3/15 Update - Important historical resource:  Butler, J.B., 2014, Stolen water, forgotten liberties : a true story of life along Arkansas South Highway 14 and the Buffalo River: Ashland, OR, Hellgate Press, xiv, 209 p. "...tells the larger story of a community bound together by a river that provided sustenance and livelihood, only to see it all threatened when, in 1972, the National Park Service took control of the river, designating it a “national river.” Along with the designation came tough new rules and regulations, which many living along the river found ill-conceived and unfair, and a struggle to maintain a way of life that had remained largely unchanged for generations."



by Kent Anderson




This report was funded by a grant from the Institute for Human Rights Research located in San Antonio, Texas. All opinions expressed herein are solely the responsibility of the author. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the many kind people who permitted me to interview them. Most, but not all, of these people were inholders or former inholders of the Buffalo National River. Certain people assisted this report further by supplying me with various documents and I would like to thank Tommy Martin, Jerry Patterson, Hap Teter, Waymon Villines, and Ruth Wilson specifically in this regard, I would also like to thank Waymon and Norma Lee Villines, Hap and Rhonda Teter, and Hilary Jones for providing me with food and lodging during my stay along the Buffalo River. Their generosity will not be forgotten. A special thanks must go to Hap Teter who patiently guided me along the Buffalo River.


What follows is a report about people. For the most part, it is the story of men, women, and families who have lived or owned land along the banks of the Buffalo River in Northern Arkansas. Some of these people still live there today, but under the cloud of an uncertain future on their land. This report will focus on the social and cultural impact of the land acquisition of the National Park Service following the establishment of the Buffalo National River in 1972. Each person in Chapter Three, the main chapter of the report, will be featured in a short "vignette" or case study. By this method, it is hoped that the reader will be able to obtain a "feel" for the inholders of the Buffalo region and their plight. Prior to that portion of the study, a brief history of the Buffalo National River will be offered.

For purposes of this report, the term "inholder" will be used in the broad sense to describe someone whose land is surrounded by federal land such as a National Park or National Forest. The narrow definition of the National Park Service will not be used. In this specific study, inholders will mean those landholders who owned land within what became the boundary of the BNR in 1972. For many of these people, such land, farms and homes had been in their families for generations.

A few comments about sources are necessary here. On a number of occasions there were follow-up telephone calls made by this researcher to some people who had been interviewed originally while the author was in the Buffalo River valley. These calls, generally, were merely for the purpose of checking and re-checking small facts such as the proper spelling of people's names and other such items. Not all of these follow-up calls have been recorded in the Interviews section within the bibliographic portion of the report. Also, there were several newspaper clippings from the varied local press which had no indication of date or of the actual newspaper from which the clipping was made. Only a very few of these clippings were used as research sources and, obviously, these could not be reflected in the bibliography. Additionally, there was one other source which served as general background for this report, but was not cited in any specific endnote. This source was an unpublished manuscript on the history of Newton County, Arkansas, edited by Rhonda Teter and Ruth Wilson. It has been cited in the final section on Sources.


In North Central Arkansas, less than 50 miles from the Missouri border, an attractive river named the Buffalo meanders through the landscape. The River features several extremely striking limestone and granite bluffs (Photos 1 & 2) and generally contains a relatively low water level except during those few months which permit extensive navigation by canoe or johnboat. In 1935 the state of Arkansas recognized the beauty of the River and formed the Buffalo River State Park. In the late 1950's the National Park Service launched a nationwide inventory of undeveloped streams and rivers with the hope of singling out a few for park status. At the same time, several businessmen and other interested local people in Northern Arkansas were proposing that the Buffalo River be dammed for greater economic benefit and increased recreational opportunities for the area. In fact, such proposals had been voiced occasionally in the Buffalo River valley since the 1930's by those who looked to the benefits brought by the Tennessee Valley Authority as an example of what a series of prudently placed dams might mean to a depressed area.1

In 1961 the distinguished and influential U.S. Senator from Arkansas, J. William Fullbright, advocated that the Buffalo River be taken over by the National Park Service. The following year, in 1962, an organization which called itself the Ozark Society was formed with the sole purpose to "Save the Buffalo." Under the leadership of Dr. Neil Compton, the Ozark Society's aim was to prevent the Buffalo River from being dammed. To pre-serve the River in its "pristine" state, the group launched an intensive decade-long publicity campaign which advocated a take over of the River by the National Park Service. In order to stop the threat of the River being dammed, which was a real threat at that time, the Ozark Society could envision no other administrative means than inclusion of the Buffalo within the NPS bureaucracy. To the Ozark Society members, many of whom lived far away from the River, and their followers, the cry "Save the Buffalo" not only meant maintaining the River as free-flowing, or un-dammed, but also something very new for the country and the National Park Service: a "nationalized" river.

