A coalition floating the idea of making federal lands near the Buffalo National River a national park preserve says the designation would make the area the “most active-use National Park in the country for outdoor recreation.”
A national park restricts hunting, mining and consumptive-use activities, whereas, a national preserve protects hunting and fishing, trapping, and oil and gas extraction.
Calling themselves a Coalition for Buffalo River National Park Preserve, the group is using as a model the New River Gorge Park and Preserve in West Virginia, which does not require fees or permits, allows fishing and hunting and access to the river at multiple public access points.
A flyer produced by the coalition states, “A National Park would preserve the Buffalo River way of life,” hunting and fishing access, bring jobs and economic benefit and use current federal land.
The national river’s current infrastructure dates back to 1978, according to Austin Albers, president and owner of Buffalo Outdoor Center.
The goal of designating federal lands as a national preserve is to gain funding for infrastructure, roads, bathrooms and parking lots, Albers said.
“You’re looking at positive economic impact, prolonging and protecting the national park, the national river, protecting what brings people here, so hunting, fishing, floating, all that. None of that changes. And that’s why it’s a national park preserve and not just a national park,” Albers said.
“So if we can transition to a national park and preserve versus a national river, you know, generate more funding that way for the park and get more infrastructure put into place, I think it’s a win for everybody.”
The coalition hired Selzer & Company, who polled 412 voters in Baxter, Madison, Marion, Newton and Searcy counties and produced a flyer touting the results.
The flyer does not say who paid Selzer & Company or who is a member of the coalition.
A few weeks ago, Madison County Clerk Austin Boatright was working late when he received a call from a survey company asking for his input.
The person asked Boatright, in his individual capacity and not as county clerk, if he would be willing to do an interview concerning parks and recreation in Madison County and how long Boatright had been a resident of Madison County.
As the 10 minute conversation progressed, “You could tell they were honing in closer and closer into the Buffalo National River area,” he said.
The person asked how interested Boatright would be with turning federal land surrounding the Buffalo National River “into a national park” and whether or not he would recommend that to his congressman.
“You could tell they were honing in on my interest in basically, my assumption, the Buffalo National River area, probably the Ozark National Forest area, being turned into a full-fledged national park,” Boatright said.
“One of the questions was basically the conversion of private land into public lands,” Boatright said.
Boatright said he does not know who backed the survey and “I have no idea where they got my phone number,” but, so far, he is the only person he knows that received a call.
“From the survey I took, it was very much my impression that they were gauging the opinion of a national park being made in the area in Newton and south Madison County,” he said.
Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forest, who represents Madison County in District 28, said he was “contacted by landowners and tourism constituents some months ago about concerns of land buying and being left out of future decisions regarding the Buffalo National River and state parks.
“I began by writing our entire federal delegation about the concerns of my constituents and my own personal concerns about the impact of decisions that I believe are being made without public consultation and what impact decisions could make on their personal lives and business,” King said.
The survey, conducted Sept. 11-13, found “more than two thirds responded they would want their member of Congress to vote for designation of the river as the Buffalo River National Park & Preserve.”
Results from the survey included on the flyer said of those who took part in the poll, 95% were in favor of no private land being taken to create the “national park and preserve,” so no eminent domain. Ninety-three percent were in favor of protecting the Buffalo River area from pollution and industrial uses, 89% favored no tax increases to pay for the national park and preserve, 86% wanted to grandfather local businesses into “any new commercial business rules (e.g., outfitters and river guides),” and 83% wanted to maintain current hunting rules.
A national park is a destination for many tourists. Lands around national parks can increase in value but so can traffic and trash left behind. Businesses can also develop nearby. Economic development can increase property value leading to higher property taxes.
In 2022, 1.3 million people visited the Buffalo National River, effectively pumping more than $64.9 million in local regions, according to an annual peer-review report by the National Park Service. That supported 864 jobs and “had a total economic output of $78.4 million,” the report said.
The coalition’s flyer states, “Nearly a fifth of Americans live within 500 miles of the Buffalo National River. In that same area, there are only two National Parks — neither recreation-focused.”
If the land were turned into a preserve, Albers said more people would visit.
“What we’ve seen is more people coming to the park to experience the parks. So a lot of people who travel to national parks don’t travel to national rivers,” he said.
“So they’re seeing, not necessarily more river usage, but more people coming into the area, so more lodging, more restaurants, more purchases of fuel and using the services in the area.”
“It’s bringing more positive infrastructure to one of our poorest areas in the state,” he said.
The discussions surrounding turning federal lands into a national park preserve have not made their way into proposed legislation.
Albers said he had spoken to Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders as well as her husband, Bryan Sanders. The governor signed an executive order in January establishing a Natural State Advisory Council and appointed her husband chairman. The council is tasked with growing tourism in Arkansas and the “outdoor economy,” according to a news release.
But King is concerned about a lack of transparency.
