A Walton-founded company’s goal of converting the Buffalo National River into a national park preserve has prompted complaints among residents of rural communities near the river and led a local group to organize a town hall on the issue next week.
But Runway Group LLC, a Northwest Arkansas-based investment company founded by brothers Steuart Walton and Tom Walton, will not be participating in the community forum, a spokesman said. Tom and Steuart Walton are third-generation members of the Walmart founding family.
The developments came during and after Runway Group last month surveyed 412 registered voters in five northern Arkansas counties — Baxter, Madison, Marion, Newton and Searcy — about getting the federal government to change the status of the river and at least some nearby land to a national park preserve. Runway has posted survey results online, which it said show that nearly two-thirds or 64 percent of those polled favor the idea. Critics have said the survey’s questions seem designed to encourage participants to favor the proposed change.
Speculation about the Walton brothers’ interest in the Buffalo first surfaced in June, after Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders unexpectedly fired Mike Mills, the director of the state Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism. Some believed Mills’ dismissal was at least in part related to his opposition to the ideas for the Buffalo advanced by the Walton brothers, who are friends of Sanders’ husband, Bryan Sanders. Mills has declined multiple requests for an interview.
After the Runway Group survey sparked criticism on social media, a nonprofit heritage preservation organization called the Remnants Project organized a town hall, which is scheduled for 6 p.m. Oct. 26 at the Jasper School District’s cafeteria and will be streamed online. The group was founded by Misty Langdon, who lives in Low Gap in Newton County.
On its Facebook page, the group wrote that it had “invited Runway Group to the Town Hall meeting in hopes of getting some answers.” But when the Arkansas Times asked Runway Group spokesman J.T. Geren on Tuesday if Runway would be represented at the town hall, he replied, “No.” Geren did not respond to an email asking why not.
In an interview today, Langdon said she had talked with Geren by phone and that he had said Runway was “completely backing out” of working on the Buffalo national park preserve idea.
“He said they were standing down from further investigation at this point but holding a meeting in Little Rock on Friday” with a group of state legislators, she said.
That statement was supported by state Sen. Bryan King (R-Green Forest), who represents portions of Madison and Newton counties.
“That’s what they seemed to say,” King told the Times today when asked about Runway supposedly backing away from the project.
Referring to Gov. Sanders and her husband, King said, “I keep hearing that they’re pushing this.” He said he was disappointed that the governor had not contacted him about the matter.
“I want the Ma and Pa businesses” to have a say on the river’s future, King said. “We need to have transparency in all this.”
Langdon said her organization has not taken a stance on the Buffalo national park preserve issue.
Asked by phone about Langdon’s statement that Runway had decided to back off, Geren replied by email. “What we said to Misty and what we will share with legislators on Friday is what can be found on our website,” he wrote. When asked if the information Langdon gave the Arkansas Times was incorrect, he replied, “I didn’t hear the conversation you had with Misty, so what I am sharing with you is what is available on our website.”
You can view Runway’s Buffalo River website content here. In one of several statements, Runway Group recently wrote, “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 wanted to explore a new idea for our home state together. However, this is not our decision to make. There is no new action being taken.”
Alexa Henning, Sanders’ spokeswoman, did not reply to an email seeking the governor’s position on the issue. Bryan Sanders also did not reply to emails seeking his position and asking if Runway Group had kept him informed of its work on the Buffalo issue.
Earlier this year, the governor appointed her husband the chairman of the Natural State Advisory Council. Tom Walton was also among those she appointed, along with Austin Albers, owner of the Buffalo Outdoor Center in Ponca. Albers is the son-in-law of Mike Mills, the parks director fired earlier this year, who founded the Buffalo Outdoor Center. Albers did not reply to an email seeking comment.
There are significant differences between a national park and a national park preserve — differences that can have a significant environmental impact.
According to the National Park Service‘s website, national parks “are generally large natural places having a wide variety of attributes, at times including significant historic assets. Hunting, mining and consumptive activities are not authorized.”
By contrast, “National preserves are areas having characteristics associated with national parks, but in which Congress has permitted continued public hunting, trapping, oil/gas exploration and extraction,” according to the Park Service. “Many existing national preserves, without sport hunting, would qualify for national park designation.”
The preserve is the option Runway appears to favor. In an online fact sheet, Runway wrote that a “shared objective” is to “change the status from National River to National Park Preserve and become the most active-use National Park in the country for outdoor recreation.”
As word spread of the potential for oil or gas drilling in a park preserve, Runway Group issued another online statement Tuesday: “We do not support drilling or mining in the Buffalo River Watershed, nor do we support any taking of private land.”
Another factor contributing to residents’ complaints also may be at play — local skepticism of meddling outsiders.
“Runway Group, just so you know, there is very little trust from locals for anything connected to the National Park Service,” Darryl Treat, executive director of the Greater Searcy County Chamber of Commerce, wrote on LinkedIn recently. “Why would the locals want more of something they already loathe?
“Also, how many locals asked Runway Group to create a vision for our future?” Treat wrote. “I think Runway Group is highly presumptuous. We didn’t come asking for your help. In this Republic we should have the right of self determination. I highly doubt that we will cede our rights to outside interests.”
If some locals weren’t already suspicious enough, The Madison County Record recently reported that Kings Creek LLC, a company owned by Walton Enterprises, which is controlled by the Walton family, has been buying property in the Kingston area. The tiny Madison County town sits near the headwaters of the Buffalo.
“So far that LLC owns more than 6,000 contiguous acres, according to records from the Madison County Assessor’s office, making it one of the largest landowners in Madison County,” the newspaper reported.
“For years, the family has owned property in Kingston but recently they have begun to buy land that comes up for sale. A spokesperson for the Walton family said there are no plans to develop the Kingston land,” the newspaper added.
So what’s up? Land to sell one day? Land to donate and get a tax write-off? Or land that might be one day developed into a tourist mecca in the event of a new influx of visitors to the area?