OPINION: Guest writer

OPINION | SHELLEY SMITH: History on river

Nothing is more humbling than to think about history in terms of geological time, and nowhere is that geology more evident than in the landscape of the Buffalo River.

On a day when many people were clamoring for Black Friday shopping deals, I spent a few hours wandering around in the rocks listening to this river, soaking in its peaceful sounds. It has been part of my family history for 30 or so years.

I distinctly recall my son as a toddler breaking my grip on his hand and running as fast as his little legs would carry him, right down the river bank and in over his head, all in the blink of an eye. He loved it that much. Fortunately, that experience did not have a bad ending. When he was older, we took kayaks so that he could fish all day and I could float around mesmerized, staring at water, sky, and primeval stone. My kids and I spent many days on the river swimming and lollygagging in various spots. These are some of my favorite Mom memories.

My first adventures on the Buffalo were with groups of Leslie High School students, including my daughter, accompanied by an expert geologist. The goal was to collect as much trash as possible. We found mostly rusted beer cans and tackle boxes, along with an occasional tire. They all agreed it was an excellent reason to miss school. By far the most inspirational part for me was to see them enjoying beneficial volunteer work, followed closely by what we learned from the geologist. He led us to a bluff and pointed out prehistoric ocean fossils embedded in the rock. I have thought of that often and marveled at how these amazing mountains and rivers were formed.

According to the Arkansas Archeological Survey, the Ozarks were formed by sand and silt and the remains of marine animals laid down in a shallow sea at the beginning of the Paleozoic Era, which began 542 million years ago. Layers upon layers eventually became stone. They describe this area in modern times not so much as mountains, but as an ancient eroded plateau.

I cannot begin to grasp that sort of time frame, so in order to make it more understandable, I like to imagine a timeline made up of grains of sand that stretch from one end of a football field to the other. Each grain represents 100 years. We currently live on the edge of the most recent grain, close to the one-yard line. Much of humanity's industrial advances that we consider to be progress are barely three or four grains old.

The Buffalo National River and 36,000 acres of surrounding land have been preserved since 1964 when the Wilderness Act was passed by Congress. The rules are extremely strict as to what can and cannot be done within this protected area, with good reason. Most rivers in the U.S. have been dammed for various purposes. The rest of the land for thousands of miles in every direction has been divided, fenced, covered with ticky-tacky neighborhoods and unimaginative landscaping, paved, built on, clearcut, excavated, mined with heavy machinery, flattened, parts turned into landfills and toxic chemical dumps, and generally developed in a multitude of ways in the name of progress. This usually means that somebody stands to make a financial gain.

W hen I think about the recent efforts made by some extraordinarily wealthy folks to change the protection level of the Buffalo River, and to buy up property near it, all I can hear in my head are the words of John Dutton of the television series "Yellowstone": "If it's progress you want, then don't vote for me. I am the opposite of progress. I am the wall it bashes against, and I will not be the one who breaks."

These would-be land developers may have backed off for now, claiming they have no plans to continue their efforts, but locally, there remains much skepticism. I am uncomfortable anytime multimillionaires start buying up land and trying to change rules. It's clear they have a motive and an end-game. They don't announce exactly what it is or how they plan to carry it out; why would they? In a slippery-slope world, nobody leads with talk of golf courses, ritzy neighborhoods, or condos on the bluffs ... but it could happen if you allow what appear to be harmless initial changes. Somebody may be dreaming of a Buffalo Lake resort for all I know.

Turnout at public meetings on the subject has been vigorous, and I expect that all those people will become a Dutton-style wall if there are renewed efforts to change the river's designation. Having friends at the Capitol is not always enough.

We have some kind of nerve believing that we have any right to exploit or destroy that which took thousands of millennia to form. With millions of grains of sand behind us, and maybe only a few ahead of us, if we do not change our ways, I think our dismal track record of land and water preservation speaks for itself.

Shelley Smith of Fox is a retired teacher.