Numbers show re-designation concerns

Locals polled don’t want Buffalo River changed


The Alliance for the Buffalo National River (ABNR) released results from a poll taken after a town hall meeting regarding re-designating the Buffalo National River as a national park or preserve. 

The Oct. 26 meeting held at Jasper High School had more than 1400 in attendance and was organized after The Madison County Record published a story detailing efforts by Steuart and Tom Walton — brothers and grandsons of Sam and Helen Walton, founders of Walmart — to consider re-designating the river to a national park. 

In 2022, the Waltons quietly approached U.S. Congressman Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., who represents Arkansas’ 4th Congressional District and chairs the Natural Resources Committee, about changing the river’s designation to a national park and preserve. In conjunction with their idea, and acting under the umbrella of The Runway Group, a holding company originated by them, the Waltons also paid for a national survey gauging whether the river should be re-designated. 

The Runway Group hired Selzer & Company, who polled 412 voters in Baxter, Madison, Marion, Newton and Searcy counties and produced a flyer touting the results, with most of those survey responding favorably to the re-designation.

However, the results have been attacked by those living along the river as being unfair, many attending the meeting stating the survey’s questions were skewed by leading those polled to believe that changing the river’s designation would be a good thing for the area. They also complained about the number of voters who were surveyed and where they lived in proximity to the Buffalo National River. 

Last fall, after the town meeting in Jasper, a grassroots survey was conducted by ABNR of people attending the meeting and those living near the Buffalo watershed. 

“After reading The Runway Group’s survey questions and responses, and observing that Baxter County residents were the largest group surveyed by The Runway Group, ABNR wanted a clear set of questions for residents who live in the counties that would be affected by changes that might occur from any type of redesignation of the Buffalo National River,” Misty Langdon said in a statement issued on behalf of ABNR. 

The group’s survey showed vastly different results from the one paid for by The Runway Group.

“The feedback we received was in stark contrast to that from The Runway Group’s survey. We also wanted to receive input from a greater number of respondents, as a pool of 400+ didn’t feel sufficient,” the ABNR statement said. 

“Our results are from a group of 737 respondents from primarily Newton and Searcy counties. News outlets are still circulating and relying upon The Runway Group survey, despite the obvious flaws in its methodology.”

More than 700 responded to the ABNR survey, with 491 saying they lived in Newton County and 232 noting they lived in other counties, including Madison County.

“ABNR’s survey hopes to provide updated, clear, and concise responses to straightforward questions presented to locals in the counties most affected,” the statement said. 

Of those respondents, 705 voted that river remain as it is. Nine people voted to have the land re-designated as a preserve, but not a park. 

Twenty-three people or 3% of respondents said they were participating in both surveys, the grassroots one from the town hall meeting and the one paid for by The Runway Group. 

The ABNR  poll asked people what their biggest concerns were if the land were to be re-designated. 

Their top concern — 83% — said they were concerned about government and corporate overreach. Other concerns included the government’s use of eminent domain (82%), park expansion (78%) and increased taxes (75%).  People also responded they were concerned with being able to afford land (69%) if the land was re-designated and about gentrification (68%). 

Respondents expressed concerns about activities becoming restricted or banned if the land was re-designated. Farming topped the list of concerns with 82% saying they were concerned that if the land changed to a national park or preserve farming would be restricted, 78% were worried that fishing and hunting would be restricted and 64% were concerned that canoeing, kayaking and rafting might be restricted. 

Other concerns were having restrictions on horseback riding (54%), hiking (57%), rock climbing (39%), bike riding (36%). 

After The Record’s coverage, the Waltons backed off the idea and Westerman said no legislation is currently being proposed to re-designate the land. Westerman told constituents during a live-streamed town hall people that the issue had been overblown and he visited Jasper last fall in an attempt to assure people that he was not currently considering introducing legislation re-designating the river.


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