Monday, November 6, 2023

History repeats itself on Arkansas' Buffalo River

I grew up on chatter about the Buffalo National River, the nation's first national river, which was designated in 1972.  I grew up on that chatter because I grew up five miles from the river, in Newton County, Arkansas, home of the river's headwaters.  

My parents talked in my early childhood about their friends--the parents of my friends--whose land was condemned by eminent domain to become part of the park's land, owned and controlled by the federal government.  

While I was still a tween and teen, I saw the establishment of canoe rental enterprises in Jasper and surrounding communities, businesses that had been granted concessions by the National Park Service.  The county attracted growing numbers of tourists as it was remade into a regional ecotourism destination.  (Read more about that here and here; this is just some of my coverage of an industrial hog farm that threatened the river for several years starting in 2013). By the time I was in college and law school at the University of Arkansas (Fayetteville), 80 miles to the west, I had become a tourist on the river myself, consuming (in a sense) the very rurality in which I'd grown up, the very wilderness I'd taken for granted.  (See more photos of Newton County, including the county seat, Jasper, here and here).  

Decades on, I saw the proliferation of vacation rentals--even buildings like a beauty salon in Jasper converted to an AirBnB.  Though I've not seen any news reporting or data on the topic, folks in Jasper have told me that the widespread conversion of buildings to short-term rentals has resulted in a housing shortage.  Of course, that's happening in lots of rural communities, and urban ones, too.

In the past few weeks, the Buffalo has suddenly burst back into the news, once again in relation to its status as a national river.  The reason:  two grandsons of Sam Walton, the legendary founder of Walmart Corporation, have been working behind the scenes--apparently in cahoots with Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders and U.S. Congressman Bruce Westerman--to get the river re-designated from a National River to a National Park Preserve.  

I first saw this news on the front page of the Arkansas Democrat Gazette on October 7, but it didn't seem to break through the standard media humdrum until KUAF, the NPR station associated with the University of Arkansas, two counties over ran this program on Oct. 16.  After that segment, things started popping on social media, and the next thing I knew, I was seeing reports on X (formerly known as Twitter) of a town hall held in my hometown on Thursday, Oct. 26.  Though only about 550 folks live in Jasper, twice that many reportedly showed up at the Jasper School cafeteria, which photos show at overflow capacity.  Another couple thousand folks were said to have attended the meeting on Zoom.  

Meanwhile, the Madison County Record, a weekly newspaper in neighboring Madison County, which lies to the west, between Washington County (where the land grant University of Arkansas is) and Newton County, has been credited with breaking the story of the proposed  re-designation of the Buffalo River.

Historic building in Kingston, Arkansas, just off the square.
(c) Lisa R. Pruitt 2023

That is, apparently it was the Madison County Record that first reported that the Walton Family was buying up land in Madison County with an eye to its long-term appreciation if the Buffalo National River becomes a bigger deal. I can't find that coverage online, but here's more from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on Walton land purchases in Madison County, including a building on the Kingston town square bought under an alias with a Nebraska address in December, 2021.  The Waltons, via the spokesperson for their Runway Group, have issued this statement about the Kingston property
Kingston Community Library
(c) Lisa R. Pruitt 2023

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.

Though Kingston is in Madison County, its school is part of the Jasper School District. You can see a photo of downtown Kingston here.  (And there is a darling, tiny and well-cared-for library on the town square in a squat wooden building that presumably has not been purchased by the Waltons, but lies amidst the three they now own).

Of note is that the Madison County Record has made free its coverage of the Buffalo River re-designation, including this about the community meeting in Jasper on October 26.  What follows is from publisher Ellen Kreth's reporting: 

After a town hall meeting last Thursday, proponents of turning public land around the Buffalo National River into a national park preserve said they would step back from the idea. The following day, a website touting the benefits of re-designating the land was taken down.

But opponents of the idea are not backing down and don’t trust that efforts to re-designate the land are no longer ongoing.

Misty Langdon, owner of Steel Creek Cabins, who organized the town hall meeting, said proponents have poured too much time, resources and money “into this project that seems to be linked to Bryan Sanders [Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ husband],” to just walk away.

In July 2022, the Runway Group approached U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., who represents Arkansas’ 4th Congressional District and chairs the Natural Resources Committee, with the idea of making public land around the river a national park preserve.

