This year marks the 40th anniversary of the legislation making Arkansas's Buffalo River the first national river in the U.S. and the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Ozark Society, the group most responsible for saving the river from damming by the Army Corps of Engineers and for its eventual protection. To mark those occasions, I spent most of the second half of May with two colleagues and a dozen Hendrix College students examining the natural and environmental history of the Buffalo region, the policy debates that led to its protection, and creative responses — in the form of photography, poetry, and music — to the natural beauty of the Ozarks. Those more traditional academic exercises were combined with hiking, camping, and floating from Boxley to Rush.
The 12 days reminded me why I love being a liberal arts professor — working closely with students in looking at complex phenomena through the lenses of different disciplines. It also forced me to think more deeply about the natural beauty of Arkansas and how it's been maintained — not through luck but instead through ongoing engaged citizenship. It's a crucial lesson as we think about the more complex environmental battles of our time.
There were numerous heroes in the battle to save the Buffalo (including women who tended to get short shrift in the politics of that era), but three stand out. Neil Compton founded the Ozark Society in 1962 and used creative approaches to turn the battle over the Buffalo into a successful national movement; Gov. Orval Faubus stopped the dam plans with a late 1965 letter to the Corps (the agency's policy was that state executives could place holds on such plans with which they disagreed), and Republican John Paul Hammerschmidt defeated ardent pro-dam U.S. Rep. Jim Trimble in 1966 and immediately introduced legislation to create a national river that came to fruition in 1972. All three showed conservatism in other aspects of their political lives, but saw a place for governmental activism when it came to protecting the gorgeous, free-flowing river from being turned into just another man-made lake.
As shown most clearly in the decades-long work of Compton, saving the Buffalo took nonstop energy and engagement on the issue. It also showed an ability and willingness to veer between outsider strategies and working with political elites to get legislation passed.
The battle to save the natural beauty of the Buffalo had unintended consequences. Demise of the distinctive culture of the Buffalo region was hastened by the National Park Service's taking of homesteads and the arrival of non-natives. One stalwart in the Ozark Society told our group how he can no longer float the river because of his sadness about the absence of a culture that he loved as much as the bluffs and cedars. In the height of floating season, canoe traffic overwhelms the tranquility of the river and canoeists' trash mars the scenery. Locals also feel abused by the state's reintroduction of elk in the area, a herd that provides entertainment to tourists but chomps down the crops of locals.
Although now lessening, unnecessary conflicts between the Park Service and the local population also arose. For instance, the Park Service's failure to place its headquarters in Marshall, the home base of the pro-dam Buffalo River Improvement Association, as it had promised, created a new generation of locals peeved about the jobs lost by the dam's demise.
While recognizing these shortfalls — some of which could have been foreseen and others that couldn't — the Buffalo River's survival is a cause for great celebration. If you have the pleasure to go there this summer or fall and experience its beauty, remember the diligence of those who were responsible for protecting it decades ago and think about the duty we have to continue that legacy. Arkansas's environmental challenges of this generation — from fracking to coal-powered plants — are more complex ones with interests even more powerful than the Corps of Engineers on the other side. Now more than ever, we need leaders — both political and citizen — to continue to preserve our Natural State.