“I am gravely concerned and disappointed at the recent formation of special interests and have deep reservations that there may be attempts to drive government and legislative action to only serve a few that can profit off government regulations or changes,” King said.
“I am spending a great deal of time and effort to get this issue openly discussed, which I think only serves the best interests of the people,” King said.
Chase Emerson with the office of U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., said he did not have a lot of information on the proposal and was not familiar with the survey or its results.
“We’ve had a few staffers at different meetings that have been hearing the concerns of citizens,” Emerson said. He said he had not done a “full dive into that just yet,” but people had reached out and he was hoping to do some “follow ups.”
“The people that have reached out to our office specifically have indicated that they weren’t necessarily for any sort of overall expansion into buying up private property or anything like that or using any sort of eminent domain, I think, was some of the concern.”
Emerson said a few weeks ago, the office reached out to the Buffalo River Superintendent, who assured them “that any land that had been acquired is in conjunction with only interested willing sellers. However, the park is not actively seeking more land or planning any serious expansion. The only property they’re actively in talks of purchasing is near the Lost Hill area for a piece of property north of the river that will complete a trail,” he said.
Emerson said even though economic benefits exist for national park designation, the senator’s office wants to be “respectful of people’s property and how the local folks, constituency feel about that and whether or not they’re, you know, supportive of anything like that.”
Boozman “has always been very supportive of recreational opportunities and tourism in our parks around the state. He’s always been a strong advocate for it,” Emerson said.
Sarah Henderson, communications director for U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman R-Ark., emailed, “At this time, our office is not weighing in on this developing issue.”
U.S. Rep. Steve Womack’s office, which represents Madison County, also responded that it was not going to “weigh in at this time.”
Shealyn Sowers, chief of communications for Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage, and Tourism, did not return phone calls or emails asking for comments, but she did respond she had received Freedom of Information Act requests submitted by The Record, though the information asked for in the requests was not tendered before deadline.
For sometime, discussions about limiting access to the Buffalo National River have taken place, but those discussions have nothing to do with the current proposal about turning land into a national preserve.
Albers said the National Park Service, which has authority over the Buffalo National River, has been working on a river management plan for many years trying to decide how to manage the volume of people visiting the river.
“Nobody wants to get a use permit,” Albers said. “But unfortunately I have a feeling it’s gonna have to go that direction at some point.” He said the high number of people using the river during May and June can damage it because, “There’s no control. That’s been going on for years,” he said.
“So the park is trying to figure out a way to mitigate that and to help control that just like any other federal park out there,” Albers said.
Madison County land
The survey did not pertain to only federal lands surrounding the Buffalo River, according to Boatright.
“But this survey was targeting Madison County residents. That’s what leads me to believe that it’s not just the Buffalo area,” he said.
Kings Creek, LLC, has been purchasing property in the Kingston area. So far that LLC owns 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.
Kings Creek, LLC, is owned by Walton Enterprises, which is controlled by the Walton Family, the majority stockholders of Walmart, Inc.
Before some of the land was placed into the LLC, taxes on it were paid by Jim Walton, son of Walmart founder Sam Walton.
For years, the family has owned property in Kingston but recently they have begun to buy land that comes up for sale. A spokesperson for the Walton family said there are no plans to develop the Kingston land.
Interest in buying property in Kingston is active.
Boatright said he knew of someone who told him that she is asked on a weekly, if not monthly, basis to sell her property south of Kingston.
Kings Creek, LLC, has “been purchasing up a large amount of that acreage in and around, basically Red Star through Boston and south of Kingston,” Boatright said.
King would like to see more transparency about land purchases.
“My concerns have only greatly increased,” King said, “and the consequences of some of the changes that are being discussed or shielded. I don’t think the buying of land shielded by a shell LLC or holding companies is a good way to do business with the people in Madison and Newton [counties]. The good people in Madison and Newton don’t do business that way.”
Brothers Steuart Walton and Tom Walton, sons of Jim Walton, own Runway NWA, LLC, which is a holding company investing in Real Estate, outdoor initiatives, hospitality and businesses in Northwest Arkansas.
Tom Walton was appointed by Gov. Sanders to the Natural State Advisory Council.
Runway is focused on conservation and outdoor recreation. The Walton Family Foundation has donated thousands of dollars used to promote and design biking trials in Madison County and the Northwest Arkansas area.
Former Madison County Judge Frank Weaver owns property adjacent to some of Kings Creek, LLC, property.
Weaver noted that the family had just recently purchased about 380 acres near him and had owned property adjacent to him for “quite a long time.”
He said he is concerned about what they will do with the property, but “not enough to let it bother me or anything like that. You know, it’s just curiosity more or less.”
Some of the property is used for cattle, Weaver said.
Weaver has not formed an opinion on the potential additional tourists to the region if federal lands were turned into a national preserve.
“I guess I would kind of form that if it affected me one way or another, you know, people got on my property or people started trying to use the adjacent property, that might affect me. But I wouldn’t have any particular idea right now. I’m not concerned about it, I don’t think, at this point.”
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