Runway Group of Bentonville has released the detailed results of a poll it commissioned to gauge people's interest in changing the Buffalo National River's designation to that of a national park and preserve.
Forty percent of respondents indicated they believe the Buffalo National River gets too many visitors already, and bringing in more would just make it worse.
But 58% of respondents disagreed with that idea, saying it wasn't a good reason to oppose the proposed designation change.
Proponents say changing the Buffalo National River's designation to a national park and preserve would bring in more visitors and more federal funding for infrastructure, while preserving hunting and fishing access.
Opponents are concerned about overcrowding and the possibility of additional land-use restrictions.
The Buffalo National River -- which is administered by the National Park Service -- attracted 1.3 million visitors last year and contributed over $64.9 million in spending to "local gateway regions."
The Buffalo National River became the first national river in the United States on March 1, 1972, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. It is one of the few remaining free-flowing rivers in the lower 48 states.
One of the survey questions indicated it was "very important" to 82% of respondents that no private land be taken to create the national park and preserve.
In a statement on its website at https://runwaynwa.com/statement-on-the-future-of-the-buffalo-national-river, Runway Group said it didn't support any taking of private land.
This re-designation is just an idea that's being floated out there, said Krista Cupp, communications director for Runway Group, which commissioned the poll.
"This is an idea that we certainly think is worth exploring, but there's nothing new happening right now," she said. "It's an idea out there that's being considered. The private sector brings ideas forward, to the public, to the decision makers. Outdoor recreation is a key area for us. This is something that we thought would be interesting to look at. I think what makes this particularly relevant right now is that there's recent data from this happening in West Virginia."
She was referring to New River Gorge in West Virginia. It became a national river in 1978 and switched to a national park and preserve in 2020.
From 2020 to 2021, the number of visitors at New River Gorge increased from 1,054,374 to 1,682,720, according to a flyer distributed by Runway Group. During that same time, annual economic impact at the West Virginia park increased from $152 million to $269 million.
As the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported on Oct. 7, Congressman Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., said the designation change is just talk right now.
Westerman is chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources, and he represents Arkansas' 4th Congressional District, which includes Newton County and part of the Buffalo National River.
A bill to make the designation change would have to go through Westerman's committee before going to the full House for a vote, then to the Senate, then to the president. But no such bill has been drafted.
"We're a long ways from me even writing a bill," he said Thursday. "This is just being discussed, and the discussions are pretty informal right now. What I've said all along is you need buy-in from the community. This is not a process that should be rushed. We're just discussing an issue and ought to be able to do that with civility and by hearing different sides of the story."
Westerman said local groups have public town-hall meetings planned for Jasper and Marshall to discuss the re-designation idea. Westerman said won't be able to attend either of those meetings, but someone from his staff will be there.
Westerman said he's against expanding the Buffalo National River boundaries, and the boundaries of national parks in general.
"Especially I don't like the federal government taking in any kind of private lands," he said earlier this month. "We've got a huge federal estate already."
Runway Group is a holding company founded by Steuart and Tom Walton that makes investments in real estate, outdoor initiatives and hospitality. The Walton brothers are grandsons of Sam Walton, founder of Walmart Stores Inc.
Runway Group posted results of the survey online at https://runwaynwa.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/10/BNR_polling_results.pdf.
"As participants in very early conversations around how to support the Buffalo National River, Runway engaged in polling residents of Baxter, Madison, Marion, Newton, and Searcy counties," according to a statement posted on its website.
"Our intent with this survey is to better understand the feelings and beliefs of the Arkansans whose daily lives are connected to the River," according to the statement. "At this time, no official proposal has been offered, only preliminary research as reflected in some fact sheets designed to lead meaningful conversations about the future of the Buffalo and the growth of Arkansas' outdoor economy.
"We are engaging in a coalition to explore new ideas centered on preservation, quality of life, and economic vitality. It is our hope to continue these conversations with sincerity and respect."
From Sept. 11-13, Selzer & Co. of Iowa surveyed 412 voters in the five counties by telephone.
When asked, "If there were a vote in Congress to designate the river as the Buffalo River National Park & Preserve, would you want your member of Congress to vote for or against it?" 64% said "for," according to the survey.
When asked how important it was to them that there would be no new taxes for residents to pay to support a national park, 75% said very important, followed by 14% at fairly important and 10% who said not that important.
Forty-seven percent of respondents identified as Republican, while 35% were independents and 12% Democrats.
Most of the respondents were age 60 or over.
The National Park Service has been dealing with some budget issues.
"At the end of fiscal year 2022, an estimated $22.3 billion of repair need existed on roads, buildings, utility systems, and other structures and facilities across the National Park System," according to https://www.nps.gov/subjects/infrastructure/deferred-maintenance.htm. "Addressing deferred maintenance and repairs is critical to the continued preservation, accessibility, and enjoyment of national parks."
The Buffalo National River currently has $32 million in deferred maintenance and repairs, according to a National Park Service fact sheet.
"Does anybody really want to count on Washington, D.C., to step up their game?" asked state Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forest, regarding the idea that the Buffalo National River would get more funding as a national park and preserve. "Does anybody really want to rely on that?"
King said some of his constituents were sort of blind-sided by the pollster's telephone call.
"There is no way that a poll could be done to get an accurate pulse of this without a much more extensive discussion on it," he said. "There is no way that you should have this kind of poll on this kind of issue and all of a sudden use it as a flag to make changes based on your business model."