Bass Pro slowly carves out a private nature preserve on former Dogpatch USA grounds
A wrecked gaudy metal sign just off Highway 7 between Jasper and Harrison, Arkansas that once lured tourists into the legendary Dogpatch USA amusement park still stands. But chained entry gates bar the public from entering what's now a massive construction zone. After Bass Pro Shop founder and CEO Johnny Morris bought the vacant t 400-acre park in early 2020 for $1.2 million dollars, ground was broken on the new tourist attraction called Marble Falls Nature Park. A year later, Morris spoke briefly to a KY3-Missouri television reporter about the purchase.
“First time I was exposed to it was three or four years ago and it was pretty dilapidated, the buildings run down," Morris said. "But what is there is beautiful nature, limestone bluffs, a huge spring. We plan to build a restaurant there, and take our time to develop nature trails. They had a big trout hatchery there, so one of our first goals is to reactivate the hatchery.”
The spring-fed trout hatchery and ponds are impounded by Marble Falls, which cascades into Mill Creek, a tributary of the Buffalo National River. The trout farm was originally built in the 1930s by Newton County native Albert Raney, Sr., said grandson James Devito, retired owner of Devito's Restaurant in Eureka Springs.
“The family lore is that grandpa bought about 800 acres after the railroad had been through Newton County and timbered out most of the large trees," he said. "I heard that he paid like a couple of dollars an acre for the land that consisted of Bluff Springs and and the falls at Marble Falls.”
Devito recalled later visiting Dogpatch USA, built on his grandfather's land, which opened in 1968.
“The park consisted of everything from a train that transited around the park and there were motorized boats that you could use in the lake," he said. "There were various thrill rides like you would see at any carnival. There was also a tram that took you from a parking lot above the park down into to the park itself. And later what developed in the upper part of the park was a winter scene, with a ski slope, and a skating rink and lodge.”
Visitors to the amusement park gradually dwindled in the 1980s, drawn to other places like Silver Dollar City in Branson and the Victorian-era village of Eureka Springs in Carroll County, before closing in 1993. Devito said he recently stopped by the site, to check out construction progress on the new nature park centered on the Bluff Springs area.
“What I did see was they exposed a tunnel shaft right next to the spring that we had no idea existed," he said. "And there's some work that they've done above the springs which. And if it's like Dogwood Canyon, I have a feeling that you'll be seeing a large waterfall cascading above where the spring exits from that side of the bluff.”
Dogwood Canyon Nature Park near Lampe, Missouri, purchased by Johnny Morris in 1990 when the site was an RV hunting campground, was slowly transformed into a majestic 10,000-acre private preserve where patrons for a price can hike, cycle, horseback ride, fish, and take wildlife tours. Reserved one-day tickets cost $21 dollars for adults $15 for kids. The cost is even higher at the gate. Morris also builds high-end nature resorts, lodges and museums.
The nature preserves are a mission of the Johnny Morris Conservation Foundation, which “advances conservation by honoring the traditions of hunting and fishing.” Funding is infused into the foundation by Bass Pro Shop a privately-held sporting goods retailer with peak revenue in 2022 reportedly valued at $6.5 billion dollars.
“I struggle a little bit to even grasp the impact which we expect to be really significant," said Harrison Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Wilson Marseilles, who believes the attraction will bring much-needed revenue to the region.
"[Especially] for residents looking for jobs in conservation, tourism, and hospitality," Marseilles said. "Some of it is speculation on on what it will end up being, and the full impact but we expect it to be pretty significant with the amount of capital investment that we know is going to be there. And the amount of infrastructure that they're building out, it's an exciting time, it really is, so we're just kind of waiting for more information as it continues to come out.”
In recent years, little information about the park's development has been released to the public. No website exists. After the parcel was purchased, a Bass Pro Shop official met with members of the state's Buffalo River Conservation Committee, where he announced that the park would provide 600 construction jobs, hire 170 park employees, generate $1.4 million dollars in sales tax revenue and $324 thousand dollars in annual property taxes.
Vixen James, a third-generation Newton County native, attended that meeting. He’s a local realtor and president of the Newton County Chamber. He agrees that locals have been kept in the dark about the park’s progress.
“I believe that it’s true that you know when they do have their plans and timelines established, that they do want to engage the public or at least the stakeholders to keep them informed," he said. "And to to work with them, but they're not at that point and they're not releasing any of that.”
A query to Bass Pro Shop for this report about developments of the new preserve yielded no response. Morris owns property on either side of the highway leading into the park, and rumors are circulating that he may fund widening sections of Highway 7 to ease access into the new preserve, although a state transportation department official said no formal proposal or plans have been submitted. County resident Vixen James says road widening could be a possible course of action.
“But again they're so professional in the way they approach their projects," he said, "they're very disciplined, and until they have timed out plans, they're not speaking to it.”
The Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality is monitoring for any breaches of the park's stormwater construction permit. ADEQ records and photographs tracing back to 2020 show extensive earthwork, including a new gorge, berms and enlargement of a cave opening on Bluff Springs. State environmental investigators have documented multiple incidents of turbidity in ponds and streams, caused by dredging and construction sediments in violation of federal and state clean water rules, holding park facility managers to compliance. Local residents, not wanting to be identified for this report, say historically the ponds and streams on the site ran clear, but now contain lots of algae.
Anticipating that hundreds of thousands of visitors could annually patronize the new nature preserve which lies in the Buffalo National River watershed, more than $1.6 million dollars in state funding assistance to improve a nearby wastewater treatment facility serving the unincorporated community of Marble Falls was approved by the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission in late 2021.
Arkansas realtor Stuart Nance, a fourth-generation Newton County native, back in 2020, brokered the sale of Dogpatch USA to Johnny Morris, DBA, as Down by the Falls, LLC.
“My ancestors homesteaded the Pruitt area, they were the Pruitt family," he said. "And my parents to this day still live on the Pruitt homestead which is all the land south of Dogpatch to the Buffalo River, 1100 acres, which we recently sold to Johnny. So Johnny Morris now owns continuously from the Boone County line, the Dogpatch property and the Nance/Pruitt ranch.”
But if or how that additional property will be developed by Morris is not known. Nance also said his family once held the keys to the abandoned Dogpatch property back in 2011, the result of a court-ordered settlement -- three years later, selling the amusement park for $2 million dollars. That owner was forced into foreclosure, with the Nance family repossessing the parcel for a time. Unable to manage upkeep or restore the historic site, the facility was scheduled for public auction on the Newton County Courthouse steps in March 2020. But a month before the auction could take place, Johnny Morris, Nance said, stepped forward, making an offer no one could refuse.