In Memory of Dr. Neil Compton, Arkansas Hero, 1912-1999
Neil Compton of Bentonville, Arkansas, my beloved hometown, stands as a paragon of civic virtue. Born in Falling Springs, western Benton County, he lived with his family on Upper Coon Creek until the age of eleven, when he moved to Bentonville upon the election of his father, David, as Benton County Judge. After his undergraduate and medical education at the University of Arkansas, Compton served as a health officer with the State Board of Health, and later served in the Medical Corps of the United States Naval Reserve in the Fiji Islands during the Second World War. His former home, just off of the Bentonville Square, serves as the center of Compton Gardens, comprised of nearly seven acres of walking trails and native woodland plants. Compton Gardens now connects to our world-renowned Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, as well as the rest of the magnificent Bentonville trail system. I have many a fond memory there, and vividly remember my first visit in the fourth grade. Incidentally, it was this fourth-grade teacher that instilled in me my passion for the natural world.
Compton’s greatest achievement, the legacy that will carry his name for generations, is his founding of the Ozark Society and his leadership of that organization to quite literally save the Buffalo River from annihilation. His instrumental role in the 1972 creation of the Buffalo National River, the nation’s first National River, led directly to the creation of the Leatherwood Wilderness within the Ozark-St. Francis National Forest in 1984, and the designation of eight National Wild and Scenic Rivers in Arkansas in 1992. As Ozark Society President Stewart Noland would later say, “What John Muir did for Yosemite…is no more significant than what Neil Compton did for the Buffalo River…Neil Compton was a great American, a great Arkansan, and a man of many talents: father, physician, photographer, naturalist, writer, hiker, boater, conservationist, and friend.” Compton deeply loved the Arkansas Ozarks, one of the most beautiful and primal regions of the United States, indeed one of its best-kept secrets. For Compton, as well as for me, “this lovely and provident land” is the “proof of Creation”, the Buffalo its crown jewel and beating heart.
The story of how Neil Compton waged and won the Battle for the Buffalo River is a beautiful one, a testament to the good, old-fashioned power of ordinary Americans to effect extraordinary change. Above all, though, Compton’s legacy is a solemn challenge to us all; here we see the stark juxtaposition of the hard work, the arduous labor, of real conservationism, against abstract environmentalism. Here we see the vast chasm between the environment and environmentalism, a cancer which has tragically driven away many of us who truly care for the earth and its inhabitants. Here we see the Christian stewardship and glorification of God’s Creation contrasted with the pagan deification that afflicts the pseudoenvironmentalism of the present age. Compton’s Ozark Society fought tooth and nail in the trenches for more than a decade to save the river that they knew and loved, that their fathers and their fathers before them knew and loved, from the damnation of damming. Certainly, the Ozark Society had friends, without which they could not have succeeded, but it was an Arkansan organization built, led, and constituted by Arkansans, for the good of Arkansas. The corrupted likes of the Sierra Club were nowhere to be found. Compton would later write that “in the late 1950s, many of us longtime residents of Arkansas watched with growing dismay as the beautiful clearwater streams of the Ozarks disappeared one by one into so-called ‘multipurpose’ deadwater impoundments. According to Federal planning, no stream of consequence was to be left undammed. Knowing there was no chance to salvage even one without an organization, the Ozark Society was formed in May 1962 with the initial objective to try to save the best, the Buffalo River. We had no money, no resources, and no experience.” These brave Southerners, like their Confederate ancestors not so far removed from their day, stood against powerful forces, against all odds, a bloodless Pickett’s Charge, and won.
In 1913, the first Ozark steam was dammed, with Powersite Dam, now Ozark Beach Dam, on White River. In 1920, Spavinaw Dam was completed, followed by Bagnell Dam in 1931, and then Pensacola Dam in 1939. President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Flood Control Act of 1938, which gave the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers the essentially unlimited authority to dam every remaining free-flowing stream in the United States, citing the truly spurious “reasons” of “flood control”, “municipal water supply”, hydroelectric power, recreation, tourism, and real-estate development. These dam projects were almost uniformly unnecessary, with many of which not even generating enough power to recoup the construction expenditures; they continued, untrammeled, largely due to the influence of local politicians who benefited from the economic generation associated with dam construction. In 1944, Norfork Dam was completed on North Fork River; Tom Shiras, its primary promoter, took three companions to the North Fork for one last fishing and picnicking trip before the gates of the dam were shut and the land was drowned. As they reached their destination, they witnessed the results of the excavation, deforestation, and burning that they had been oblivious to; the land was unrecognizable, and they found themselves “in the midst of desolation…They stopped the car and got out to survey the ravaged landscape. The two older men shed tears, and [another] said, ‘I’m leavin’ this country and am never coming back.’ That he did, moving in a few months to Muskogee, Oklahoma.” In 1951, Bull Shoals Dam went up, followed by Table Rock Dam in 1959, Greers Ferry Dam in 1962, and Beaver Dam, on which lake I have admittedly spent many a halcyon day, in 1964.
