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AY Magazine — Arkansas’ Buffalo River: A National Treasure

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This originally appeared in AY Magazine on February 25, 2022.

Fifty-one years ago this month, I took my first canoe trip on the Buffalo River, a three-day, two-night adventure that ended at the old Buffalo River State Park southeast of Yellville. A little more than five decades later, I can vividly recall paddling for hour after hour hard against a bone-chilling wind that always seemed to be blowing upstream, and then struggling to stay warm in a sleeping bag that was far better suited to a summer excursion. Yet that chilly journey — with memories of incredibly clear water, noisy shoals, towering bluffs and too many stars to count — remains one of the highlights of my life.

The 2,500-acre Buffalo River State Park, along with the much smaller Lost Valley State Park, were absorbed into the Buffalo National River, a brand-new unit of America’s national park system, in 1972. Stretching eastward some 135 miles from the Boston Mountains to the stream’s confluence with the White River, this 95,000-acre corridor is among the true gems of the Natural State.

Canoeists discovered the Buffalo in the 1960s, although it was already known by a select few. One of them was Ray Bergman, a long-time editor with Outdoor Life magazine. In his 1942 classic, Fresh-Water Bass, Bergman recounts a memorable fishing trip down the stream:

“The Buffalo River flows through a valley of soul-inspiring scenery. Each bed of the stream brings forth new beauties of unusual distinction. In all my travels from coast to coast, I have never witnessed more impressive beauty that can be found in the Buffalo River of Arkansas.”

But much of this scenery was nearly lost to a pair of reservoirs planned since the late 1930s by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The outbreak of World War II temporarily halted the projects, but the proposed dams resurfaced in the early 1960s. A heated struggle developed between vocal supporters of the impoundments and equally vocal proponents of a free-flowing Buffalo River, a conflict that eventually involved such political notables as Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus, Congressman John Paul Hammerschmidt, Sen. J. William Fulbright, and even President Richard Nixon. And it birthed The Ozark Society, an organization that half a century later continues to address key environmental issues in Arkansas and adjacent states. For a blow-by-blow account of this fateful controversy, spend some time with The Battle for the Buffalo River, Dr. Neil Compton’s 481-page record of a clutch conservation victory.

Today, as a result of that historic win, some 800,000 visitors annually enjoy the Buffalo in one fashion or another: hiking along the 100-mile trails system; riding horseback; camping; overnighting in a CCC cabin; skipping rocks; birding; and, of course, paddling beneath those sheer bluffs. Tens of thousands of memories have been made because of countless Buffalo River experiences over the years. As a special feature to mark the 50th anniversary of the Buffalo National River, AY About You asked a handful of people to share some of their thoughts and recollections, and the responses can be found below.

Love Letters to the Buffalo

“The Buffalo River is one of Arkansas’ crown jewels, kept undammed and pristine thanks to the conservation efforts of Neil Compton, Governor Bumpers, Senators Fulbright and McClellan, Congressman Hammerschmidt and others. As governor, I supported the Arkansas Wilderness Act of 1984, federal legislation that ultimately protected the upper and lower ends of the Buffalo River, along with 11,800 acres along Richland Creek, one of the Buffalo’s major tributaries.

About 800,000 people visit the National Park each year, where they can float, fish, and raft the river with its breathtaking views, and see the ruins of a 10,000-year-old Native American culture and remnants of the first European settlers in the late 1700s and early 1800s.

I first discovered the Buffalo when I was 16 on a field trip led by my junior class English teacher, Lonnie Luebben. We stayed in Jasper, saw an Audie Murphy movie in the small theatre, and visited sites along the river, including a cave which still had gun powder kegs from the Civil War.

When I ran for Congress in 1974, I visited every community along the Buffalo and near it, in Searcy, Newton, and Madison counties and in the southern parts of Marion, Boone, and Carroll counties. I vividly remember Boxley, Ponca, Parthenon, and many more. I remember spending many hours in the home of my friend Hilary Jones in Pruitt where there was an old cemetery with birthdates dating back to the 1700s and where Hilary provided a decent burial to people from the area who died without the means to pay for it.

Most people I talked to were against the national river because they thought the government was going to take away the land that had been in their families for more than a hundred years. I said how important it was that the Buffalo was the first river in the country to be protected as a national treasure. And that I thought their problem could be solved if the government, instead of forcing sales upon their deaths, took a scenic easement of all the land in the protected area, preventing any development or degradation but allowing them to pass along their land to their families.

I didn’t win the election, but I did carry every precinct along the Buffalo River, including many that had always voted Republican before. And I made a lot of lasting friendships, just by listening to them and getting to know them. I also learned to try to balance the competing claims of man and nature in one of our country’s most wonderful areas. In the process, I fell in love with the beauty, wildlife, history, and people of the Arkansas Ozarks. I could write a whole book with my interactions with them over the years. Here’s to fifty more great years.”

— William J. Clinton, former Governor of Arkansas and President of the United States

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