OPINION | FRAN ALEXANDER: Push for national park, preserve status misplaced; analyze ecosystem instead

Measure impact to Buffalo River, don’t add to it

When your cup runneth over, looketh out!

-- Anonymous

Most of us grew up understanding the meaning of "killing the goose that lays the golden eggs." One definition of the saying is "the short-sighted destruction of a valuable resource." Since the Buffalo River is yet again in the news, it behooves those who enter this current fray to define what river protection actually means, while keeping that famous goose and her eggs in mind.

Sam Walton's grandsons, Steuart and Tom, have had meetings with the governor and U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman to discuss whether designating Arkansas' Buffalo National River as a national park and preserve would be a good thing for Arkansas. Most Americans realize that national parks are, as described in Ken Burns' PBS parks series, "America's Best Idea." However, there's "more to this than meets the eye," and "all that glitters is not gold," as other old sayings warn.

The "Jewel of the Ozarks" happens to be extremely delicate and easily shattered. Yet, unfortunately, a typical human response to jewels is to cash in on them. Rarely heard above joyful economic boosterism are the smothered voices of restraint warning that unique places are being loved to death.

Anyone who's visited our country's more popular parks has experienced crowds, full parking lots, worn-bare trails, trash, sold-out reservations, use permits, too few bathrooms, etc. The National Park Service can't keep up with people pressure now and is never funded annually with enough to sustain, much less expand, parks. We actually need more parks where people can marvel at our beautiful country, but without major funding and a comprehension of protection, it won't happen.

The Walton brothers' private company, Runway Group, specializes in outdoor recreation experiences. Their information points out that there are only two national parks within 500 miles of the Buffalo, neither recreation-focused. Should that fact presume the heartland needs Arkansas to provide this free-flowing river to play in?

The people pressure of 1.3 million visitors in 2022 is already overrunning the river's maintenance capacity and a new national park designation might increase tourism 60%. That this prospect is nuts was made abundantly clear by speakers on Oct.26 at a town hall meeting at Jasper in Newton County. The town's population is about 500, but close to 1,100 attended the meeting and another 1,900 tuned in on Zoom and Facebook. Their mood was essentially "No way, Runway!"

Attendees, many veterans of saving the Buffalo again and again, felt left out -- again. Lack of early inclusion in discussions before Runway's five-county poll fostered a non-consensual resentment. Worse, poll questions about park designation seemed structured to get the answers the pollsters wanted, while providing no in-depth information on park designation consequences.

People do not want their way of life to change. I don't either. But Northwest Arkansas is said to be adding 36 people a day to its population, and the Buffalo is an hour and a half away from most of its towns. Growth promoters and developers abound, and condominiums are marching over the hills.

While land uses like horseback riding, trail hiking, canoeing, bird watching, hunting, swimming, fishing, camping, rock climbing, etc., are the golden eggs of "outdoor recreation," every road, every float trip, every picnic, every footstep on the land impacts this cherished river and corridor, the "goose."

Instead of pushing to increase recreation, a genuine Walton philanthropy could provide a total analysis of how the ecosystem and geology of the river's watershed function. It could indicate how humans are impacting the river's water, wildlife, forests, streams, cliffs, plants, fungi, caves, earthworms, microbes, bats, birds, bobcats and bears. Learning what is there before it's not there ever again would explain to us what this river actually is and how to respect it. We really don't know these connections and may never if they are gone because all we did was play.

We have Arkansas experts in all these fields of study who could specialize in this research. It would take money, but could leave a legacy of producing actual good works of environmental protection for the generations to come. There would be real value and meaning to these discoveries about a place we all want to use, but are oblivious to its needs. And what is learned here could serve as a national template for land care.

"From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded," says Luke 12:48. That applies not only to the Waltons, but to all of us as stewards in this world. Let's not blow it.

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