An upper portion of the Buffalo River with Big Bluff in the background. (Photo courtesy of the National Park Service)
(This story appeared first in The Madison County Record and is republished here by permission.)
The Runway Group of Bentonville is “retracting” the idea of turning federal land around the Buffalo National River into a national park preserve, according to state Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forest, whose District 28 includes Madison County.
After meeting last Friday with Runway Group’s Director of State and Federal Affairs Mary Robin Casteel and lobbyist John Burris, King said the Runway Group “seemed to be open to more dialogue.”
“There’s nothing to pause because we’ve kind of done what we set out to do, which was to present an idea. We definitely think the idea is worth exploring,” Runway Group’s Vice President of Corporate and Community Affairs Krista Cupp said.
“There’s no next steps right now because it’s not our decision to make,” Cupp said.
Designating public lands around the Buffalo National River as a national park preserve requires federal legislation.
Legislation has not been drafted and there’s been no attempt to do so, according to Republican U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman, who represents Arkansas’ 4th Congressional District and chairs the Natural Resources Committee.
“I would say we’re in listening mode. People have ideas, and I know there’s folks debating the pros and cons of it,” Westerman said on Monday.
Steuart and Tom Walton own the Runway Group, a holding company investing in real estate, outdoor initiatives, conservation and recreation as well as hospitality and businesses in Northwest Arkansas.
They are grandsons of Walmart founder Sam Walton and sons of Jim Walton, who owns thousands of acres of land in Kingston in Madison County.
In addition to the land, a spokesperson for Runway Group told The Record, “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.”
The Walton family purchased the buildings a couple of years ago. A spokesperson for the family said they have no other plans to develop the Kingston property.
Burris, a former state representative, invited legislators representing counties in close proximity to the Buffalo National River to breakfast at the state Capitol to explain results of a recent survey conducted by Runway about the possible change in land designation and to “get your feedback moving forward. There isn’t a plan yet of any kind. We just want to start the dialogue with y’all.”
A group calling itself a Coalition for Buffalo River National Park Preserve began exploring the idea of making public land near the Buffalo National River a national park preserve, touting the designation as a way to make the area the “most active-use National Park in the country for outdoor recreation.”
The coalition states its purpose “is exploring new ideas to preserve, enhance, and drive economic benefit for the Buffalo National River.” Officials have neither divulged members of the coalition nor established a meeting date.
Designating public lands around the river as a national park preserve “would provide needed infrastructure support to a growing number of tourists; would support the preservation of the river and its current boundaries; and would create new ways to benefit the surrounding communities,” a statement from the Runway Group said.
The park preserve coalition is using the New River Gorge Park and Preserve in West Virginia as a model, which does not require fees or permits, allows fishing and hunting and access to the river at multiple public access points.
Westerman said infrastructure around the Buffalo National River gets stressed with more traffic.
“Even if it just remains a national river and doesn’t get a park designation, there needs to be some investment in the infrastructure, and restrooms is one of those things and the roads leading to the river. A lot of those places are not in the best of shape.
“So there’s many things that could be improved to enhance the experience on the river and also to, you know, harden the infrastructure so that you’re not doing damage on the river with all the visitors.”
In July 2022, the Runway Group approached Westerman about designating the river’s public lands as a national park preserve.
In January 2023, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed an executive order establishing the Natural State Advisory Group and appointed Bryan Sanders, her husband, as chairman. The council is tasked with growing tourism in Arkansas and the “outdoor economy,” according to a news release.
Sanders also appointed Tom Walton as one of the 18 members of the advisory group. So far no meetings have been announced or open to the public, but the group has been active in exchanging emails regarding tourism and parks plans.
The Record requested minutes from any meetings but has not received a response.
King said he is “gravely disappointed and concerned about the natural state working group,” and its’ lack of transparency, which he said is contributing to “mistrust.”
