Part of overflow crowd at an Oct. 26, 2023, town hall in Jasper, Ark., to discuss the possibility of redesignating the Buffalo National River as a national park preserve. (Kevin Middleton/photo courtesy of Misty Langdon)
JASPER — A sign on the way into this Newton County town states its population is 547.
On Thursday evening, more than twice that number, upwards of 1,185 people, squeezed into the cafeteria at the local high school. The original 400 chairs had been supplemented by another 273 that students toted in from every classroom on campus — even then, the crowd spread along the walls of the gym, into the vestibule and hallways, past vending machines and photos of past graduates.
Those numbers did not include the 500 people watching on the library’s Zoom livestream (their subscription caps streams at 500), or the more than 1,400 folks who tuned in via Facebook Live.
“I was expecting this to be 75 people at Carroll Electric, so you’ll have to bear with me here,” event organizer Misty Langdon said from the crowded dais shortly after 6 p.m., apologizing that they didn’t have the ability to broadcast into the rest of the school.
The only reason so many people would turn out on a Thursday night? The Buffalo River.
For more than three weeks, news stories and rumors had stirred concerns and lingering distrust among residents who live in the towns and communities along the Buffalo — that once again wealthy outsiders were trying to alter the river’s protected status as the nation’s first National River.
Thursday night, that concern and distrust came to a head as ten different speakers — including Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forest, and people from organizations ranging from the National Audubon Society to the local chapter of the Farm Bureau — voiced wariness and opposition to a nascent proposal to re-designate the federal lands along the Buffalo National River, just over 94,000 acres today, as a national park preserve.
The difference is a significant one: a national river designation preserves free-flowing streams, protects the waterway from industrial uses, and allows for hiking, canoeing and hunting. A national park preserve loosens those restrictions, opens the door for 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 parallels between the 1970s and today. “These are wealthy people that do not live here and do not know the culture here. And yet they are proposing to make sweeping changes to our landscape. And I think that frightens the people that live in the community.”
‘Shouldn’t we have a meeting?’
Langdon — a seventh-generation resident of nearby Steel Creek whose “cultural heritage and historical preservation group” the Remnants Project organized the evening — had spent the past few days organizing the event. But the real work had started roughly two weeks before, when rumors about a phone survey were circulating in the community.
As reported by The Madison County Record on Oct. 4, Iowa-based Selzer & Company, which was later linked to Walton-run Runway Group LLC, polled 412 voters in Baxter, Madison, Marion, Newton and Searcy counties between Sept. 11-13 about their thoughts concerning the proposed re-designation.
Wendy Finn, one of the first speakers of the evening, took a close look at the survey and the fact sheets that re-designation proponents had developed from those results, flagging some problematic language and omissions.
For example, Finn said, 64 percent of those surveyed were in favor of designating the Buffalo River as a National Park and Preserve, but the surveyors didn’t define what those terms meant. Finn also noted that nearly half of the survey respondents (43%) had been from Baxter County, which contains the least amount of Buffalo River watershed of the counties surveyed (2.5%). Newton County, on the other hand, which has 46% of the Buffalo River watershed, made up only 7% percent of those surveyed, or 29 people.
After getting wind of the survey, Langdon had reached out to some local county elected officials, asking them, “Shouldn’t we have a meeting to get to the bottom of this?” Nothing had materialized. She then reached out to the Runway Group on Oct. 11 and asked if they’d be interested in participating in a town hall style meeting on Oct. 26. Absolutely, was the answer.
She’d hoped to bring them in to answer some questions about the survey — and why there had even been a survey, “because nobody had really been able to understand the ‘why’ behind it.”
Adding to the uncertainty was another piece of information first reported by The Madison County Record in its Oct. 4 story — that Walton Enterprises-owned Kings Creek LLC had purchased land near Kingston, accumulating “more than 6,000 contiguous acres, according to records from the Madison County Assessor’s Office, making it one of the largest landowners in Madison County.”
To this, Langdon said: “I’m not fearing eminent domain, I’m fearing being taxed out of my home. You know, I hear people saying, ‘how am I going to pay my taxes, I can barely pay my taxes now.’ And these are people that are older and on a fixed income.”
