Recreation positive for Ozarks

Outdoor recreation is the economic future in the Ozarks.

It promises the greatest growth potential, but with fewer negative environmental impacts than traditional models like some types of farming, mining and logging.

As evidenced by decades of license sales data, hunting and fishing are not growth industries. Many streams, especially the Buffalo River, Kings River and Crooked Creek are at their saturation threshold for fishing pressure, at least from a sociological standpoint. From June to September, it gets all the fishing pressure that most fishermen can handle.

Another limiting factor for an Ozark fishing industry is that its rivers dry up in the summertime. Headwaters become too dry for canoe and kayak access. Receding navigability compress anglers into remaining water, diminishing the fishing experience for everyone.

Hunting is allowed on the federal land that comprises the Buffalo National River, but game population densities are sparse in the Ozarks. From a conservation standpoint, it is irresponsible to funnel additional hunting pressure onto the Ozarks from other parts of the state or from other states.

If hunting and fishing are stagnant industries, what else can grow a recreational economy?

Mountain biking, hiking, rock climbing, ziplining, paddlesports and other so-called non-consumptive activities appeal to an active, affluent, mobile, experience-seeking "growth" demographic. That is the future that certain entrepreneurs see for the region, with the Buffalo National River as its centerpiece.

Redesignating the Buffalo as a national park & preserve would help commoditize the resource, and a lot of people believe that idea will damage the resource.

Major employers in Northwest Arkansas want to develop Northwest Arkansas into an international mountain biking destination. The success and popularity of state-of-the-art mountain biking trail systems in the Bentonville area have proven that the demand is high, and that people will travel to well-conceived, well-executed venues. Entrepreneurs intend to build those trails on their own land near the Buffalo River.

Yes, it will change the area's character, but change is not inherently bad. Agriculture is a traditional vocation in the Ozarks, but nobody can dispute the negative impact that confined animal feeding operations have on the karst topography of the Ozarks and on surface and subterranean water quality, on fish habitat and on fish populations.

A lot of people are moving to the Ozarks. They are clearing homesites, cutting down forests and modifying the land in ways that exacerbate erosion. In the Ozarks, everything that hits the ground goes to the creek. Large portions of the Buffalo and Kings River grow wider and shallower by the year. This warms the water and negatively impacts fish habitat that the fish species that inhabit them.

Largescale development will accelerate this problem if aggressive strategies are not employed to contain it.

Wealthy people with big ideas have always driven societal and economic evolution. Arkansas, and Northwest Arkansas in particular, testify to that reality.

Our concern is how much impact this new economic model and the growth its drivers envision will have on the region's environmental integrity and on the resources that we treasure. If a "green" recreation model damages water quality and fisheries, if it is hostile to wildlife, and if it diminishes free access to public recreational resources, then it will indistinguishable from any other industry.

A business owner in Jasper told us recently that recreation will transform Newton County into one of the state's most prosperous counties. Lacking a major highway, lacking access to an interstate highway, lacking access to a major airport, lacking access to a major river port or sea port, and without at least one major corporate employer, that is probably not possible.

From this perch, however, outdoor recreation is a desirable model. It's what I envisioned in 1999 when I published my first book, "Arkansas, A Guide to Backcountry Travel & Adventure." It features all of the aforementioned activities except for hunting.

We've seen other efforts try and fail. Remember the ill-fated ski resort at Horseshoe Bend and Marble Falls? Dogpatch USA lasted longer, but not by much.

If recreational development is done responsibly and sustainably, we see it as a net positive.

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