In April, according to King, conversations about changing the land to a national park preserve began “with state officials. My understanding [is] these conversations started with the governor, governor’s husband and Sen. (Missy Thomas) Irvin,” R-Mountain View.
King said he was disappointed local officials in his district were not notified.
“If I had been informed about conversations about the Buffalo, the first phone call I would of made would have been to my local folks,” King said.
In May, Bryan Sanders contacted Irvin “to discuss the Buffalo River,” Irvin wrote on social media.
She reached out to the Searcy County Chamber of Commerce director, “who was ready to meet. Then we never heard back from the First Gentleman’s office and no meeting ever occurred,” Irvin wrote.
Irvin stated she did not discuss the change with Sanders or Runway Group officials.
“Mr. Sanders needed to hear directly from my constituents,” Irvin wrote about issues concerning the river.
Also in May, when Bryan Sanders spoke to the Rotary Club of Little Rock, he told the crowd that he wanted to double the state’s outdoor recreation economy from its current $3.5 billion to $7 billion in the next 10 years.
The Runway Group emphasized that making the federal lands abutting the river into a national preserve would spark more tourism, increasing money for infrastructure.
On Monday, Sanders appointed Dalaney Thomas director of tourism. Thomas worked at an advertising agency handling the state’s parks and tourism account. On the advertising agency’s website, Thomas said her favorite place to visit is the Buffalo National River area.
About six months ago, a former representative reached out to Dustin Cowell, a real estate appraiser in Mt. Judea, about serving on a committee to explore turning the land around the river into a national park.
Even though Cowell opposes making any changes, he said he would be willing to serve on the committee, but he “never heard anything else about it.”
“They even mentioned that it was kind of from the governor’s office,” Cowell said.
In September, owners of Horseshoe Canyon, a dude ranch located near Jasper in Newton County, announced that, after the 2023 season, they would be retiring, but the “Ranch will continue to be open to the public, offering the same great adventures and more. We are active in the transition taking place and are incredibly excited about the future of HCR!”
Unconfirmed reports indicate Steuart and Tom Walton have made plans to purchase Horseshoe Canyon. Owner Barry Johnson was on vacation and did not respond to a request for comment.
Horseshoe Canyon’s season runs from March through November, and the property encompasses cabins and offers rock climbing, hiking, zip lining, archery and horseback riding and floating the Buffalo National River.
Also in September, in an effort to gauge public opinion, the Runway Group hired Selzer & Company, who polled 412 voters in Baxter, Madison, Marion, Newton and Searcy counties about a change in land designation and produced a flyer with the results.
“Polling is something Runway has engaged in in the past to understand how people feel about certain topics before we advocate for an idea,” a statement from the Runway Group said.
On Sept. 25, according to documents obtained through an Arkansas Freedom of Information Act request, Secretary of the Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism Shea Lewis noted on a “To Do List” he needed to speak with “Teddy” regarding a “Buffalo River update.”
Teddy Stewart is Bryan Sanders’ chief of staff.
That same “To Do List” included “assigning Buffalo River project to Katherine.”
Katherine Andrews is the Department of Tourism’s director of the Office of Outdoor Recreation.
On Sept. 28, Lewis and Andrews exchanged emails regarding the development of a “proposal related to Buffalo River area.”
Many of the documents tendered in response to the FOIA request have to do with different projects pertaining to the river and do not mention specifically the possibility of changing the public lands to a park preserve.
On Oct. 4, the public heard of the potential change to lands surrounding the Buffalo National River when The Record published its story.
Westerman said he’s hearing a mixture of reactions, but most of the people reaching out to his office are opposed to the park preserve idea.
“From my experience in Congress, when issues come up, it’s usually people who are opposed to issues that reach out the strongest.”
King has remained opposed to any change and has been outspoken regarding transparency around the issue, stating discussions needed to have started with local officials and citizens.
Rep. Chad Puryear, R-Hindsville, said the prospect of changing the federal lands “has brought a lot of speculation, emotion and concern to the otherwise quiet region of Madison and Newton Counties.”
