The Buffalo River in Arkansas underwent a remarkable transformation to become the Buffalo National River, a designation that helped protect its pristine natural beauty and historical significance. The journey began in the mid-20th century when residents and conservationists recognized the need to safeguard this unique and unspoiled river ecosystem from potential damming and commercial development. Their grassroots efforts led to the creation of the Ozark Society in 1962, a pivotal organization that played a significant role in advocating for the preservation of the Buffalo River.
Through years of dedicated activism and support from various stakeholders, including Congressman John Paul Hammerschmidt, the Buffalo River was officially designated as the first national river in the United States on March 1, 1972. This landmark achievement resulted in the river’s inclusion under the protection of the National Park Service, ensuring that it would forever remain free-flowing and undeveloped for future generations to enjoy. The Buffalo National River now stands as a testament to the power of community action and the importance of preserving America’s natural treasures. It provides a unique opportunity for outdoor enthusiasts and history buffs to immerse themselves in the rugged landscapes, diverse wildlife, and rich cultural heritage that define this pristine waterway.
Recent economic impact numbers from the river are available here.
Redesignation of the first National River
In September, we began hearing talk about changing the Buffalo National River into the Buffalo National Park & Preserve. The Runway Group, the investment arm of Tom and Steuart Walton, funded a survey conducted by Seltzer & Company, a polling organization from Iowa. The survey was conducted in mid-September and was answered by 412 voters in Baxter, Madison, Marion, Newton, and Searcy counties in Arkansas.
Questions raised on social media, particularly the Facebook page, “Our Buffalo River.” prompted the Runway Group to release the following statement:
“As Runway Group and others across the state continue to promote the outdoor economy in Arkansas, we want to make every effort to explore how adequate funding for critical infrastructure and resources would be available to conserve the Buffalo National River area, while maintaining access to the river, hunting, and fishing for all Arkansans.
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. Our intent with this survey is to better understand the feelings and beliefs of the Arkansans whose daily lives are connected to the River. 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.”
After reaching out to the Runway Group, Arkansas Outside was contacted by Krista Cupp, Vice President of Corporate and Community Affairs for the Runway Group. She said that there is “currently no official proposed changes to the Buffalo National River,” and she reiterated, “There is no plan, no legislation, and no map.”
Cupp said, “The polling was exploratory and the numbers came back fairly positive and were statistically representative of the five counties.”
The idea is not unlike the changing of the New River Gorge area of West Virginia creating a similar National Park & Preserve in 2020. It is probably too early to have relevant economic data from that region to get an idea of what could happen in Arkansas with this kind of change. You can read articles on the subject at The Guardian and West Virginia NSTV.
According to Cupp, a coalition has formed to consider this move made up of principles at Runway Group and others. She could not provide a list of individual participants in the coalition. You can see some of the data from the polling on the Coalition for the Future of the Buffalo National River on their website.
Some of the concerns about the project are the involvement of large landowners from outside the area including Walton, Tyson, and Morris (Bass Pro Shops) business interests. Climbers returning from the 24 Hours of Horseshoe Hell event at Horseshoe Canyon Ranch near Jasper, Ark last month mentioned to us that the Walton Family had purchased or were purchasing the ranch. (this is currently unconfirmed).
Ellen Kreth of The Madison County Record spoke with Austin Albers, President and Owner of Buffalo Outdoor Outfitters. Mr. Albers is also a member of the Arkansas State Parks and Recreation Commission and The Natural State Initiative under the direction of First Gentleman, Bryan Sanders. Albers said, “The goal of designating federal lands as a national preserve is to gain funding for infrastructure, roads, bathrooms, and parking lots. You’re looking at positive economic impact, prolonging and protecting the national park, the national river, protecting what brings people here, so hunting, fishing, floating, all that. None of that changes. And that’s why it’s a national park preserve and not just a national park,” Albers said. “So if we can transition to a national park and preserve versus a national river, you know, generate more funding that way for the park and get more infrastructure put into place, I think it’s a win for everybody.”
According to Dave Barak, Public Affairs Specialist with National Park Service News Media, when asked about the difference in funding between a National River, like the Buffalo, and and National Park and Preserve, like New River in West Virginia, “…there would be no change to how the park is funded based on designation.” For more on the differences, Mr. Barak referred us to this article on the National Parks Service website. Definitions are below.
- “Generally, a national park contains a variety of resources and encompasses large land or water areas to help provide adequate protection of the resources.”
- “…national preserves [are] established primarily for the protection of certain resources. Activities like hunting and fishing or the extraction of minerals and fuels may be permitted if they do not jeopardize the natural values. National reserves are similar to the preserves. Management may be transferred to local or state authorities.”
- “National rivers and wild and scenic riverways preserve free-flowing streams and their immediate environment with at least one outstandingly remarkable natural, cultural, or recreational value. They must flow naturally without major alteration of the waterway by dams, diversion, or otherwise alteration. Besides protecting and enhancing rivers, these areas provide opportunities for outdoor activities like hiking, canoeing, and hunting.”
Darryl Treat, Executive Director, Greater Searcy County Chamber of Commerce sent us the following statement:
“The Greater Searcy County Chamber of Commerce supports the continued status of the Buffalo River as America’s 1st National River! We reject a change in its name and status. The Buffalo River is currently a wild and free-flowing river that is federally protected. There is no place for ethnocentrism and paternalism by outside interests directed toward the local people and land of the Buffalo River Watershed.
Local people, like people everywhere, 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. It’s a ludicrous proposition to trust our region’s future to outside interests that have no plan. We are, without question, the tourism experts in Searcy County! We live here and work here day in and day out.
We have young people who are the 10th generation of their family to live in Searcy County! This is not just a beautiful place to vacation, it is our home. We must take a wise and deliberate approach in securing our posterity’s future and protecting our Ozarks way of life.”
A community meeting is scheduled for Thursday, October 26 at 6 p.m. at the Jasper School Cafeteria, 600 School St., Jasper, Ark. The meeting is organized as a Town Hall Meeting by the Remnants Project a group working to preserve the heritage of the Arkansas Ozarks & Buffalo River through stories. They have invited representatives of the Runway Group to answer questions about the project. UPDATE, The Runway Group has declined to attend the meeting.