U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., who represents the 4th Congressional District, visited Jasper on Dec. 4 to listen to constituents’ opinions regarding re-designating land around the Buffalo National River and to alleviate concerns about the effects of the Expanding Public Lands Outdoor Recreation Experiences Act (EXPLORE Act) on the area.
Westerman met for approximately two hours over lunch with about 10 to 12 invited guests.
“Congressman Westerman came up and met with the people and said that the re-designation is not happening,” said State Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forest, of District 28, who attended the lunch. King represents Carroll and Madison counties and portions of Boone, Franklin, Johnson and Newton counties.
“He came to educate himself,” about local issues in the area, Jasper resident Billy Bell said. “He was very attentive and he talked less and listened more.”
“The lunch meeting in Jasper was an opportunity for me to hear directly from local landowners, officials, and small business owners about the challenges and opportunities they are facing,” Westerman said in a prepared statement.
“With nearly 65% of Newton County being federal land, meetings such as this one are critical to my ability to serve as Chairman of the Natural Resources Committee and ensure that Congress is best supporting those who live and work in the area.”
Even though Westerman told the group no legislation has been proposed to re-designate lands, Bell remains concerned about The Runway Group and its intentions. Grandsons of Walmart founders Helen and Sam Walton, brothers Steuart and Tom Walton, who co-founded The Runway Group, quietly approached Westerman in the summer of 2022 about re-designating lands to either a national preserve or a national park.
“I don’t think Westerman is the worry that the community has,” Bell said. “I think [The Runway Group] coupled with the growing corporatocracy in America is what has the local people worried.”
After a public backlash, the Waltons have said they are backing away from the idea of re-designating land.
“I would like to say that they tried and failed. But I would think that for some of the people involved try and fail is not what they do,” Bell said.
King said The Runway Group has been meeting with Jasper residents.
“I think that’s beneficial at getting to a working relationship with them and all the people involved.
“So I think that’s a good first step in trying to get things back where they should be, getting people to sit down and talk about these issues,” King said.
King said he also has concerns about the Natural State Initiative and what that groups’ intentions are and its’ role in the state’s tourism plans. The Natural State Initiative is a group created by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders and chaired by First Gentleman Bryan Sanders. Tom Walton is a leader of the group also.
“I don’t ever think there’s been a time where we don’t have to remain vigilant about the Buffalo River,” Bell said.
“There’s always a possibility of things being changed,” Bell said, referring to the 30X30 Initiative, an executive order signed by President Joe Biden to establish a goal to conserve at least 30% of U.S. lands and freshwater by 2030.
“Well, if you look at the numbers, 28% of America is federal lands. So if you think 2% is not that big of a deal, then you have to do the math,” Bell said, who has 25 years of military, U.S. Forest Service and National Park service.
Westerman also addressed the EXPLORE Act, which seeks to expand recreational opportunities and modernize outdoor infrastructure on all public lands.
“I think that people are still spooky with this new bill and he tried to ease their concerns,” King said.
Westerman told the group no correlation exists between the EXPLORE Act and the idea of re-designating land around the Buffalo.
Bell said at “face value” the EXPLORE Act is a very good idea if you’re an outdoor user, but he says the act could promote overuse of lands that would lead to more permitting and regulations. Those permits and regulations will affect locals more than visitors because the locals are the ones who use the river everyday rather than visitors who float or swim in it once or twice a year.
“I’m hopeful that he will take those questions and those concerns and he will think about them, research them and become more educated about them and get back with us and then we can continue the conversation,” Bell said.
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