Buffalo National River: the Result of a Battle to Stop Dams

Mar 22, 2016

The Buffalo National River in Arkansas was established 44 years ago as the first national river in the National Park Service system.  Remnants of the period before the park came to be can still be seen today.  KSMU's Michele Skalicky has more on the history of the Buffalo National River.

The Buffalo in Arkansas is one of the few undammed rivers in the lower 48 states.  It was the looming potential of dams that started the fight to keep the river in its natural state.

"The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was doing what it was doing lots of places, and Buffalo--being the last free flowing stream--interest groups decided to put their foot down there and say, 'no, we're not having any more dams.  We're going to protect this,'" he said.

Caven Clark is chief of interpretation and resource management for the Buffalo National River.  He said that led to the creation of the first national river in the National Park system by President Richard Nixon on March 1, 1972.

Buffalo National River superintendent, Kevin Cheri, said the battle for the Buffalo started in the late 1930s when the US Army Corps of Engineers began to make plans to dam the river.  But the major push to save the waterway was in the late 1960s.  According to Cheri, biologist Harold Alexander and later Dr. Neil Compton, founders of the Ozarks Society to Save the Buffalo River, began the hard fight to stop the dams.

"Because they recognized the value and beauty of the Buffalo River, not just for its recreational values, but it's scientific values, scenic values, cultural and historic values," said Cheri.

After a long fight, he said, they were able to convince others of the need to preserve the river.  But Clark said it wasn’t without a lot of controversy.

"There was all different kinds of responses.  I mean, some people agreed with the Ozarks Society and their set of values.  Others saw it as a government takeover.  Others saw it, you know, as the usurpation of private property.  Some saw it as the lost opportunity to make some money with some shoreline real estate," he said.

People would have lost land to the lake if dams had been built, Clark said.  But, according to Cheri, the prospect of an economic boost appealed to many since life could be hard along the Buffalo.

"The pioneers that first came here--this is a very rocky soil, it's not conducive to farming unless you happen to have some bottom land near the river.  So, while people were able to make it, there were many who were scraping a life the best they could, but they weren't necessarily unhappy," he said.

Some of the people whose property was bought by the federal government were allowed to stay for 25 years—others until their death.  Cheri said they were given good money for their property, but there were some who felt they deserved more.

After the effort to create the Buffalo National River, he said it became very difficult for the park service to protect other rivers.

"From that point on it became willing seller only, and if you look at parks that were developed later you find that they struggle with problems with park neighbors whose properties abut the river," said Cheri.

For example, property owners might clear cut areas along the river that would have served as a wetland to protect the river so they can have a view.

But Cheri said to people in other parts of the country, the government buyout of property along the Buffalo seemed like such a dramatic takeover that politicians decided from then on it would have to be willing sellers only.

He sometimes hears from descendants of people who sold their property for the park who say, while they know it was difficult for their relatives, the likelihood the land would still be in the family is slim.  To have returned to the property would have required trespassing.

"And they wouldn't be able to enjoy their father or grandfather's old homestead, they couldn't visit, they couldn't enjoy the river they way their father or grandfather did because someone else would own it and they couldn't access it," Cheri said.

Even with the government buyout of land, the National Park Service has direct control of only 11 percent of the Buffalo National River watershed.  That’s why park officials work to forge relationships with landowners in an effort to protect the river. In Boxley Valley, where people were allowed to buy back land, there are deed restrictions so that a required pastoral setting is maintained.

History is an important part of interpretation at the Buffalo National River today.  The park has historic leases including one with the Gorgas Foundation for the Boxley Mill.  They’re restored the structure, and thousands tour it every year.

Other historic structures include the Parker-Hickman house in the Erbie area, the oldest structure in the park which dates to around 1836; the Civilian Conservation Corps buildings at Buffalo Point, the Cold Spring School along the river in the lower wilderness and the Collier Homestead in the Tyler Bend area, which dates to the early 20th century.

"It's an example of a latecomer who came into farm when all the good land was gone, and they got the hilltop stuff," Cheri said.

Caven Clark said there are hundreds of historic structures throughout the park and 30 to 40 cemeteries in its boundaries.

According to the National Park Service, “each structure and scene is being preserved for its historic value –testimony to the dreams and persistence of families determined to make a new life in the Ozarks.”

Clark said it’s important to make every effort to educate visitors about the park’s history—even those who come for recreation.  He said they need to be aware that the park didn’t always look the way it does today.

"It was a country of scattered farms, farm communities, of churches, of cemeteries, of roads, and, of course, you know, since 1972, it doesn't look now the way it did then," said Clark.

But he said the vestiges of that history are everywhere.

Learn more about the Buffalo National River here. And as part of its centennial year, the National Parks Service has collaborated with StoryCorp to share interviews and oral histories about parks in the Midwest. Hear from Buffalo National River friends and past co-workers Charles “Charlie" Rogers and Dale MacMillan here.