I think a lot about the past — partly because I’m a history lover and partly because I agree with Wendell Berry that sometimes going forward means going backward. This latest effort by the powers that be in the state, philanthropists, politicians and the like, to change how we deal with natural resources in the hill country is a refusal to reckon with the past. They’re trying to claim the future for themselves, regardless of what it costs the people and land of the Ozarks and Arkansas.
This push by the heirs of Sam Walton to take control of Arkansas’s resources nakedly shows their true aim: control, not philanthropy. The news surrounding the proposal to change the designation of the Buffalo National River, alongside the reported purchase of Horseshoe Canyon, continued land grabs along the Kings River and more amount to only one thing: the wealthiest in the region are pushing the rest of us out. Removal by way of development and recreation is still removal.
The thing is, claims that this development will ease poverty and boost economic vitality in rural areas is suspect at best. Across the nation, developing rural outdoor recreation areas doesn’t produce a meaningful decline in poverty rates at a county level. In fact, in many cases — and Newton County is one — when poverty rates go down in these areas, it has less to do with a wage increase or better opportunity. Economic indicators look better simply because poor folk can’t afford to stay in their place any longer and must leave. That’s why we’ve seen both a drop in poverty in Newton County and a drop in population. The claim that this sort of transition brings about wholly positive things is, on its face, untrue.
The current conversation about the Buffalo isn’t actually about the river. Bike trails, art parks, high-brow museum expansions — it’s not really about that. It’s about the future of the Ozarks. All of us, old stock and new, need to ask ourselves if we are truly represented in the decision making that is shaping — often literally — the next generation’s hills.
And if we’re honest, the only answer is that we’re not. If we truly were, we’d see regional efforts to push the wealthiest and the powerful to put their money where their mouth is. We would see meaningful, long-term action to effectively address economic injustice and food security in the region. To address worker safety. To thoughtfully and wisely engage in land planning that preserves working, welcoming landscapes instead of putting fences around elite, enclosed playgrounds built on the bones of our grandparents.
Instead, what we have is an idle class dictating the region’s future according to their own wishes. The region is more than the fevered dreams of the corporations that are attempting to claim the hills and hollers for their pleasure.
The tagline of the museum in Bentonville is “You belong here.” It’s increasingly apparent that there’s a narrow definition of “you” applied, one that doesn’t include folks who disagree with the way things are going. And the hills and their people are suffering because of it.
Our past tells us a better future is possible if we fight for it. It’s time we remembered the fierce independence of our best days. It’s time we took our future back from those interested in narrow, restrictive visions. We all belong here, after all.
Jared Phillips is a historian and a farmer.