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Runway Group exploring new federal designation for Buffalo National River

Fog envelopes Buffalo National River watershed.
Fog envelopes Buffalo National River watershed.

Matthew Moore: I’m here with Jacqueline Froelich, Ozarks at Large senior news producer, to talk about a coordinated effort to change the designation of the Buffalo National River. You began to receive emails and phone calls from concerned residents in the watershed in September. Who’s behind this effort?

Jacqueline Froelich: Runway Group, LLC in Bentonville, came forward last week, announcing their intention to quote “support the Buffalo National River.” The group is founded by Walmart heirs and philanthropists Steuart and Tom Walton. Runway invests in outdoor recreation, real estate, art, and hospitality. The Waltons hired Selzer & Company, headquartered in Iowa, to measure perceptions about the Buffalo National River, reaching 412 registered voters by phone residing across five counties on the watershed. The Buffalo is the first designated National River in the United States, declared back in 1972. The 135-mile-long river is managed by the National Park Service.

I contacted the Runway Group and spokesperson J.T. Geren directed me to a recently published statement on the company’s website about conserving the river, while maintaining access for hunting and fishing. But J. Ann Selzer, who conducted the telephone survey, was more direct. She emailed that the goal of the survey was to gather feedback on shifting the Buffalo’s designation from National River to a National Park and Preserve.

Newton County farmer Beth Ardapple, a long-time progressive political activist, agreed to talk about being surveyed by Selzer.

Beth Ardapple: “I was asked a lot of questions about access to the river and hunting and fishing. You know, did I think it was all adequate? But then if it were to be a national park and preserve should concessions be grandfathered in? Should private land be taken for it? And when they got to the water management questions I just called a halt because I was already struggling to answer, given my concerns about park versus preserve, and my annoyance that they assumed that I should understand that the Buffalo National River is not a park?”

JF: I contacted the Buffalo National River Park Service headquartered in Harrison, asking if staff support or are involved in changing the status of the park. Spokesperson Melissa Trenchik flatly said the Park Service had no part in the survey and has no plans to change the status of the Buffalo National River.

MM: We can all agree that the Buffalo National River is a national treasure, last year drawing more than 1.3 million visitors from across the U.S., who spent nearly $65 million dollars on outfitters, food and short-term rental cabins and cottages in the region. As you’ve long reported, the watershed, and water quality is closely monitored by the park service as well as fiercely protected by the nonprofit Buffalo River Watershed Alliance, which for now has declined to comment you were told? So what’s behind all this?

JF: It appears there is a confluence of interests to transform Arkansas into a national recreational destination. Governor Sarah Sanders’ agenda is to expand the states’ recreational assets under her “Natural State Initiative.” Last January she formed an advisory council, chaired by her husband Bryan Sanders. Runway Group cofounder Tom Walton serves on that council. I contacted the Governor to see if she supports or is behind efforts to change the status of Buffalo National River. Spokesperson Alexa Henning only responded saying the Governor has had informal conversations with a member of Arkansas’ Congressional Delegation.

MM: That’s telling, because it will take an act of Congress to change the federal status of the Buffalo National River, to a national park and preserve, right?

JF: Correct. I had to look this up because national park system designations vastly differ. National Rivers preserve free flowing streams and surrounding environments, limiting activities to hiking, canoeing, and hunting. But national preserves also allow minerals and fuels extraction permits. The status would also allow, and this is really interesting, management to be transferred to local or state authorities, in this case the Sanders administration. This is according to the National Park Service.

MM: You queried two state lawmakers whose districts encompass areas of the Buffalo National River watershed. Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, did not reply, but has gone on record saying many of her constituents oppose this change. What about Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forest?

JF: We spoke by phone. Sen. King says the Buffalo River is (quote) “in the crosshairs.”

King: “This Natural State Committee has been formed and seems like it’s behind it. And certain groups connected to the Waltons are driven towards what they think what the Buffalo National River and the area should go towards, what their tourism and business model is. And it’s concerning.”

JF: Sen. King describes the Selzer survey as a “push poll” seeking a certain outcome. According to data provided by Selzer, 61 percent of the 412 folks surveyed support changing the Buffalo National River to a national park and preserve. Which is an astonishing outcome.

MM: Because that doesn’t jive with what you are seeing on socials?  

JF: As word spreads about this many oppose changes to their beloved national river. It’s also triggered locals who continue to hold a grudge about being displaced by the 1973 national river declaration. I searched historical records and found that in 1968, nearly 100 percent of landholders in Newton County opposed turning the Buffalo into a national river. A realm described as the 'intersection of wealth, philanthropy and conservation' was also mentioned on socials regarding this matter.

MM: So what’s next?

JF: Runway is soliciting the public to “engage in a coalition to explore new ideas centered on preservation, quality of life, and economic vitality,” in its apparent effort to expand the federal status of the Buffalo National River. I also learned that a town hall meeting with a stated goal to “preserve the local heritage of the Ozarks and Buffalo River” will be held at Carroll Electric Coop in downtown Jasper Thursday, Oct. 26 at 6 p.m. A Runway Group spokesperson is expected to attend that meeting, to assure residents that eminent domain declarations – the taking of private property -- are off the table. We'll continue to follow this developing story.

MM: That’s Ozarks at Large reporter Jacqueline Froelich.

Updates: The location of the October 26th 6pm town hall meeting has been changed to the Jasper Public School Cafeteria. Also, we've confirmed that a Runway Group, LLC spokesperson, previously scheduled to attend the meeting has canceled. In addition, U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark who was expected to be on hand for questions from concerned citizens at his regularly scheduled mobile office on Friday October 27th, will not be present. The Congressman's field representative will be on hand to discuss constituents concerns but is not authorized to talk about the Buffalo National River designation.

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Jacqueline Froelich is an investigative reporter and news producer for <i>Ozarks at Large.</i>
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