Concern over the possibility of redesigning the Buffalo National River draws large crowds to a small Arkansas town

A sign on the road for this Newton County town lists its population as 547.

On Thursday evening, more than twice that number, more than 1,185 people, were packed into the local high school cafeteria. The original 400 chairs were supplemented by another 273 chairs carried by students from every classroom on campus — and even then, the crowd spread out along the walls of the gymnasium, in the vestibule and hallways, past vending machines and photos of past graduates.

These numbers did not include the 500 people watching the library’s Zoom live stream (subscriptions cap at 500), or the more than 1,400 people who tuned in via Facebook Live.

“I was expecting 75 people at Carroll Electric, so you’ll just have to bear with me here,” event organizer Misty Langdon said from the crowded stage shortly after 6 p.m., apologizing for the lack of streaming capacity. In the rest of the school.

Part of the overflow crowd at a town hall on October 26, 2023 in Jasper, Arkansas to discuss the possibility of redesignating the Buffalo National River as a national preserve. (Kevin Middleton/Photo courtesy of Misty Langdon)

The only reason so many people go out on a Thursday night? Buffalo River.

For more than three weeks, news stories and rumors have stoked fears and persistent distrust among residents living in towns and communities along the Buffalo River — where wealthy outsiders have been trying once again to change the river’s protected status as the nation’s first national river.

On Thursday night, that anxiety and mistrust came to a head when ten different speakers — including Sen. Brian King, R-Greenforest, and people from organizations ranging from the National Audubon Society to the local Farm Bureau chapter — expressed caution and opposition to an emerging proposal to reallocate Federal lands along the Buffalo National River, just over 94,000 acres today, are designated as a national preserve.

The difference is big: National river designation keeps streams free-flowing, protects the waterway from industrial uses, and allows hiking, canoeing, and fishing. A national park reserve relaxes these restrictions, opens the door to potential mineral extraction, and allows management to be transferred to local or state control.

“I see history repeating itself there,” Langdon said in an interview the day before the meeting, noting the similarities between the 1970s and today. “These are wealthy people who don’t live here and don’t know the culture here. And yet they are proposing to make sweeping changes to our landscape. I think that scares the people who live in the community.”

“Shouldn’t we have a meeting?”

Langdon — a seventh-generation resident of nearby Steele Creek, whose Cultural Heritage and Historic Preservation Group “Remnants Project” organized the evening — has spent the past few days organizing the event. But the real work began about two weeks ago, when rumors of a phone survey spread through the community.

As reported in Madison County on October 4, Iowa-based Selzer & Company, which was later linked to Walton-operated Runway Group LLC, surveyed 412 voters in Baxter, Madison, Marion, Newton and Searcy counties from September 11-11 September. 13 about their thoughts on the proposed reappointment.

Wendy Finn, one of the evening’s first speakers, took a closer look at the poll and the fact sheets that reclassification proponents developed from those results, pointing out some of the problematic language and omissions.

For example, Finn said 64 percent of those surveyed support designating the Buffalo River as a national park and preserve, but surveyors have not defined what those terms mean. Finn also noted that nearly half of the survey respondents (43%) were from Baxter County, which has the smallest amount of Buffalo River watershed of the counties surveyed (2.5%). On the other hand, Newton County, which includes 46% of the Buffalo River watershed, made up just 7% of those surveyed, or 29 people.

After learning of the poll, Langdon reached out to some local elected officials in the county and asked them, “Shouldn’t we have a meeting to get to the bottom of this?” Nothing was achieved. I then reached out to the Runway Group on October 11 and asked if they would be interested in participating in a town hall style meeting on October 26. The answer was definitely.

She hoped to engage them to answer some questions about the survey – and why the survey was done, “because no one could really understand the ‘why’ behind it.”

Adding to the uncertainty was another piece of information first reported by the Madison County Record in its October 4 story — that Walton’s Kings Creek LLC had purchased land near Kingston, accumulating “more than 6,000 contiguous acres,” according to records from Kingston County “. Madison County Assessor’s Office, making it one of the largest landowners in Madison County.

In response, Langdon said, “I’m not afraid of prestigious property, I’m afraid of having my house taxed. You know, I hear people say, ‘How am I going to pay my taxes? I can barely pay my taxes now.’” And these are people who are older and have income. Fixed.

