Misinformation has turned residents of the Buffalo River Country against redesignating the Buffalo National River into a national park and preserve.
One of the initiative's most outspoken opponents is Billy Bell of Jasper. Bell, a school resource officer in Newton County, is more intimately familiar with the Buffalo National River than the average Buffalo River user. He was a resource protection ranger on the Buffalo National River for 13 years. Before that, he worked seven years for the U.S. Forest Service. Bell recently spoke against the potential redesignaton at two public meetings at Jasper and Marshall.
An organization called the Runway Group advocates redesignating the Buffalo National River to a national park and preserve.
One of Bell's main objections addresses the Runway Group's suggestion that redesignating the river would protect traditional activities like hunting, fishing, canoeing, camping and horseback riding.
In 1972, Bell explained, Congress enshrined protections for all of those activities in the legislation that established the Buffalo as the nation's first national river. Today, anybody possessing a hunting license may hunt deer and small game on Buffalo National River property without having to obtain an additional permit. In the spring, you may hunt wild turkeys on the Buffalo National River without obtaining an additional permit.
Only to hunt elk does one need an additional permit, but that is an Arkansas Game and Fish Commission species that regulates the number of elk taken on the public land they inhabit.
Today, anybody that has a valid fishing license may fish on the Buffalo National River without obtaining an additional permit.
Today, anybody may camp on Buffalo National River without first obtaining an additional permit. You must pay a fee to camp at most of the established campgrounds, but you are free to camp on gravel bars without restriction.
Today, you may hike the Buffalo River Trail without obtaining an additional permit.
Today, you may canoe or kayak on the Buffalo National River without having to obtain an additional permit. If you have your own canoe or kayak, the only cost is for fuel to get there. You can also operate powerboats on the Buffalo National River if your outboard motor is 9.9-horsepower or less.
When they are in season, you may forage for morels and other wild mushrooms on the Buffalo National without having to obtain a permit. You may pick wild onions and garlic. You may harvest wild plums, persimmons and wild nuts.
Glenn Wheeler, the Newton County sheriff, said that new legislation will be required to redesignate the Buffalo National River into a national park and preserve. One cannot assume that new legislation will protect traditional uses, Wheeler said. For example, hunting is not allowed on national parks, and other uses on national parks usually require permits.
Wheeler said he does not know if redesignating the Buffalo National River will expand the river's federal footprint. However, Wheeler said that redesignating the river might greatly expand federal authority over property use in the entire Buffalo River watershed. That could affect cattle grazing, logging and other uses.
Erosion has dramatically and negatively affected the Buffalo River. The river is shallower and wider in many places. The erosive addition of silt and gravel into the river has destroyed or compromised a lot of aquatic wildlife habitat. Nutrient loading from confined animal feeding operations also puts a lot of nutrients in the water that has affected water quality and wildlife habitat. Those problems will intensify as development in the Buffalo River watershed increases.
As with the nutrient loading that occurred from a defunct hog farm that existed on Bear Creek, those phenomena are results of deficiencies in state law and state environmental standards. The Buffalo River faces some threats, but it is the state's place to address the problems that create those threats.
As for recreational uses, nobody has demonstrated that anything is fundamentally flawed with the way the Buffalo River is managed under its current designation.