It’s been 50 years since the Buffalo River became the nation’s first wild and scenic river.
Its addition to the national park system has protected the Buffalo from a dam and its beautiful historic valley from being flooded.
Produced by The Ozark Society, First River, How Arkansas Saved a National Treasure, is an excellent film about the Buffalo River preservation campaign. I attended a screening on Tuesday at St. James United Methodist Church, but you can stream it on the Ozark Society website at www.ozarksociety.net.
With stunning water and air footage as well as archival footage, the film recalls how the Army Corps of Engineers targeted the Buffalo River near the end of its dam-building spree in the 1960s. I learned from the film that the Corps was actually planning to build two dams on the Buffalo River. The most notorious site was at Gilbert, but another was to be erected near Buffalo’s confluence with the White River.
Fortunately, the film dispenses with the heroes and villains aspect of the campaign, duly noting that influential political and business figures in the region wanted the prosperity they thought the dams would bring. I am skeptical of this premise. The creation of Beaver Lake enabled prosperity in northwest Arkansas due to its proximity to existing population centers.
Branson, Missouri built a tourist industry on Table Rock Lake, but Norfork and Bull Shoals lakes have not had such a dramatic effect in north-central Arkansas. Communities along the Buffalo River are even more remote, with relatively little manufacturing or tourism capacity that would thrive on plentiful water and cheap electricity.
That aside, the film notes that a segment of society in the Buffalo River area had a vision for the river. Conservationists, alarmed by the massive loss of land, flora, fauna, recreational opportunities and unique ways of life, had a different view.
They also had many good friends in the right places. It was the key to their success. Opposition to the Buffalo River Dam far outweighed support, and opposition came from across the United States. Perhaps the most prominent advocate for the preservation of the Buffalo River was William O. Douglas, Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court. He gave his support to the Tories after a multi-day float trip.
Another key figure was former US Representative John Paul Hammerschmidt. The new congressman has tested the wind of public opinion and felt it blow against development. Senator J. William Fulbright was an early opponent of the containment of the Buffalo. Senator John McClellan followed suit.
The last and most insurmountable obstacle at the roadblocks was Governor Orval Faubus. Initially, he supported the Buffalo Dam, but eventually he felt the wind blowing against the project as well. At that time, if a head of state objected to a Corps of Engineers project, the project was tabled or suspended until a more sympathetic governor was elected. Governor Winthrop Rockefeller, who succeeded Faubus, supported the dams, but by then the opposition was too strong.
On March 1, 1972, President Nixon signed legislation creating the Buffalo National River and adding it to the national park system. On this same date in 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed the law that created Yellowstone National Park.
First River also explains how the Ozark Society remains vigilant in the face of continuing threats to the integrity of the Buffalo River. The infamous C&H pig farm makes a prominent appearance in this segment, as does the campaign to shut down a solid waste landfill in Pindall in 1987.
The text notes that the National Park boundaries encompass only 11% of the Buffalo River watershed. Development, degradation and erosion in the remaining 89% of the watershed are inflicting insidious damage to the river. The Buffalo River becomes wider, shallower and warmer, particularly to the detriment of the fisheries. Once deep holes are filled with gravel and silt from siltation of the unstable river banks.
Because of these slights, today’s Buffalo River is very different from the Buffalo River of 1972.
Archaic environmental standards have allowed environmentally questionable projects to be designed and built in the delicate topography of the Ozarks.
The buffalo is a national treasure, but gradual and evolving dangers are its greatest threats.