In opposition to the Ozark Society there were literally thousands of people in the region of the Buffalo River who simply wanted to be left alone. These people did not want a dam on the River, nor did they want the intrusion of the Park Service. 'In the early 1960's several thousand signatures in opposition to a Park Service takeover of the River were sent to the office of Senator Fullbright, but to no avail. In 1963 the NPS declared the Buffalo to be nationally significant and the following year the battle over the River intensified as did the efforts to dam the River near the town of Gilbert, approximately halfway along its course. The publicity and propaganda of both the pro-dam and pro-Park forces increased with the people of the Buffalo River valley caught in between. The followers of the Ozark Society included hundreds of tourists who had c me to the River for years in order to "float" down its course through its still pools. These "floaters, as they were called, would have obviously been deprived of their mode of recreation on the Buffalo by any damming of the River. 2

As the decade of the 1960's neared its end, the lobbying efforts of the Ozark Society and the Park Service gained strength. Governor Orville Faubus supported the NPS proposed take over. One of the biggest boosts for a National River occurred following the publication by the Ozark Society in 1967 of the book The Buffalo River Country. This book was written by Park Service employee Kenneth Smith and was filled with beautiful photographs and a text which extolled the physical characteristics of the Buffalo as unique in the nation and immediately threatened by dams and development.

In 1968 an election occurred which also assisted the pro-Park forces along the Buffalo. John Paul Hammerschmidt defeated incumbent Congressman James Trimble. While Trimble had equivocated on the issue of the Park, Hammerschmidt had campaigned foursquare in favor of the National Park take over proposal.

The Congressional district contested by these two men included most of the Buffalo River valley and several observers interpreted the result as the death knell for the forces wanting to dam the River, and. conversely, as a green light for the nationalization of the River. U.S. Senator John McClellan of Arkansas, who had remained fairly neutral on the debate, interpreted the election in the affected district as proof enough for him that most people favored a Park. Sentiment expressed against the building of the dam was interpreted by most of the appropriate political leaders as also a great public desire for the entrance of the NPS into the region. As the following decade proved, this assumption was totally erroneous. 3

Following the election of John Paul Hammerschmidt, the Ozark Society and its allies greatly increased their publicity efforts to aid in the passage of the necessary legislation to forever seal the Buffalo River with the imprint of the National Park Service. Ozark Society statements often seemed to approach the status of frenzied hyperbole during these years, especially following Senator Fullbright's re-introduction of the bill to create the Buffalo National River in 1969. In describing the region, Everett Bowman of the Ozark Society talked about the Buffalo in terms of "bottomless bayous rimmed with cypress trees." One must wonder whether Bowman ever actually saw the area because there are no cypress trees in Northern Arkansas, Dr. Joe Nix, the Vice-President of the Ozark Society, typified the urgent sense of alarm of the organization when he said, "in a few years it (the Buffalo River) will not be recognizable in its natural state."

It was Neil Compton, though, as leader of the Ozark Society, who contributed most to the exaggerated rhetoric of the times. A primary target for the Society was the Valley-Y Ranch which was a horse ranch owned by P. W. Yarborough of Overland Park, Kansas. The Valley-Y was located on the banks of the Buffalo and contained numerous buildings and stables for the raising of horses. Ironically, today many of the main buildings and houses of the ranch still remain, but are now owned and occupied by National Park Service personnel (Photo 3). In the late 1560's and early 1970's, though, the Valley-Y Ranch represented the ultimate in pernicious development along the Buffalo. Said Neil Compton of P. W. Yarborough's attractive growing horse farm, "It's murder . . . That's the only word for it." 4

In addition to the remarks of Neil Compton and other Ozark Society members regarding the "whispers of motels and golf courses" which have never materialized into reality, the press also aided in the cause of the creation of the Buffalo National River. Interestingly enough, the farther away from the Buffalo a newspaper was, the more pro-Park its editorial attitude would be. The Arkansas Gazette, located in Little Rock, reprinted the following editorial from the Kansas City Star which bore little on the actual reality of the Buffalo River valley:

Today industry and other developments are crowding into Northern Arkansas. Dredging, bulldozing and a high-speed highway have already caused deterioration to the river . . . .