Leonard Hall aptly described the role of the Army Corps of Engineers, writing in the St. Louis Globe Democrat in 1964 that, “most powerful of all the bureaus, because of the vast wealth of its many-faceted lobby, is the Corps of Engineers. Starting as an agency which had river and harbor improvement under its care, the Corps got into the dam-building business during the years when we were coming out of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. Almost at once, it saw the possibilities for building political power in damming every river in America. Here was the greatest pork barrel opportunity in history…the chance to line up the support of big contractors, cement manufacturers, makers of dirt moving equipment, real estate speculators, operators of subsidized barge lines.” Concurrent with the rapid onslaught of industry against the Arkansas Ozarks was a nascent conservation movement, though nothing like that in the West. In 1921, Hot Springs National Park became the first land in Arkansas to be managed by the National Park Service, though in the absence of clear conservation guidelines, Hot Springs developed into a commercial spa and gambling town, America’s prototypical Las Vegas. In fact, Hot Springs was the first effort by the United States to protect land, when President Andrew Jackson set aside Hot Springs Reservation in 1832. In 1927, Dr. Thomas Hardison had been instrumental in the establishment of Petit Jean State Park, the first Arkansas State Park. In the next decade, with assistance from the Civilian Conservation Corps, or CCC, Mount Nebo, Devil’s Den, and Crowley’s Ridge became State Parks. In 1936, the Buffalo River State Park was created.
In the 1920s, an attempt was made to establish a National Park in the Ouachitas, and some early plans were contemplated for a National Park on the Buffalo. In 1946, a Buffalo float trip was organized for the Standard Oil Company to gin up publicity for the National Park idea. Guided by boatmen from Missouri, the visitors had bedded down for the night near the low-water bridge in Ponca when “a first-class disruption took place. A couple of cars came…at breathtaking speed. Their drivers and passengers gave forth with loud shouts uncomplimentary to the foreigners from Missouri and even discharged what sounded like pistols and shotguns. To cap it off, terrific explosions of dynamite erupted along the road. The thoroughly upset Missouri boatmen took refuge in the woods, spending an uneasy night.” Though the trip organizers took these events as a symbol of local resentment and hostility, the truth came out many years later; in reality, that night “there had been a shivaree up on the mountain near Compton. All old-timers know that that post-nuptial send-off requires the use of shotguns, dynamite, and moonshine. Some of the boys that night had a lot of each left over and decided that it would be great sport to scare the devil out of that bunch…it was just a sporting thing to do — no hard feelings toward anyone.”
This same year, on an outing to beautiful and remote White Rock Mountain, whose lodge was also built by the CCC in the 1930s, one of Compton’s friends observed that “it just goes and goes…and goes.” On the drive, Compton wrote, “we were sickened by the sight of their dismembered tops lying in chaotic heaps along the road, left there by loggers who could care less about the beauty of the mountain now that they had their due in whiskey barrel staves. In our hearts were deep misgivings about the National Forest Service, whose domain it was, and who had made the timber sale. How could they, as custodians of this scenic treasure, have been party to what in our minds amounted to no less than senseless depredation, done for a pittance? …Why doesn’t someone do something about such an outrage? …the thinker of such thoughts must be the doer if he is true to his convictions.” The jaguar would soon be extinct in South Arkansas, just as the grizzly bear of Missouri and Kansas would. The Army Corps of Engineers drew up plans for two dams, Lone Rock and Gilbert, on the Buffalo River; though President Dwight Eisenhower had vetoed the bill authorizing the two dams, they had come close to fruition, and, as Compton reminded us, “All old dam plans never die; they are just put on hold.” Pro-dam forces in Arkansas, and in Washington, D.C., were merely biding their time. Timber thieves ravaged Lost Valley at the Buffalo. Senator J. William Fulbright, who would later redeem himself, supported a “brush control” plan to spray millions of acres of Northwest Arkansas with 2,4,5-T, a toxic defoliant used in Agent Orange; after a letter campaign, the proposal was abandoned. Clearly, though, Compton saw that our beloved Ozarks were in grave danger, threatened from all sides with total devastation.
