Oct 27, 2023 - News

Buffalo National River town hall draws huge crowd

An estimated 1,200 people gathered at the Jasper school auditorium Thursday night for an informational town hall meeting. Photo: Worth Sparkman/Axios

Jasper, a burg of about 600, is at the confluence of agriculture, recreation and economics.

What's happening: An estimated 1,200 people crammed into the town's school auditorium and its hallways Thursday for an informational town hall about the future of the Buffalo National River.

Why it matters: Changing the river to a national park could draw federal money for improvements, bringing more tourists and hiking the outdoor economy.

  • Yes, but: More people and traffic on the roads and river could forever change the nature of rural communities carved along the banks and bluffs of the Buffalo.

Flashback: Results of a poll posted online this month said 64% of the 412 respondents would want their congressperson to vote for designation of the river as the Buffalo River National Park & Preserve.

  • The survey paid for by the Runway Group, a holding company owned by Walmart heirs Steuart and Tom Walton, interviewed voters in Baxter, Madison, Marion, Newton and Searcy counties.

The intrigue: Absent from the speaker lineup was any representative from the Runway Group.

  • Misty Langdon, who organized the meeting, said Runway sent her a statement to read but she declined.
  • Spokespersons for the group did not respond to Axios' request for the statement.

Quick take: Speakers gave short presentations for about an hour-and-a-half, including state Sen. Bryan King (R-Green Forest); Gordon Watkins, president of the Buffalo River Watershed Alliance; and Jared Philips, a farmer and professor at the University of Arkansas. Some key points:

  • Attendees applauded and booed to show overwhelming opposition to any change to the river's status.
  • Speakers said residents of communities adjacent to the river were not included in any conversation about a potential change in the river's designation.
  • Several speakers poked holes in the phone survey's questions, saying some were misleading.
  • Wendy Finn of Fayetteville, who grew up in Newton County, pointed to the survey's methodology, which showed 47% of respondents were in Baxter County, which has the smallest portion of the river of the five counties surveyed.
  • Many residents told Axios they're afraid of losing their land if the area becomes a national park.

What they're saying: "There's nothing like this anywhere else in the world," said Gene Bell, a cattle farmer who bought his land in 1983.

  • He said those involved with the survey had "undermined" the community and that "it gives you a bad feeling."

What's next: Brinkley Cook-Campbell, a lawyer who grew up in Mount Judea, asked attendees to sign an open letter opposing any change to the river.

  • He plans to send it to Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, as well as state and federal lawmakers.
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