Guest column by Rodney Govens, published on Dec. 16, 2023 in Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
The Buffalo National River represents more than just a vacation spot: It represents family memories; first fishing and swimming lessons; floating and camping in the great outdoors; and a sacred communal space for Arkansans and visitors alike.
The Buffalo National River also represents a history that is difficult to reconcile. When the Buffalo River was designated a National River by Congress in 1972, the move was — to local residents — as almost as dangerous as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ controversial proposals to dam the river for its hydropower potential.
While the National River designation offered forever protection against dams or other energy production along the river’s 153 miles, the change nevertheless resulted in harm to local residents — forming deep scars that have been ripped open again with the recent discussions of a new change in the Buffalo’s designation.
At two recent town halls held in Jasper and Marshall, I met scores of local residents who are concerned, scared, and downright outraged that elected officials and wealthy private individuals have been discussing the future of their landwithout bothering to include the actual landowners in the discussion. Indeed, many of the locals who attended described their own memories or the memories of their parents describing families being pushed out of their homes and off their land following the initial National River designation, in what can only be described as abuse of eminent domain by our own federal government.
Residents there still vividly recall the families who refused to sell their homes and farms along the river — and were eventually escorted off their properties by law officers sent to enforce eminent domain and the absorption of the properties into the boundary of the new Buffalo National River.
And while, to most of us, 51 years feels like a different era and a different world ago, to the residents of Boone, Newton, and Searcy counties, those stories from five decades ago suddenly feel fresh again. But for the thousands of people attending the two town halls, those stories are fresh and the pain is palpable again — as is the outrage. How dare they even discuss this as an idea without us?
Beyond it simply being a bad idea, the proposal to change the river to a “national park and preserve” was born in secrecy and nurtured in the dark, as rumors and fears fed on missing information and misinformation — and the proponents and government officials discussing this proposal in private have done nothing to communicate or clarify their intentions or plans directly with local residents.
Thanks to our local journalists and community activists, we know that the river would not receive any additional federal funding were the designation to be changed. We know that shell companies controlled by the Walton family have been purchasing large tracts of land along the river and in nearby small towns. We know that Runway Group, controlled by Waltons, surveyed hundreds of local residents asking misleading questions in an effort to gauge and build support for their re-designation idea. We know that no member of Runway Group, nor the Walton family, nor the governor’s office has shown up at any of the town hall meetings where residents could speak and ask questions, and where elected officials could listen to their constituents.
Given what we do know, it’s pretty easy to grasp why residents, civic leaders, and state legislators from river communities are so angry. Arkansans have a right to know when the future of their communities, their properties, their businesses, and their homes is being discussed and planned in secret by powerful people from elsewhere. The manner in which Runway Group’s “idea” has been pitched for well over a year, privately, at the highest levels — and yet not at all at local levels, with the people who live there — is not merely difficult to process, it’s downright detestable.
To their credit, a number of state legislators have not only participated in the town halls, they’ve called out Runway Group and the governor’s office for a lack of transparency and absence of direct communication with local stakeholders: State Senators Bryan King and Greg Leding at the Jasper town hall event in October, and State Rep. Steven Walker and State Senator Missy Irvin at the Marshall town hall event in November. Notably absent from participation: The sitting Congressmen whose districts include much of the Buffalo National River, Bruce Westerman and Rick Crawford.
As a resident of Arkansas, I enjoy floating the Buffalo National River with my family and friends. As a candidate for U.S. Congress who has now listened to the concerns of dozens of Buffalo River-area families and landowners from Jasper to Marshall and everywhere between, I wholeheartedly oppose any change in designation for the Buffalo National River. The Buffalo should be left as is; all efforts to change the river designation or to exert external influence on Buffalo National River communities must cease.
Rodney Govens of Cabot is an Army veteran, a husband and father, and a longtime Court Appointed Special Advocate for children experiencing neglect or abuse. He is running as a Democrat to represent Arkansas’ First District in U.S. Congress. He can be reached via email at hello@RodneyForCongress.org.