In doing research for a recent column on the history of trout fishing in Arkansas, I pulled a book from my personal library, "An Ozark Perspective." The book, published in 2013, is a collection of Jim Gaston's nature photography.
As owner of Gaston's White River Resort on the banks of the White River in north Arkansas, Gaston became a legendary figure in the state's tourism industry. He also became a leading advocate for protecting and enhancing Arkansas' natural attributes.
Gaston died in July 2015, but I can't help but contemplate what he would have to say were he still around. At a time when people are leaving the nation's largest urban areas, Arkansas wisely is investing in broadband infrastructure to allow them to do their work from here. Gaston would realize that the state he loved so much is on the brink of a transformation; a transformation in which outdoor opportunities play an important role since highly educated young people place quality-of-life amenities at the top of the list when deciding where to live.
But I suspect he also would be disappointed that we're being held back in protecting our most valuable assets by an ineffective Legislature that's resistant to change. Exhibit A would be the refusal earlier this year of Republican legislators--obsequious servants of the Arkansas Farm Bureau Federation--to enact a permanent ban on commercial hog farming in the Buffalo River watershed. That was despite support of the proposal by a popular governor from their party. Exhibit B would be the lack of investment made in critical programs such as the Stream Team effort at the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission, quail habitat enhancement, and hardwood restoration in the Delta.
Gaston wasn't shy. He wasn't afraid to get in the face of a public official when he believed in a cause. Where's the new generation of Arkansans who will get in faces, make noise and make sure that our state doesn't miss out on this golden opportunity to enter a new era of prosperity? I don't know the answer to that question.
Gaston wasn't an Arkansas native, but no one loved this state more. He was born in Herrin, Ill., in December 1941 and spent much of his boyhood in Kansas before his family settled in north Arkansas. His father Al started the trout resort in 1958.
Jim Gaston was just 20 when he inherited a property that was a resort in name only. It consisted of 20 acres, six small cottages and six boats. He would end up building it into an internationally known fishing destination covering 400 acres with two miles of river frontage. There would be more than 70 boats, some of the best fishing guides in America, 79 cabins and cottages, and a 3,200-foot airstrip so patrons could arrive in private planes.
The restaurant at Gaston's became one of the finest in the state. Gaston also added a conference center, fly-fishing school, private club, gift shop, playground, swimming pool, tennis court and nature trails. His father never could have dreamed that the place would be featured in magazines and on television programs across the country.
"Gaston was an advocate of tourism as an economic engine for Arkansas, as well as a champion of conservation," Nancy Hendricks writes for the Central Arkansas Library System's Encyclopedia of Arkansas. "He was an early supporter of Dale Bumpers, who became a lifelong friend. After Bumpers was elected governor in 1970, Gaston was the first person appointed by Bumpers to the state's parks and tourism commission. Gaston served on the commission for many years before being named commissioner emeritus and a lifetime member. In addition, Gaston served as president of the Arkansas Tourism Development Foundation and president of the Arkansas Hospitality Association."
Gaston was named the state's Tourism Man of the Year in 1985 and inducted into the Arkansas Outdoor Hall of Fame in 1999. Arkansas Business named him its Business Executive of the Year in 2010.
Among the casualties of the pandemic this year was an annual May gathering along the White River that I attend with a group of friends from my college days. Those gatherings end on Sunday morning. My habit before driving home to Little Rock is to go to Gaston's White River Resort for brunch and then drive back up the hill to spend time at the Gaston Visitor Center at Bull Shoals-White River State Park. The park covers 732 acres in parts of Baxter and Marion counties.
The Gaston Visitor Center, which was completed in 2006 at a cost of $4.7 million, covers 15,744 square feet and hosts thousands of students each year from schools across north Arkansas in addition to the visitors who come to the area from across the country. If you want to know the history of the White River and Bull Shoals Lake, the center is an excellent place to start.
At the time of his death, Gaston was to be honored with the Legacy Award from the Outdoor Hall of Fame in recognition of the role he played in establishing trout fishing in Arkansas. The Gaston legacy, though, goes far beyond trout fishing, nature photography and tourism. His biggest impact was changing the mindset of Arkansans. Thanks to the work of Gaston and others, people began to think of hunting, fishing, hiking, cycling, bird watching and other outdoors activities as more than something to do on the weekend. They realized that in the knowledge-based economy of the 21st century, these activities represent economic development.
I miss Jim Gaston. We sure could use him to get in the faces of legislators about now.
Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.