The Arkansas Gazette, itself, also favored the establishment of BNR, especially its columnist John Fleming. The following example of Fleming reveals that either Fleming had never been to the region and was, thus, unaware that an entire cultural heritage of small farmers had existed along the banks of the River, some in the same families for over 100 years; or that Fleming had merely been persuaded to his opinion by an equally ill-informed source:

The National River plan involves a narrow strip along the river's banks. It would consume only 95,750 acres in a vast wilderness where the land is admittedly good for little else but recreation. 5

Few of the local newspapers in the actual counties affected by the proposal BNR favored its establishment. It-also appeared that many of the residents and potential inholders of the valley did not want the federal agency to enter their neighborhood. In a vociferous protest, a few local people felled about 200 trees along the River in late 1968 and dumped them into the Buffalo. The vast majority of the populace, however, attacked the proposed Park Service take over peacefully. Many local residents came together and formed the Buffalo River Conservation and Recreation Committee, or BRC & RC as it came to be called. The BRC & RC offered an alternative plan for "saving" the Buffalo. It was a very complex proposal which involved extending the Ozark National Forest jurisdiction over the area into a co-operative arrangement whereby the River would have been donated to the Forest Service, but the banks of the River would have remained in private hands. This plan was sometimes called the "Pastoral River Plan," but its own complexity helped defeat its chances for legislative passage. Many other local people voiced fears and concerns about the National Park proposal. Newton County Assessor Charles Petree said that 51 percent of his county was already in federal hands (part of the Ozark National Forest) and that adoption of the BNR bill would mean an additional loss of $34,000 in revenue to the county. With the threat of the dam now waning, many people wondered why the cry "Save the Buffalo" was being shouted with ever increasing alarm. The sense of urgency expressed by the Park proponents during these years appear to be without foundation. In 1970 Congressman Hammerschmidt went as far as to state that there was not even any time for public hearings on the bill as if the Buffalo River was on the threshold of being dammed at that very moment in time.

The apprehension of the people who lived closest to the River was allayed by various political forces. Senator Fullbright promised local citizens that land not needed for specific NPS facilities would not be disrupted. Joe Nix of the Ozark Society was confident that the concerns of potential inholders were unfounded, but said, "I doubt that we are going to be able to convince the people that eminent domain will not take their land.

Added to all of these reassurances were the impressive statistics and predictions of the National Park Service. The NPS promised an economic boom for the area. The agency predicted that 5,000 new jobs would be created along the Buffalo as a result of its status as a National River and that for the first five years of the Park's existence, annual tourist spending in the area would amount to $92,000,000. After that period had passed, the NPS said annual tourist dollars coming into the area would be $34,000,000. The initial prediction of the Park Service for annual tourist visitation was put at 2,000,000. By 1977, though, five years after the establishment of the BNR, the Park Service expressed the hope that 500,000 tourists might visit the River by 1979. 6

The bill to create the new and unique National River moved inexorably toward law. Speaking on behalf of the proposed Act, Congressman Hammerschmidt said in May of 1971:

My bill will not result in a serious dislocation of the people of the Buffalo River country. Few residents whose-properties are within the boundaries of the proposed Buffalo National River will be required to vacate their homes . . . As far as I can determine, no units of the national park system have failed to bring increased economic benefits to the communities where they are located.

That spring the U.S. Senate passed the bill. Early the following year, the House of Representatives passed the bill with amendments with which the Senate quickly concurred and on March 1, 1972 the Act creating the Buffalo National River was signed into law. The Buffalo River actually began 16 miles within the Ozark National Forest, so this part of the River would not be part of the BNR. The BNR, as established, began at the USFS border and wound along to the White River through the four Northern Arkansas counties of Baxter, Marion, Newton, and Searcy with the latter three counties constituting the bulk of the National River's 132-mile length. Much to the surprise and annoyance of the people of the Buffalo, the Park Service placed its Park headquarters in Boone County, a county totally untouched by the BNR. Despite this troublesome fact, though, the launching of the National River held high hopes for many people. The Buffalo National River was to be something new and different in the National Park System. The old fears about the NPS "bulldozer" in regard to eminent domain were promised by many not to appear in Northern Arkansas. The Park Service said that only $16,000,000 was needed to purchase land necessary for the BNR. After returning to Congress twice more during the coming decade for additional monies for the land acquisition, the total had risen to nearly $40,000,000 by 1978. By 1980 the swath of the Park Service had moved through the lives and land of the inholders with an insensitivity which no one had predicted. As the Buffalo National River entered the new decade of the 1980's, the official promises and stated reassurances made ten years earlier seemed to echo back to the people of the Buffalo in hollow mockery. 7

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