‘An opportunity for transparency’

After opening Thursday’s meeting and explaining why it was being held, Langdon addressed the lack of an elephant in the room: the Runway Group’s lack of attendance. Although Runway originally agreed to attend, they withdrew as the winds of public opinion around the meeting turned and expected attendance grew.

Langdon told the audience that Runway’s presence “would have provided an opportunity for transparency and an opportunity to meet the community that they were looking for.” “I received a call this morning from Runway wishing us well and asking me to comment on their behalf. However, I feel any statement would be better coming from their team.

In the post with the event schedule, there was a list of those who “declined or did not respond”: Johnny Morris; National Advisory Council (sic) of the State; Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders; First Master Brian Sanders; National Park Service.

“I think when we look at this, we need to be transparent,” said King, the lawmaker who has been most vocal about the need for community involvement in decision-making. “This is not a constant thing that’s happening right now.”

“Too many people, too expensive”

Over the course of an hour and a half, 10 different speakers stood and took their places in front of the microphone.

Although each person approached the issue at hand through their own lens, whether it was agriculture, entertainment, politics, history, conservation, etc., they all echoed the same sentiments that drew large crowds to the room That evening – that they weren’t about to be excluded from any conversation that would directly impact their lives. (Gordon Watkins, who spoke on behalf of the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance, summed it up when he said, “Someone said that if you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re on the menu.”)

Langdon, whose family has owned Steele Creek Cabins since 2004, addressed the effects of increased tourism in the past, showing images of car-lined roads and river trees crowded with kayakers. This is what a 6.5% increase in tourism looks like – which is what the region has seen during the Covid years – Langdon explained, before noting that the Runway Group had predicted a 60% increase.

One of the most moving speeches to the crowds that night came from Billy Bell, whose biography stated simply that “Billy Bell is a resident of Newton County.”

“The propaganda I saw on the watershed map tells us that these rich guys are going to protect our rights to hunt and fish — but what I see is a bait-and-switch operation,” Bill said to whistles, applause and “right.” “The questions I have are: First, who is protecting us? Second, do we really need protection? And third, is telling us we need protection a scare tactic?

Bill said he worked for 20 years in resource management and protection on the Buffalo River and the U.S. Forest Service, then listed a litany of protected activities on the river, including various types of hunting and hunting — “deer, bear, elk, turkey, squirrel, squirrel with Dog, rabbit, rabbit with dog, raccoon, raccoon with dog – each series ends with the words “No permit required.” At the end of his speech, Bill received the only full ovation of the night.

The final speaker of the night, attorney Brinkley Cook Campbell, a Mount Judean native, read a two-page open letter addressed to U.S. Reps. Bruce Westerman, Rick Crawford, Steve Womack and French Hill. US Senators John Boozman and Tom Cotton; Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders “and all elected officials in Arkansas.”

Runway Group representatives approached Westerman about designating the federal lands surrounding Buffalo as a park preserve in July 2022, the Madison County Record reported this week.

Cook-Campbell’s letter read in part:

“Over time, the Buffalo River will likely succumb to what destroys all natural wonders — too many people and too much price. Let’s not rush that outcome by changing the river’s designation. Our community should be left as it is, beautiful, pure, and wild. Because when it changes “When the visitor centers and hotels come, when the hayfield turns into a parking lot, and the gravel strip around the bend turns into a rest area — there will be no turning back. Locals will see their way of life lost forever.”

After the meeting, Langdon said that seeing such diverse and often conflicting interests sharing the stage felt like “the Twilight Zone”: “These are the two most polarized groups in our society coming together to say this is not going to help our society.” community or river in any way.

She went on to say that she is very proud of her community, but that this likely won’t be the last time the community needs to come together. Although Runway Group said it planned to back away from these plans, doubts remained strong. One of the prevailing themes during the meeting was the need for a unified vision – and as Langdon had said the day before, they needed to hear this vision long before the legislation was drafted.

“One thing we’ve learned is that once we start the process of passing legislation, we have very little input into how this bill is written.”

However, in the meantime, as she looked at the 673 chairs pulled into stacks and the dwindling conversation groups, she seemed pleased with the event — and said she was also looking forward to some well-deserved rest.

“We have an off-the-grid cabin,” Langdon said. “I plan to be there for about three days without cell phone service.”

The Arkansas Advocate is part of the State Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. The Arkansas Advocate maintains editorial independence. This article was published with permission from Arkansas Lawyer. Contact Editor Sonny Albarado with questions: (email protected). Follow the Arkansas Advocate on Facebook and Twitter.

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