Packed town hall meeting shows strong opposition to proposed land change

Complete recap in Nov. 2 edition


JASPER — Nearly 1,200 people — more than double the town’s population — packed the Jasper High School Auditorium on Thursday night to voice concerns and pose questions regarding a proposal to turn the public lands around the Buffalo National River into the Buffalo River National Park Preserve. 

The standing-room only crowd, along with 500 turning in via Zoom, heard from 11 speakers, almost all opposed to the proposal, Jasper Mayor Mike Thomas, who was acting as moderator, seemed to be the only non-committal person on the agenda. When asked where he stood on the proposal, he told The Record, “I’m smart enough to know I need more information.”

Thomas said he hoped the night would answer questions about the short and longterm effects re-designating lands.

During the nearly two-hour meeting, speakers pointed out they wanted a seat at the table when considering changes around the Buffalo National River, asked more about what the proposal involved, lashed out at the results of a recently-conducted survey about the potential change and stressed their desire to preserve their way of life. 

The meeting was organized by Misty Langdon, owner of Steel Creek Cabins and organizer of Alliance for the Buffalo National River, ABNR, and the Remnants Project. 

In July 2022, U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., who represents Arkansas' 4th Congressional District and chairs the Natural Resources Committee, was approached by the Runway Group,  a holding company investing in real estate, outdoor initiatives, conservation and recreation as well as hospitality and businesses in Northwest Arkansas, about re-designating the land.

Steuart and Tom Walton, co-founders of the Runway Group, are grandsons of Walmart founder Sam Walton. Walton Enterprises currently owns more than 6,000 acres in Kington in Madison County.

Langdon said she invited the Runway Group to speak also but last week, “Runway informed me that they would no longer participate in the meeting. This is unfortunate as with the others who were invited who chose not to appear.”

Langdon said she received “a call this morning from Runway wishing us well and asking me to make a comment on their behalf. However, I feel that a statement would be better coming directly from their team,” Langdon said as the crowd cheered. 

A reserved chair with names of those not attending including The Runway Group, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders and First Gentleman Bryan Sanders sat empty on the stage. 

Runway Group’s Vice President of Corporate and Community Affairs Krista Cupp said the group watched the town hall meeting.

Cupp reinterated that the Runway Group is not going forward with any proposal for re-designation of land and there are "no next steps” for them.

“We wanted to explore a new idea for our home state together. However, this is not our decision to make. There is no new action being taken,” a statement issued earlier by the Runway Group said. 

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 any meeting dates. 

In September, in an effort to gauge public opinion, the Runway Group said it hired Selzer & Co., 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. 

The Record will have a full recap of the town hall meeting in its Nov. 2 edition. 


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