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

Alliance for the Buffalo National River
A standing room only crowd attended the town hall meeting to learn about efforts to change designation of the Buffalo National River.

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? 

Panel discussion at the Jasper Town Hall was comprised of key stakeholder in the watershed voicing concerns about changing the federal status of the Buffalo National River.
Alliance for the Buffalo National River
Panel discussion at the Jasper Town Hall was comprised of key stakeholder in the watershed voicing concerns about changing the federal status of the Buffalo National River.

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.

Alliance for the Buffalo National River volunteer, Katie Deakins, holds a stack of questionnaires submitted by town hall attendees to measure opinion about re-designating the national river.
Alliance for the Buffalo National River volunteer, Katie Deakins, holds a stack of questionnaires submitted by town hall attendees to measure opinion about re-designating the national river.

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.

A classic view of the Buffalo National River.
T. Fondriest
A classic view of the Buffalo National River.

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.

Updated: November 2, 2023 at 10:07 AM CDT
What is a Buffalo River National Park & Preserve?

The stated aim of the “Coalition for the Buffalo River National Park Preserve” is to change the 50-year-old designation of the Buffalo National River. If proposed and approved by Congress, under a new Public Law, the National Park Service would be charged with establishing the “Buffalo River National Park & Preserve,” publishing general rules and regulations.

So, what exactly would happen if the Buffalo National River Park status ends?

The park would continue to offer federally approved uses including hiking, camping, floating, licensed fishing, designated trail horseback riding and limited hunting (regulated by Arkansas Game & Fish Commission). Vendors such as outfitters, cabins, cottages, and restaurants operating on the periphery of the park would continue to profit from BRNP&P tourism.

But where would a new Buffalo River National Preserve be located?

That remains unknown, given no draft legislation, plans and maps have been proposed by the coalition (whose membership has not been disclosed).

But a Buffalo River National Preserve could, theoretically, be carved out of the Buffalo National Park, or created from private land adjacent to the national park. Private land would be acquired through fee simple purchase – similar to how the Buffalo National River boundary was created back in 1972, or through eminent domain.

And depending on enabling legislation, Buffalo River National Preserve visitors could obtain state licenses to hunt deer, turkey and other game, rock climb, off road cycle, and be accommodated by short-term rentals recently approved to operate within the boundary of at least one national preserve.

Industrial agriculture and grazing could also be permitted on the preserve.

The first National Preserves were designated by an act of Congress in 1974 to allow extraction of minerals and fuel resources, which could also, in theory, occur on a Buffalo River National Preserve.

Eleven National Preserves are currently co-managed with national parks or monuments out of a total of 21 national preserves.
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Jacqueline Froelich is an investigative reporter and news producer for <i>Ozarks at Large.</i>
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