Grandsons of Walmart founder Sam Walton and co-founders of the Runway Group, Steuart and Tom Walton are investors in real estate, outdoor initiatives, conservation, recreation, hospitality and businesses in Northwest Arkansas.

* * *

The Runway Group also has been linked with working with the governor’s office and the First Gentleman on the possibility of re-designating public lands.

Last Friday, Runway Group’s Vice President of Corporate and Community Affairs Krista Cupp said the group watched the town hall meeting. She reiterated they are not going forward with any proposal for re-designation. There are “no next steps,” she said.

“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,” a statement issued earlier by the Runway Group said.

Cupp said when the group approached Westerman, it didn’t present a proposal to re-designate the land but simply asked if the idea was worth exploring.
Kingston Community Library 

Two Westerman staff members attended the town hall in Jasper, and his office issued a statement including this: 

Although it is in the purview of the House Natural Resources Committee to advance legislation to designate National Parks, I’ve made it clear I would not support any proposition that does not have grass roots support from those that live, work, and raise their families in the Buffalo River watershed.

As the Representative for Arkansas’s Fourth Congressional District, my first priority is advocating on behalf of my constituents. I will continue to listen to the thoughts and concerns of Arkansans that would be impacted by any change in designation. 

Westerman said he had no plan to write or introduce any legislation that would re-designate the land. 

While the Madison County Record story says the meeting was convened by Misty Langdon of Steel Creek Cabins, another report says it was convened by a non-profit that appears focused on preserving the area's history, the Remnant Group.  

Here's part of a column by Jared Phillips, a Washington County farmer who teaches at the University of Arkansas, writing about what's at stake with the proposed re-designation. 
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.

A 2021 column by Phillips and published in the Democrat-Gazette echoed some similar themes and challenged the notion that a rising tide lifts all boats.  Read it here.  

Then, yesterday, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist Rex Nelson wrote in favor of the proposed National Park Preserve, offering a perspective that runs squarely counter to that of PhillipsThe headline, "Loving it to death," is a reference to tourists loving the Buffalo River so much that they come in such great numbers that the current infrastrcture, e.g., parking lots, toilets, is overwhelmed.  Interestingly, Nelson vouches for the Walton brothers--declaring their motives "pure."    

In addition to their distrust of government, those who live in these hills distrust outsiders. They’re concerned by the large amounts of land being bought by entities associated with brothers Tom and Steuart Walton of Bentonville. I know the Walton brothers, and I want to make one thing clear: Their motives are pure. They realize that our state’s ability to attract and keep talented people in the decades ahead will rest in part on our protecting and enhancing outdoor recreational attributes.

The Walton brothers could live anywhere in the world and do anything they want. But their focus these days is on enhancing quality of life in Arkansas. Other states should be so lucky. Their involvement in the Coalition for Buffalo River National Park Preserve doesn’t worry me. It gives me hope that this effort will succeed.

Here's a competing column from Mike Masterson arguing that the river should be left as it is.  And here's a column from John Brummet, political columnist writing for the Democrat-Gazette, "Selling the state down the river?"  Brummet, too, is skeptical of the wisdom of a re-designation and of the motives of Governor Sanders and the Walton brothers.  

Here's a post on how to bring oldtimers and newcomers together in places like Newton County.  And here's a post, in the context of an industrial hog farm controversy a decade ago about how the interests of folks in Fayetteville and the wider northwest Arkansas region are often seen as being at odds with those of the rural, Newton County locals.  And that reminds me:  I've not seen anyone talking about how many of the folks who showed up at the Oct. 26 meeting were "locals" from Newton County--as opposed to environmentalists from the wider region.  

Postscript:  Here's a Nov. 8, 2023 update from the Madison County Record reporting that the Newton County Quorum Court (essentially a county board of supervisors) had voted unanimously to oppose any re-designation of the Buffalo National River.  A quote follows: 

Newton County Quorum Court members passed a resolution at their Nov. 6 meeting opposing “the changing of the name designation or expansion of the Buffalo National River, and any further negative impact on the agricultural lands or infringement on private ownership on the Buffalo National River Watershed.”

The vote was unanimous with approximately 25 citizens in attendance.

Justice of the Peace Jamie Mefford said the court wanted to show its opposition to any name change, park expansion, private land rights restrictions and any agricultural restrictions.

The Newton County Times currently has yet to post anything about this on its webpage.  Sad when the neighboring county newspaper is able to cover a county's news faster than its own paper can.  

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