The Buffalo National River needs more horse trails and a second camping area for equestrians. It needs fewer horse trails. It needs more walking trails. It should pave the roads. It shouldn't pave the roads. It needs more volunteers engaged in the park. It needs fewer volunteers and more professionals. It needs less private access. It needs more private access. It needs to be left alone.
Those and myriad other comments gleaned from seven “scoping” hearings in Northwest Arkansas and Little Rock are going into the first general management plan being drawn up for the park since its creation in 1972.
The deadline to put in your two cents about your vision for the park is Aug. 31 (online at www.nps.gov/buff). Public response is being collected and recorded at the Denver Service Center of the Park Service and will be posted on the park's website in three to four months' time, park Superintendent Kevin Cheri said.
Cheri said public input will drive the general management plan: “We want to know what's important to people.” The general management plan will guide all other plans for the park, such as use of fire and wilderness and wildlife management. “This is the top of the pyramid,” Cheri said.
This is a federal process, so nothing's going to happen right away. At the close of the comment period, the park service will draw up management alternatives (and their environmental impacts) based on the comments for presentation to the public in late summer 2010. More public hearings will follow and those will direct the draft of the final plan, which will also be submitted to the public for comment. The final document should be prepared by fall 2013. Implementation is another year down the road. The plan will then be in effect for the next 15 to 20 years.
“The more specific people can be can be helpful,” Cheri said. If you're opposed to something, suggest how you might compromise — if people want more horse trails and you don't, suggest where they'd be most acceptable, for example.
Comments made at the public scoping meetings — written on easel pads or submitted on cards — have addressed the number of put-in places for boats; availability of facilities, from restrooms to campgrounds; water quality; trail management, and so forth. A center similar to the Elk Education Center at Ponca that would have as its focus the people who have lived around the park — aboriginal and historical —has been suggested, as have more visitor centers, said Jeff Dezort, a writer for the Newton County Times in Jasper.
Equestrian use of the park is a point of contention, Ben Milburn, who runs Buffalo River Outfitters, a canoe rental and guide service business in St. Joe, said. He attended the Springdale and Harrison meetings and said folks at the former were likely to suggest limits on horseback use and that the opposite was true at the latter.
A “huge issue” for concessionaires, Milburn said, is the lack of parking at river access points. At Gilbert, for example, where a little road runs right to the river, cars often park on the river's edge, making it difficult for outfitters to retrieve canoes and take care of their customers.
Milburn said ranger behavior is a “big issue” in Newton County. “Rangers set up river checks where they check people for glass [bottles] and other things. They take it a little far,” he said.
Ken Smith, who literally wrote the book on the Buffalo (the “Buffalo River Handbook”) and who attended the Springdale public hearing, said the federal government, with its huge deficit, can't really afford to do much for the parks. “Shortage of funds — that is the one overwhelming fact,” he said. His idea: Make greater use of volunteers to work in the park.
Hearings were also held in Marshall, Mountain Home and Yellville.
Cheri said more than 1.2 million people floated or camped along the Buffalo River last year, a number based on concessionaire rentals and park service estimates.