The Ozark Society
The Army Corps of Engineers gathered greater support for their Buffalo River dam proposals, most significantly from one of Arkansas’s four Congressmen, the powerful Representative James Trimble of Berryville. Lest he be seen as unfairly impugning the Army Corps of Engineers, his principal adversary in the Battle for the Buffalo, Compton often made clear his admiration for that department, noting that the great Southern hero, General Robert E. Lee, was an Army Corps of Engineers officer. Nevertheless, Compton realized that the hour was late, and understood that “the Buffalo River was the real problem, not Lost Valley. There were many Lost Valleys along its course. We were in need of a comprehensive, hard-hitting group that could take the bull by the horns and not by the tail. We needed…to save the whole Buffalo, Lost Valley along with it.” As he would later write, “To have witnessed…the loss of the valleys, forests, and prairies to the bulldozers, chainsaws, brush hogs, and 2,4,5-T begot…an increasing agony. Was there no limit to man’s destructive use of his new-found technology? Was there no one to mount an effort to salvage the dwindling natural charm and beauty of our Ozark land? The answer was no. In spite of their good intentions, not the Nature Conservancy, the Isaac Walton League, the Sierra Club, or the Audubon Society whose interests then did not include our forgotten bit of America.” Indeed, with respect to the Sierra Club, Compton asked, “What would they be willing to do for us yokels down here in Arkansas with our hills less than mountains and our unknown backcountry rivers?” We benighted Ozarkians “were inured to our mediocrity, both in regard to our people and the land. We had nothing to compare with Pike’s Peak, the Grand Canyon, or the Great Smokies. We were country folks and always would be. The rest of the nation had let us know that, and we accepted it with laconic, hill-country humor. We would go our way, making what we could…Wild game in any quantity had long since been eliminated. The great forests of hardwood and pine had been cut over, and the remaining sawmillers scrounged the second and third growth for a two-by-four.”
Compton recalled the 1961 conversation that sparked the Ozark Society: “I…told my wife…that we were going to put together a bunch of people to try to stop the United States Army Corps of Engineers from damming up the Buffalo River.” His wife, Laurene, replied, “Neil, are you out of your mind? Don’t you know that you haven’t a chance of ever stopping them from building those dams?” Compton responded, “Well, somebody has got to try. Whether we win or lose, it would be a crime not to.” Compton, and his like-minded compatriots, were dreadfully disorganized, while their pro-dam opposition had everything they did not: financial, media, and political power. To begin to address these discrepancies, Compton began reaching out to enlist political support, writing to such men as Governor Orval Faubus, Senator Fulbright, and Supreme Court Justice William Douglas, known to be sympathetic to environmental conservation efforts. In 1962, Compton and his compatriots founded the Ozark Society, with the Bentonville physician at its helm. He noted that “we are not fanatics or extremists, but are serious-minded people who are concerned by the very rapid disappearance of many things that have in the past been a source of pleasure and sustenance to us all.” As one friend, Hugh Iltis, put it, to dam the Buffalo would certainly be to damn it to an ignominious ruin from which it could never recover; over five hundred thousand acres of the most beautiful land of God’s country would be drowned.
The Army Corps of Engineers came up with a grand scheme of several new Buffalo projects, holding a farcical “hearing” at Marshall, which Compton would rightly refer to as an “exercise in futility”; this new grand plan spelled out total annihilation for the river. At the “hearing”, the city’s middle and high school students, whom the mayor had let out of school for the day, wore “Let’s Dam the Buffalo” lapel cards, and the nascent Ozark Society was treated quite dismissively, if not downright abusively. Aside from the fact that no national “environmental” organizations offered any support to the Ozark Society, or to the Buffalo River that it aimed to protect, Compton’s organization did not wish to be seen as an “outsider”; in his words, “We all wanted to be Ozarkians defending the Ozark scene.” From the history of the development of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Ozark Society knew the power of the image, or the value of photographic and video evidence. Compton noted that these conservation reels movies “were particularly effective because the construction of Beaver reservoir on White River nearby was going on…It was not a lot of trouble to run over there and to film a particular gruesome sequence of the giant ‘cutters’ clearing away the timber on the slopes and the riverbank, the burning of the downed trees, and the destruction and burning of Monte Ne…The footage shot of the clearing of Beaver reservoir is the only such recording of a Corp of Engineers project in progress, made from the conservationist point of view, that I know of.”
