OPINION | GREG HARTON: Honey, it’s the Waltons on the phone; they say they’ve got an idea

From time to time, someone in Arkansas floats (hint, hint) an idea that immediately draws attention because the proposal itself taps into a subject critically important to a lot of people.

Other times, the response to the idea is secondary to the identity of the people who propose it.

Occasionally, whatever controversy arises from an idea has more to do with how people discover its existence.

The recent revelation of the -- idea? proposal? strategy? thwarted secret master plan? Take your pick -- to redesignate the Buffalo National River as a national park and preserve fits into all three attention-getting categories.

The first public signs of a potential change originated in the form of residents' ringing telephones. On the other end was a caller from an Iowa-based polling firm. The Madison County Record, which broke the story on this, reported polling calls were received by people in Baxter, Madison, Marion, Newton and Searcy counties.

The people of these counties aren't unfamiliar with life in or near federal lands. Those counties are among the 16 counties in which U.S. Forest Service manages the 1.2 million-acre Ozark National Forest.

The poll mixed questions about trails, taxes, restaurants, lodgings and other topics with an inquiry as to whether the person being polled thought it would be a good idea to turn the public lands around the Buffalo River into a national park and preserve.

I'm not sure how a person can answer that without some serious details, which I doubt a telephone pollster in The Hawkeye State was able to provide. What would change with a different designation? Would it involve expansion of the federally owned lands? Would federal agencies gain more control over local decision-making? What are the other pros and cons? Who's idea is this and why do they want this?

Like an errant cigarette tossed carelessly on the forest floor in mid-July, the poll triggered a wildfire of questions and speculation. The Madison County Record, and subsequently other media, provided some answers.

That brings us to the influence of identity on people's reaction. Turns out there's a Coalition for Buffalo River National Park Preserve. Who knew? It appears to be the kind of group sometimes formed to (1) generate support for a specific proposal or idea and/or (2) create the fact or just the feeling that the advocacy is a grass-roots effort and/or (3) disguise identities of some or all of the people engaged in such advocacy.

So far, I've not seen any kind of comprehensive membership list for this group. What has been reported is that the Runway Group, the Bentonville-based organization operated by Tom and Steuart Walton, visited with U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman of Hot Springs about national park and preserve designation as far back as July 2022. The Walton brothers are the grandson of Walmart Stores Inc. founder Sam Walton and sons of Jim Walton, chairman and chief executive officer of Arvest Bank, owned by the Walton family.

The Waltons have done, and continue to do, great things in Arkansas. Their philanthropic efforts are nothing less than astounding. They're net worth, in the billions, empowers them to get what they want done and opens the doors to state and federal decision makers. To Arkansas' good fortune, the family has demonstrated great benevolence for their home state. But it's understandable average Arkansans property owners might be unnerved when people who literally can afford to buy entire counties at market value start tinkering around nearby.

It may be easy, also, for the grandchildren of a man primarily responsible for their incomprehensible wealth and influence to forget that just because they have an idea, it's not necessarily a good one and it won't necessarily be embraced just because they're the ones who have it.

Someone among their many advisers could have warned them -- and maybe did -- that calling people and asking them about a change in the federal management of the Buffalo River was indeed, figuratively, playing with fire. It's been 51 years since a decade-long battle against a federal agency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and its "idea" to dam the Buffalo River resulted in designation of the nation's first national river. The people who waged that battle, and their conservationist descendants, jealously guard that impressive achievement. Also, some people with property amid the rugged lands near the river that are now federally owned still have hard feelings about how that went down. They've passed that angst down to their heirs.

Was this a bad idea? I don't have enough information to answer that. But the public revelation of a potential change went down in a way that at least set back what, depending on the details, conceivably might be an idea worthy of consideration.

The idea's advocates are now up a creek even a high-end paddle can't help them escape.