‘Opportunity for transparency’
After opening Thursday’s meeting and explaining the reason for holding it, Langdon addressed the lack of an elephant in the room: The no-show from the Runway Group. Although Runway had originally agreed to attend, they pulled out as the winds of public opinion shifted around the meeting and the projected attendance snowballed.
Runway’s presence “would have provided an opportunity for transparency and an opportunity to meet the community that they have been researching,” Langdon told the crowd. “I did receive a call this morning from Runway wishing us well and asking me to make a comment on their behalf. However, I feel that any statement would be better coming from their team.”
On the flier that provided the event schedule, there was a list of those who had also “declined or not responded”: Johnny Morris; National (sic) State Advisory Council; Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders; 1st Gentleman Bryan Sanders; National Parks Service.
“I think that whenever we’re looking at this, we need to be transparent,” said King, the lawmaker who’s been most vocal about needing to involve the local community in decision-making. “That’s just not flat happening right now.”
‘Too many people and an expensive price tag’
Over the course of an hour and a half, 10 different speakers stood and took their place at the microphone.
Although each person approached the issue at hand through their own lens, whether that was agriculture, recreation, politics, history, preservation, and so forth, they all echoed the same sentiment that had drawn such large crowds to the room that evening — that they were not about to be left out of a conversation that would so directly affect their lives. (Gordon Watkins, who spoke on behalf of the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance, summed this 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 Steel Creek Cabins since 2004, addressed the effects of past increased tourism, showing photographs of roads lined with cars and the river log-jammed with kayaks. This, Langdon explained, is what a 6.5% percent increase in tourism looked like — which is what the area had experienced during the COVID years — before noting that the Runway Group had projected a 60% increase.
One of the most crowd-rousing speeches of the night came from Billy Bell, whose bio simply stated, “Billy Bell is a Newton County resident.”
“The propaganda that I have seen in the watershed map tells us that these rich men are going to protect our rights to hunt and fish — but what I see is a bait and switch operation,” Bell said to whistles, claps, and a “that’s right.” “The questions I have are: One, who are they protecting us from? Two, do we actually need protection? And three, is telling us that we need protection a scare tactic?”
Bell said he’d worked 20 years in resource management and protection for the Buffalo River and U.S. Forest Service, then listed a series of protected activities on the river, including different veins of fishing and hunting — “deer, bear, elk, turkey, squirrel, squirrel with a dog, rabbit, rabbit with a dog, coon, coon with a dog — ending each series with the statement “No permit required.” At the end of his speech, Bell was given the night’s only full standing ovation.
The last speaker of the night, attorney Brinkley Cook-Campell, a native of Mount Judea, read a two-page open letter that was addressed to U.S. Reps. Bruce Westerman, Rick Crawford, Steve Womack and French Hill; U.S. Sens. John Boozman and Tom Cotton; Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders “and all Arkansas elected officials.”
Runway Group representatives approached Westerman about designating the federal lands surrounding the Buffalo as a park preserve in July 2022, The Madison County Record reported this week.
Cook-Campbell’s letter read in part:
“As time passes, the Buffalo River will likely succumb to what ruins all natural wonders — too many people and an expensive price tag. Let’s not hasten that result by changing the river’s designation. Our community should be left as it is, beautiful, pristine and wild. Because when it changes — when the visitor centers and hotels come, when the hay field becomes a parking lot, and the gravel bar around the bend becomes a plaza of restrooms — there will be no going back. The locals will see their way of life lost forever.”
After the meeting, Langdon said that seeing such varied and often diametrically opposed interests sharing a stage felt like being in “The Twilight Zone”: “These are the two most polarized groups in our community that have come together to say this will not benefit our community or the river in any way.”
She went on to say that she was so proud of her community, but that this was likely far from the last time that the community would need to draw together. Although the Runway Group had been reported as saying they planned to retract the plans, skepticism remained strong. One of the prevailing notions during the meeting had been the need for a unified vision — and as Langdon said the day before, they needed to have that vision heard well before legislation was crafted.
“One thing that we learned is once it starts the process of going through legislation, we have very little input in how that bill is written.”
In the meantime, however, as she looked over the 673 chairs being pulled into stacks and the diminishing clusters of conversations, 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 on being there for about the next three days with no cell service.”
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