The private sector brings ideas forward, to the public, to the decision makers. Outdoor recreation is a key area for us. This is something that we thought would be interesting to look at. I think what makes this particularly relevant right now is that there's recent data from this happening in West Virginia."

    She was referring to New River Gorge in West Virginia. It became a national river in 1978 and switched to a national park and preserve in 2020.

    From 2020 to 2021, the number of visitors at New River Gorge increased from 1,054,374 to 1,682,720, according to a flyer distributed by Runway Group. During that same time, annual economic impact at the West Virginia park increased from $152 million to $269 million.

    As the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported on Oct. 7, Congressman Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., said the designation change is just talk right now.

    Westerman is chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources, and he represents Arkansas' 4th Congressional District, which includes Newton County and part of the Buffalo National River.

    A bill to make the designation change would have to go through Westerman's 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," he said Thursday. "This is just being discussed, and the discussions are pretty informal right now. 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 ought to be able to do that with civility and by hearing different sides of the story."

    Westerman said local groups have public town-hall meetings planned for Jasper and Marshall to discuss the re-designation idea. Westerman said won't be able to attend either of those meetings, but someone from his staff will be there.

    Westerman said he's against expanding the Buffalo National River boundaries, and the boundaries of national parks in general.

    "Especially I don't like the federal government taking in any kind of private lands," he said earlier this month. "We've got a huge federal estate already."

    Runway Group is a holding company founded by Steuart and Tom Walton that makes investments in real estate, outdoor initiatives and hospitality. The Walton brothers are grandsons of Sam Walton, founder of Walmart Stores Inc.

    Runway Group posted results of the survey online at

    "As participants in very early conversations around how to support the Buffalo National River, Runway engaged in polling residents of Baxter, Madison, Marion, Newton, and Searcy counties," according to a statement posted on its website.

    "Our intent with this survey is to better understand the feelings and beliefs of the Arkansans whose daily lives are connected to the River," according to the statement. "At this time, no official proposal has been offered, only preliminary research as reflected in some fact sheets designed to lead meaningful conversations about the future of the Buffalo and the growth of Arkansas' outdoor economy.

    "We are engaging in a coalition to explore new ideas centered on preservation, quality of life, and economic vitality. It is our hope to continue these conversations with sincerity and respect."

    From Sept. 11-13, Selzer & Co. of Iowa surveyed 412 voters in the five counties by telephone.

    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?" 64% said "for," according to the survey.

    When asked how important it was to them that there would be no new taxes for residents to pay to support a national park, 75% said very important, followed by 14% at fairly important and 10% who said not that important.

    Forty-seven percent of respondents identified as Republican, while 35% were independents and 12% Democrats.

    Most of the respondents were age 60 or over.

    The National Park Service has been dealing with some budget issues.

    "At the end of fiscal year 2022, an estimated $22.3 billion of repair need existed on roads, buildings, utility systems, and other structures and facilities across the National Park System," according to "Addressing deferred maintenance and repairs is critical to the continued preservation, accessibility, and enjoyment of national parks."

    The Buffalo National River currently has $32 million in deferred maintenance and repairs, according to a National Park Service fact sheet.

    "Does anybody really want to count on Washington, D.C., to step up their game?" asked state Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forest, regarding the idea that the Buffalo National River would get more funding as a national park and preserve. "Does anybody really want to rely on that?"

    King said some of his constituents were sort of blind-sided by the pollster's telephone call.

    "There is no way that a poll could be done to get an accurate pulse of this without a much more extensive discussion on it," he said. "There is no way that you should have this kind of poll on this kind of issue and all of a sudden use it as a flag to make changes based on your business model."

    Print Headline: Group releases Buffalo River poll results

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