Buffalo River redesignation idea rejected for now, but growth and preservation still a concern

by Robin Mero ([email protected]) 4,728 views 

Editor’s note: This is the first of two articles about the challenges of maintaining and preserving the more than 94,000 acres in the Buffalo National River system.

The Buffalo National River, an anchor of Arkansas’ tourism industry, is sharing in a dramatic rise in tourism that is sweeping the Natural State. Visitors to the state in 2022 spent $1 billion more than in 2019, before the pandemic, and dollars spent on lodging increased 23%.

Gov. Sarah Sanders aims to make the state a leading destination for outdoor recreation. But recently, public response was swift and disapproving when a conversation arose about redesignating the Buffalo River as a National Park Preserve in order to attract more visitors.

Redesignating the river could dramatically increase the revenue that’s needed to maintain the river region and improve amenities. That was the message from the Bentonville-based Runway Group, a privately-held company owned by brothers Tom and Steuart Walton that invests in outdoor recreation, initiatives and conservation, as well as hospitality and other businesses in the region. Tom Walton is also a member of the Natural State Advisory Council, established to strategize and promote the outdoor economy.

State and government officials and the Runway Group immediately backed away from promoting the idea after hackles were raised for many in the watershed and particularly in Newton County – where folks prize isolation, a slow pace and unadulterated beauty. The Runway Group has provided this webpage to explain its involvement in the redesignation discussion.

“At this time, no official proposal has been offered, only preliminary research as reflected in some fact sheets designed to lead meaningful conversations about the future of the Buffalo and the growth of Arkansas’ outdoor economy,” noted part of a statement from the Runway Group. “We are engaging in a coalition to explore new ideas centered on preservation, quality of life, and economic vitality. It is our hope to continue these conversations with sincerity and respect.”

INFRASTRUCTURE CONCERNS
But an increase in tourism along the 135 miles of Buffalo National River is inevitable; in fact, it’s underway. Arkansas Tourism has leaned into the marketing and promotion of the river as a destination and increasingly pays for more images and stories to be projected across the nation and into big markets such as Atlanta, Houston, Los Angeles, Chicago and Miami.

Maintenance for the Buffalo River and its amenities is drastically underfunded, with the Park Service deferring upwards of $30 million in projects for roads, bathrooms, campgrounds and the riverbed itself, according to Sen. Missy Thomas Irvin, R-Mountain View. The river’s home counties are some of the state’s poorest and most underfunded, and since 40% of land in the watershed is federally owned, it is not subject to property tax revenue for the counties.

“All of this creates a drain on the local counties that have to deal with these many problems, and they don’t have the budgets,” Irvin said. “It costs these rural counties a lot to maintain unpaved roads, especially ones with low water bridges and that see an incredible amount of traffic due to key access points for the river.”

Newton County officials, for instance, are anticipating the impact of the opening of Marble Falls Nature Park, which Bass Pro Shops CEO Johnny Morris is constructing at the former location of the Dogpatch USA theme park. Arkansas Highway 7 from Harrison may need increased maintenance and to be widened.

Even the skies are busier. The resurgent Searcy County “Buffalo River” Airport, for instance, is now home to Buffalo River Air Tours, which has petitioned the Federal Aviation Administration and National Park Service for permission to fly customers over the river.

Statewide, revenue from the 2% tourism tax rose steadily from $18 million in 2019 to $24 million in 2022. That revenue goes into the state’s marketing budget used to attract more visitors via paid news content and traditional media placement.

Amidst the speculation and musing, there are questions to be asked and thoughtful answers to be given. Do Arkansans want many more people using the river? How can the area grow in a manner that is responsible to current and future communities and, most importantly, to the river itself? Rather than asking what we want from the river, what does the river need from us?

‘SUSTAINABLE GROWTH’
Park, River, and Preserve. These are federal designations instructing the National Park Service on how to protect and maintain the character and beauty of waters and lands with historic, scenic and/or scientific features. The Buffalo River possesses all three.

Legislatures designate the categories, determine funding, and ask the Park Service to protect the resources and prevent them from changing as much as possible.

Congress established the Buffalo National River in 1972 after years of ado over similar questions about how the river should be used and maintained. According to the 1972 enabling legislation, “The purpose of Buffalo National River is to preserve a free-flowing river and to conserve and interpret the combination of natural, scenic, cultural, and scientific features characterized by deep valleys, towering bluffs, wilderness, and landscapes of the Ozark Mountains.”

In the years since Arkansas has changed. Rather than being perceived as backward and bottom-of-every-list, Arkansas now tops “best of” designations for entrepreneurism, amenities and affordability. Incomes are higher, the population soars in counties west of the river, and new types of people seek property in the river’s breadth.