The Ozark Society gained its first prominent advocate in Justice Douglas, for whom they organized a float trip on the Buffalo; at its conclusion, Douglas proudly proclaimed that Arkansans must preserve this river at all costs, noting that “when you get a bureaucracy going, it’s hard to stop them. They just keep on going.” The “Buffalo River Improvement Association”, or BRIA, was the umbrella organization of the pro-dam coalition, and furiously denounced Douglas for daring to visit. In 1963, at the dedication of Pea Ridge National Military Park, another wonderful trail system and memorial to the War for Southern Independence, the Director of the National Park Service announced that his agency unequivocally supported the protection of the Buffalo River under its jurisdiction as the first National River. Almost simultaneously, the National Forest Service extended the boundaries of Ozark National Forest. Though these were certainly cause for celebration, Compton knew that the real struggle had only just begun, that “the Battle for the Buffalo would be fought hammer and tongs down to the last dog.” The Ozark Society traveled the fair circuit this year, culminating in a nasty incident at the Arkansas State Fair. Despite having obtained all of the proper permissions, the conservationist outfit was unceremoniously evicted from the premises for the mendacious charge of “inhabiting a State facility under false pretenses.” After this, Compton learned that “any publicity regardless of its slant is good for the cause”, because “people will know who you are and your friends will be identified.”
In 1964, Kenneth Smith began work on a photography book that the Ozark Society knew was desperately needed to educate the people of Arkansas, and secondarily of the nation as a whole, on the irreplaceable value of the Buffalo River. A developer purchased land just across the river from the State Park and started construction; to stem that destruction, Compton’s friend Charley Johnston bought out the developer with his own money. Johnston’s wife and young son perished at around this time in “an unspeakable tragedy”, and the State Legislature placed a plaque at a gorgeous spot near the old State Park Café. The plaque reads: “There are little corners of this earth put aside by nature to be discovered by and bring joy to little boys. The lands over which you look here, across this beautiful river, are such a corner; and the arrowheads to be found there, the tiny box canyon with its waterfall and the springs above, are set aside forever for all little boys in memory of another little boy who did discover freedom and joy here.” Another fruitless “hearing” was held this year, at which, yet again, the Moloch of Progress won the day.
It was in 1965, however, that the Battle for the Buffalo truly began in earnest. Pro-dam forces within the State Legislature blocked funding for the State Parks Commission. All four of Arkansas’s Representatives supported the dam, and, not wanting to start a fight with Congressman Trimble, neither Senators Fulbright nor John McClellan would support or oppose the project. At an appearance in Washington, D.C., before the Board of Engineers for Rivers and Harbors, outdoor writer Ben Ferrier stated that “wilderness recreation is far more valuable to the future of the US than artificial lakes. Let’s…see to it that this generation and the next and the next will have an opportunity for recreational experiences that develop resourcefulness, stamina, and muscular physique. Outboard motors, cabin cruisers, and soft living won’t do it.” A.T. Shuller, Superintendent of Berryville Schools, wrote, “Let’s save something of this for future generations and for those of us now living, who enjoy the rugged experience of floating and camping on a beautiful Ozark Mountain stream that remains just as God made it.” Justice Douglas noted that “it would be a sheer desecration to destroy it by a dam or otherwise. It should be kept in perpetuity as a remnant of the ancient Ozarks unspoiled by man…a bit of heaven on earth.”
On Memorial Day, it became clear to all of the involved parties just how entrenched the pro-dam forces of the BRIA were — and how far they were willing to go to destroy the Buffalo River. The Ozark Society’s Harrison chapter essentially disappeared under the withering fire of a telephone harassment campaign; its members, most of whom were just ordinary citizens, were “subjected to abusive phone calls night and day, being threatened with all sorts of violence if they did not cease and desist in their opposition to the dams on the Buffalo. They were told that their trucks would not return from service trips out into the country, their in-town businesses would suffer damage, and they themselves might not be spared.” The Harrison chapter “soon became completely unnerved by the viciousness of the assault. If they were to stay in business in their hometown, they had best no longer affiliate with an anti-dam organization.” The Ozark Society had planned a float and canoe race, the schedule of which was discovered in advance by the BRIA. As dozens of families, including women and children, floated down the Buffalo, they encountered a blockade; the river was blocked by felled trees and fences, with barbed wire strung across in some spots. Several canoes nearly capsized, and then the entire party came under rifle fire, though by the grace of God nobody was significantly injured. The trees that the BRIA had downed “were the largest, most majestic sycamores, sweet gums, maples, and elms nearest the river. It took at least one hundred years for them to grow, and they won’t be replaced tomorrow.” One local lodge owner reported that “I went to the State Police. They told me it was the Sheriff’s responsibility. I went to the Sheriff. He told me to see the Game Warden. I went to the Game Warden. He told me it was the Sheriff’s problem.”
