A designation change for the Buffalo is not about love for the river. It’s about money and who stands to benefit most from the change.

  • The Walton grandsons are pushing to change the Buffalo National River to a “National Preserve”
  • It could mean less access to the river for residents and more money in the pockets of the world’s richest family
  • The change could also transfer management from the National Parks Service to the Sanders administration
  • Proponents of the shift will gain the most from the change and have been working on the effort behind closed doors
  • A town hall is scheduled in Jasper for Thursday, October 26 at 6pm. Attend in person or sign up for the live stream here.

There is much to unpack after news broke of efforts to change the Buffalo National River into a National Park Preserve. 

At first glance, the proposed change doesn’t seem problematic. But peel back the first layer and you’ll find a web of Walton interests, government opacity, and endangerment of our beloved river. 

What we know

Currently, the Buffalo River holds a “National River” designation from the National Parks Service. The National River designation means the Buffalo is protected from industrial use and any other potential endangerment to its natural flow and function. The designation also provides for open recreational use to anyone who wishes to enjoy it.

Last year, over a million people visited the Buffalo, and the river averages 800,000 annual visitors; neither passes nor permits are required to access the river, which has multiple entry points and over 100 miles of adjacent hiking trails. In short, the Buffalo River acts as an anchor for both tourists and locals, providing easily accessible recreation and space for Arkansans to enjoy the Natural State. 

However, a group called the Coalition for the Future of the Buffalo River, which is funded by Tom and Steuart Walton, is pushing to change the river’s designation from “National River” to “National Preserve.” 

Through the reporting of Ellen Kreth of the Madison County Record and the good folks at KUAF, we’ve learned that: 1) polls have been conducted among residents in Buffalo River counties gauging current usage by locals and their opinions on a possible status change; and 2) the Waltons have purchased 6,000 acres of land in Kingston, Arkansas, an unincorporated town in Madison County that serves as a sort of quaint gateway into the Upper Buffalo region.

Most northwest Arkansans use the Kingston route to access popular Upper Buffalo spots like Steel Creek and Kyle’s Landing. 

Critically, a change to a “National Preserve” designation would allow for more federal investment in the area, along with certain commercial activities like oil and mineral extraction

Yes, you read that correctly: oil extraction along the Buffalo River. 

You also should not miss this: A Preserve designation allows for park management to be transferred to state and local government. 

Right now, the Buffalo is managed by the National Park Service. Under a new Preserve designation, the Buffalo could be handed over to Sarah Sanders and put under the control of Bryan Sanders, her husband, extending his foray with the management of Arkansas’ natural spaces. 

After Mike Mills was fired from his position as the Secretary of Arkansas Parks and Tourism this summer, rumors swirled that it was because of bad blood between Mills and the First Gent. A potential change in the Buffalo’s designation puts a different and more ominous spin on Mills’ ouster and Bryan Sanders’ heavy involvement in the Natural State Advisory Council and the Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism. 

What we don’t know but on which we can make an educated guess

The Waltons are behind the Coalition for the Future of the Buffalo River. Considering they have scooped up Buffalo-adjacent land and their penchant for building their own utopian playgrounds, For AR People is going to guess they have something similar in mind for the Buffalo

There are two big questions regarding the push to change the Buffalo’s designation: 

  1. Who will benefit from the change? 
  2. Is the process open and fair to Arkansans? 

The first answer is quite obvious. Benefactors include the Waltons (imagine a bougie, Bentonvillian version of Kingston) and any other existing business infrastructure in the Buffalo region. 

A park preserve designation means that permits and fees may be required to access the river. If there are only a few players in town able to provide those permits and who control entrance points, we can say goodbye to an accessible Buffalo River where anyone is welcome to float or hike on a whim.

It could also mean a dramatic influx of visitors to the region, which would mean a big spike in development – roads, hotels, restaurants, shops. Of course, infrastructure comes with a return for communities. But if one entity owns all the property in the town, then only one entity truly benefits from the investment. 

The answer to the second question is a resounding no This has most certainly not been a fair and transparent process for Arkansans. Though the news of the coalition broke this week, its backers seem to have been strategizing for years: polls ensuring positive messaging outcomes; real estate purchases that benefit the world’s richest family; back channel conversations between the governor and Arkansas’s congressmen; Sanders’ establishment an outdoor tourism task force, led by her husband alongside with Steuart Walton immediately upon her inauguration. 

As the Madison County Record article highlights, residents have not been included in discussions about the proposal. Only since the story broke has the coalition come forward publicly and announced public input sessions, though they’ve stayed silent about who they really are and who is funding them. 

In an article for the Jacobin titled “Walmart’s Company Town of Bentonville, AR,” Stephanie Farmer, Sociology professor at Roosevelt University, wrote this: “The Walton family is not acting altruistically by transforming Bentonville. Rather, these investments are part of an accumulation strategy.” Replace “Bentonville” with “the Buffalo,” and this quote is the perfect encapsulation of the park preserve effort. 

Those pushing for a designation change are not spurred by appreciation for and love of the river. For them, it seems to be about one thing only: the money.