Irvin believes the river needs “sustainable growth,” which she defines as “growing tourism at a pace that can be maintained with reasonably improving the existing infrastructure – not overwhelming the current, already inadequate, infrastructure with triple the amount of tourists.” She highlights the grassroots Buffalo River Conservation Committee, which has directed $1 million to assist cities, counties, and local farmers and small businesses with the strain and help maintain water quality.

“It has been an incredible success, and I hope Gov. Sanders will match the efforts with an additional $1 million,” Irvin said. “And there is absolutely no reason in my mind why these entities as they exist shouldn’t receive adequate funding from the federal government. … It is entirely unnecessary to change the land designation in order to properly fund what you already have. The BNR should stay as the first national river.”

The New River Gorge in West Virginia was redesignated in 2022 from a National River to a National Park, the nation’s 63rd, and Preserve, the nation’s 20th. The Preserve designation allows hunting and fishing to continue on much of the land – a major interest also at the Buffalo River.

‘MORE WITH LESS’
But re-designations are not one size fits all, said Kyle Groetzinger of the National Parks Conservation Association.

“The most important factor to consider is resource protection – ensuring that public lands and waters remain protected to the highest possible standard,” Groetzinger said. “There is no single model to follow – the process for New River Gorge or Cuyahoga or any other re-designation varied significantly.”

U.S. Sen Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., has publicly highlighted $51 million brought to the Gorge since its redesignation and said the redesignation also contributed to $3.7 billion in federal funding received within the four-county area around the park and preserve. With southern West Virginia being one of the most economically depressed areas in America, the new designation is seen by many as a welcome economic driver. Recent reports, however, suggest that funding has not kept up with visitor impact on the region, which is resulting in a rising number of unhappy local residents.

But many in the Buffalo watershed are asking whether more support for the river can be generated by the Congressional delegation, by state government, or by private philanthropy.

Three times a year, dozens of volunteers launch canoes loaned to them by outfitters along the Buffalo River and set out early to float and retrieve trash from the river, riverbank and adjacent areas. On separate dates, they tackle the upper, middle and lower river sections. The Buffalo National River Partners was an informal band of do-gooders until the Park Service asked it to partner in the early 2000s; in 2007, it was incorporated into a 501c3.

The BNRP is not the only group supporting the river, but it is the sole group with a Park Service memorandum of understanding, and a Park staff member holds a liaison position on its board to provide information and guidance.

“We support the goals and purposes of the National Park Service with education, finances and volunteers; they have work plans laid out for three years and we drum up troops,” said Landon Curtis, acting board president. “There are financial needs. Facilities to be maintained. Sometimes it’s about doing more with less.”

THE ‘ARTIFICIALLY UNSTABLE’ RIVER
Much of the quantified degradation to water quality in the Buffalo and its adjacent land is caused by disregard and overuse of the river – such as the overuse of fertilizer, swine and poultry operations, wastewater and septic systems, vehicle exhaust and nearby development, according to a National Park Service “Foundation Document” published in 2018.

Other concerns noted in the 50-page NPS document are a dramatic increase in backcountry camping and visitors using machetes, hatchets, and axes to impact vegetation, an increased number of dogs disturbing wildlife and visitors, trails widening from equestrian use, adjacent landowners creating unauthorized access points to park lands, and development at the edges of park boundaries, such as houses, cabins, roads, and powerlines.

One eerie entry: “The overall morphology (living organisms) of the Buffalo River stream channel is artificially unstable due to a variety of past and current contributing factors within the surrounding watershed and park including gravel mining and channelization, effects of agricultural practices, poorly designed and maintained gravel roads, riparian clearing, and bridge structures.”

Even the wilderness land is overused. Of the Buffalo River’s 94,293 acres, almost 36,000 are designated as wilderness and activities are further restricted. Wilderness land, according to the NPS, is land “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Such land retains “its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation … with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable.”

Yet there has been an increase in recreational rock climbing, vandalism and graffiti on rocks, caves, and bluffs, unauthorized camping and use of fires in historic fireplaces and sites, theft of minerals such as lead and zinc and vandalism at mine sites, and illegal use of ATVs degrading the land. The wilderness character is threatened by overuse in some areas, and opportunities for solitude and primitive, unconfined recreation are degraded by very heavy usage of trails, according to the NPS.

Curtis is positive about the future of the Buffalo River but does express concern when detailing the debris and trash his volunteer organization encounters in the river year after year, and increasingly so.

“The river will be here long after we are,” Curtis said. “And it needs us all.”