About 50 people, a standing room only crowd for the small conference room at the Boone County Library in downtown Harrison, attended Tuesday a presentation by Retired Staff Historian Suzie Liles on the 40th anniversary of the Buffalo National River.
Today, March 1, is the official date of the anniversary. Many people can’t believe it’s been 40 years. But 40 years ago, many people couldn’t believe after all the years of debate that the legislation was finally passed to make the Buffalo River the country’s first national river.
“The Buffalo National River was the first to be given that designation,” Liles said. “It’s an interesting piece of real estate and to turn it into a park has been a challenge these 40 years.”
Liles said it wasn’t just one individual or one group that made it happen, but rather many landowners, individuals, groups, politicians and federal agencies. The river had been used for recreation for a number of years, with locations such as Shady Grove Camp at Pruitt established before World War II. Construction of the Buffalo River State Park began in 1938 and in 1945 National Geographic ran an article on the river with a photo of the Ark. 65 bridge area.
I quite love the Lost Valley area, so I thought it was neat to learn from Liles that in 1945 a writer who thought the area should be preserved wrote about it and in an effort to make it seem even more extraordinary called it the “Lost Valley.”
But at the same time its wonders were being extolled, the Corps of Engineers was looking at it for a different reason. In 1937, the Corps determined that only five lock and dams were needed in order for it to be navigable year round. In 1938, the Corps surveyed the river and made a plan for the Arkansas-White-Red River Basins. Fortunately, Liles said, President Eisenhower vetoed the plans several times. However, Liles said that the plans and proponents for the dam continued pushing forward.
Harold Alexander, a biologist looking at dam construction across the state became concerned that some streams needed to remain free flowing. “He became one of the earliest voices,” Liles said.
In his preservation efforts, Alexander wrote, “I would observe that a stream is a living thing. It moves, dances and shimmers in the sun. It furnishes opportunities for enjoyment and its beauty moves men’s souls.”
Another big voice came on board, Dr. Neil Compton of Bentonville. After asking Alexander to speak at a Rotary Club meeting and hearing of the Corp plan, Compton realized opponents of the dam could not wait to take action.
In favor of the dam were Jim Tudor, a businessman and newspaper man from Marshall who allied with Judge James W. Trimble of Berryville, a Congressman for the 3rd Congressional District who remained steadfast in his support of damming the Buffalo.
“Arkansas Sen. J. William Fulbright did not wish to go against Rep. Trimble and the Corps project, but also arranged funding for the first National Parks Service survey of the river,” Liles said.
The National Park Service in 1961 designates the Buffalo River as “worthy of preservation” and this is the first involvement of the NPS into the Buffalo River issue. On July 14 this same year, Time Magazine prints an article on camping using a photo of the Ozark Wilderness Waterways Camp on the Buffalo River. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas sees it and wants to visit this place. He floats from Ponca to Erbie in the spring of 1962 with Harold and Margaret Hodges, who take him as part of The Ozark Society. Douglas writes an opinion piece in favor of preservation.
The Ozark Society to save the Buffalo River was formed in May of 1962 with Neil Compton serving as president. “They couldn’t have chosen anyone better or more tenacious,” Liles explained. The group formed after a Jan. 30, 1962 Corps meeting in Marshall where the opponents of any dam on the Buffalo River were able to finally meet and join forces and those for the dam found they were pushed to the back.
The fight continues over the next several years. The NPS recommendation in April 1963 deems the river “nationally significant.” The Corps in ’64-’65 gets funding for a study of damming the river. “So here we have two governmental agencies with funding for two opposing uses,” Liles said, explaining that is rare.
“The Corps starts thinking maybe just one dam,” Liles said. It would have been located around the Tyler Bend area. The Corps hold another public hearing in Nov. 1964 and proposes a dam and a park. Dam opponents don’t like this idea even though it includes a park. NPS attends to say no. “This is an historic movement,” Liles added.
Newspapers across the region began covering the controversy. Arkansas’s Political Cartoonish George Fisher created several cartoons. American Painter Thomas Hart Benton painted a piece for preservation of the Buffalo River. “There’s starting to be a more national scene,” she said.
Additionally, Arkansas native Ken Smith, who works for the NPS takes a hiatus to write the book “Buffalo River Country” and then goes back to work for NPS. Liles said that while he worked wherever NPS sent him, Smith often was in Washington D.C. at times he was needed to speak on behalf of saving the river.
“As the preservation people gather momentum, a lot is actually starting to go against them,” Liles explained.
However, while dam proponents push for their cause, in December of 1965 Gov. Orval Faubus, who has decided not to run for re-election, writes a letter to the Corps saying he thinks the national park is a good idea.
In April, the Corps withdraws its recommendation for damming the river. “A lot of parts are still in motion and threat,” Liles said. (In fact, plans for the Gilbert Reservoir on the Buffalo do not officially get de-authorized until 1974.)
In 1966, Trimble gets a majority of Arkansas congressmen to sign in favor of the dam. But, things begin to change when Trimble is defeated by John Paul Hammerschmidt.
In January of 1967 Senators Fulbright and McClellan introduce the first Buffalo National River legislation, but it doesn’t go anywhere. However, the NPS continued to prepare for a park and began discussing preservation, development and private use zones. There is talk of life estates for current landowners.
In 1969 the bill is re-introduced during the 91st Congress. George Hartzog, director of NPS, wants to see the Buffalo River become a park and he advocates for it. “He did everything that was needed to keep things in the mix,” Liles said. In 1971, the legislation is introduced again. It passes the Senate but sits in the House. Hartzog takes the subcommittee members on a Buffalo River float trip. In October public hearings are held, and now some people are still for a dam and some don’t want a park at all. The subcommittee approves the legislation.
On March 1, 1972 it is finally approved after it goes to President Nixon.
“So we finally had the legislation to put the park in motion,” Liles said. Staff arrived in May 1972. The NPS assumed management, began some land acquisition, took donation of the state parks from Arkansas. The first park superintendent Donald Spalding arrived in July of that year. Elberta Russell, secretary, started in September. Chief Ranger Harry Grafe took his position in November.
There are currently 397 parks in the national park system. “You can have an extraordinary place and it never make it into the park system,” Liles explained.
Anyone who has gazed upon Big Bluff, seen the reflection of Skull Rock on a fall day, hiked the trail to Indian Rockhouse, visited Collier Homestead near Tyler Bend, guided a canoe down the river’s many miles, stuck their toes or a fishing rod in the water, or a myriad of other experiences knows the Buffalo River is definitely worthy of the national designation.
Today be thankful for those determined souls that fought to keep this free-flowing stream. Then make plans to visit it, and be mindful to protect it, and treat it well while you are there. Like Jimmy Driftwood sang, the Buffalo River is “Arkansas’s Gift to the Nation. America’s Gift to the World.”