“Rural Arkansans have always been wary of trusting the government and outsiders,” Puryear said. “This is especially true of the Newton County families that are old enough to remember the sting of losing their family farms the last time the government got involved with the Buffalo River.
“I did not have to do any polling to find my conclusion. As a 6th generation Arkansas farmer whose family has lived and worked on the same land since 1887, I believe the good people of rural Arkansas do not want or need the advice from the government or a special interest group to help them decide what is best for their communities.”
Cowell lives within five to six miles of the Buffalo National River and near a tributary that feeds into the river, “kind of right in the middle of the National Forest.”
Cowell says the river can’t handle an increase in traffic and tourism. From what he’s read, he said, he doesn’t believe the area would see an increase in infrastructure funding.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, when everyone was getting outdoors, the crowds were so large, “You couldn’t get within miles of the river at times,” Cowell said.
The crowds have remained.
“My little girl had soccer games in Jasper Saturday morning, and you couldn’t find anywhere to park,” he said. “It’s hard enough to get around as it is.”
Westerman said he sees pros and cons to increased tourism. He said owning a business in the area and wanting more customers would be a pro, but increased traffic could be a con.
“So all of those things, you’ve got to take into account,” he said.
Cowell said he’s worried about what changes a different land designation would bring and is not happy with what he sees as secrecy and lack of transparency surrounding the idea.
Because there’s no push for legislation at this point, Westerman said, “We’re certainly not being secretive or hiding anything from anyone.”
If legislation is introduced, Westerman has thoughts about what would not be included.
“So the park’s about 95,000 acres already, and I would be opposed to expanding the park boundary. I will be opposed to taking in private land. I would be opposed to private landowners losing any of their current access and rights to their property. I would be opposed if you restricted fishing or hunting,” he said.
The Runway Group’s survey polled people about trails for walking, for bicycling, about the area’s natural beauty, property taxes, and retail and service businesses as well as restaurants and lodging. It also quizzed people on their satisfaction of having access to the river for water sports, fishing and hunting.
It asked those polled if they were aware the Buffalo National River had a national river designation and whether they thought it would be a good idea to turn the public land around it into a national park and preserve. Sixty-one percent said it was a good idea, 32% said it was a bad idea and 7% said they were unsure.
According to the survey, if federal lands were changed to a park preserve, changes would include improved roads and access to the river, paved parking lots near trails, campsites and boat ramps, new public restrooms, new walking and hiking trails and improvements to existing trails, more opportunities for local businesses and more management to retain the natural habitat of native trees, plants and wildlife.
The survey also quizzed respondents on not designating land as a national park preserve, including their thoughts on leaving things the way they are, designating land sounding like big government, having too many visitors and too many new businesses, having more fees and permits, changing the river’s character by paving roads and installing new signage and seeing an increase in alcohol sales.
Even after pointing out the “bad” points, the Runway Group’s survey said 63% thought changing the land designation was a good idea, 34% said it was a bad thing and 3% were unsure.
King said he expressed his frustration to Runway Group officials in last Friday’s meeting that the poll “was not done in a way I felt was best to get an accurate representation of how local people feel about the idea of changing the Buffalo River.”
Even though Cowell feels a little better about the Runway Group retracting its position, he’s still concerned “with the amount of land that’s already been purchased,” and people trying to buy land from current owners.
“There’s been no level of trust with the park service as there is and, you know, we’ve kind of become accustomed to this and we’re just worried what changes would bring,” Cowell said.
“I feel like they’re in too far now for nothing to happen,” Cowell said.
“I don’t feel like the issue is going away,” King said.
King is speaking at a town hall meeting about changes surrounding the river on Oct. 26 at 6 p.m. at Jasper High School Cafeteria.
“For all voices to be heard without distractions, Runway will not be formally attending,” a spokesperson said.
Westerman also said he would like to host a town hall in the future.
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