Jasper, a tiny Ozarks town in Newton County, is home to only about 525 residents. But Thursday night, it hosted a town hall attended by 1,185 people.
If you think that’s a lot, there were another 500 watching the meeting on Zoom and 1,400 on Facebook live, according to the town hall’s organizer, the Remnants Project, an Ozarks-based preservation group.
The topic bringing so many people together was the future of the Buffalo National River, which a Walton-founded company, Runway Group LLC, wants to turn into a national park preserve.
That’s an idea many locals near the nation’s first national river don’t like. But they even more dislike the idea of outsiders pushing the proposal without talking with residents up front.
Reports early this week were that Runway, an investment business founded by two third-generation Walton brothers, was backing off the idea. But in a statement on its website Wednesday, Runway still seemed enamored with its idea.
“A designation change for the Buffalo National River is not our decision to make, but we believe it’s an idea worth exploring,” Runway said.
The Remnants Project invited Runway to the town hall, but Runway did not attend. Runway’s founders are Steuart Walton and Tom Walton, grandsons of Walmart founder Sam Walton.
Runway also confirmed that it approached U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman in July 2022 to discuss the possibility of redesignating the river to a national park preserve — a move that would require congressional approval.
“We wanted to get the congressman’s thoughts, first because part of the BNR is within his district, and because he holds a position on the Natural Resources Committee,” Runway said. “Congressman Westerman made it clear to us that the idea needed support from various groups, state and local officials and the local community.”