These hostilities were not confined to 1965, however. In 1985, Compton himself was shot at on the river by parties unknown. Above the majestic Boxley Valley, the Hedges family built a lovely home in 1968. Upon the 1972 creation of the Buffalo National River, the Hedges family sold their home to the Federal government, from whom they leased it for the next twenty-five years. With the 1974 extension of the Wilderness Act, the Hedges family found themselves living in the Upper Buffalo Wilderness Area; as such, only they were allowed to use the old wagon road adjacent to their property. Locals, presumably irritated by being denied permission to use the road, shot up their mailbox and knocked down their fenceposts, after which the National Park Service replaced with a steel gate. An old Jeep and abandoned shed were partially burned, and in 1990 a nearby home being preserved for its historical value was razed. On New Year’s Eve, while the family was on vacation, their charming home was burned to the ground. The Superintendent of the river determined that an accelerant had been used.
In December 1965, the Ozark Society gained its strongest advocate yet, the great Southerner and outgoing Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus. Compton noted that Faubus “was the whipping boy of the news media all over the land, having been billed since 1957 as the demon of the desegregation crisis in Little Rock. That designation he did not deserve. He was from the hill country of north Arkansas where the black population was zero, and he was without particular bias one way or the other.” Far from being motivated by racial animus, Faubus merely sensed, quite prophetically, “the danger in the precipitous social change then in progress.” Faubus came out swinging for the Buffalo, writing a long letter to General William Cassidy, Chief Engineer of the Army Corps of Engineers, the conclusion of which says it all:
“There is no question that both aesthetically and economically, the approval and proper construction of a National River will be far better for the area, the State of Arkansas, and the nation, than would the construction of the proposed…dam and lake. Of course, there are other considerations. We cannot place a material value upon the soul, the spirit, and the mind of man. The mind of man must constantly be refreshed, his spirit periodically renewed, and his soul ultimately saved. Next to God’s promise to man of the salvation of his soul, the greatest force for good is man’s capacity to enjoy and be inspired by the unspoiled beauty of God’s creation. The Buffalo River area is one of the greatest examples of the majesty of God’s creation. The beauty of the region cannot be adequately described in any of the many languages of man. The heavens declare the Glory of God, and the firmament sheweth His handiwork…In so many places, the giant power-driven machines of man are flattening the hedges, fence rows, and nooks, where the song birds nested, and the timid rabbits reared their young; draining the swamp where the wild ducks and raccoons once found refuge; leveling the forests where once roamed the wild deer; scarring the mountains and pushing down the lofty crags where perched the eagles; filling up the beautiful pools which furnished a home for the wary bass and the brilliant golden-hued sun fish. A conscious effort on the part of society must be made to preserve a part of our God-given beauty, or very soon there will no longer be left a sufficient number of these ‘little corners of this earth put aside by nature to be discovered’ by little boys, to bring pleasure to their pure fresh minds, and joy to their innocent hearts. Unless this effort is made, under the leadership of the people’s government, soon there will no longer be a sufficient number of accessible places where families can have wholesome pleasure and adventure together. This will constitute a loss to society, for which all the material wealth cannot compensate. For these and other reasons…[the] Dam is unacceptable…I support the National River proposal.”
Compton wrote that “most of those who subscribed to the national news media teaching that Faubus was the Arkansas Satan refused to believe that he wrote this letter, and many still do to this day. They insisted that it was done by us anti-dammers or by some sensitive soul in his office. But it is pure Orval Faubus.” The great Faubus was openly and avowedly committed to “the preservation of Arkansas’ God-given natural beauty.” Indeed, Faubus created the Arkansas Stream Preservation Committee, which eventually led to the Natural Heritage Commission and the protection of the King’s River in 1979. Two consequential events followed; first, due to this opposition, the Army Corps of Engineers rescinded its recommendation for the dams. Second, Congressman Trimble, the vociferous pro-dam advocate and the main political obstacle to the survival of the Buffalo, became the first Democrat in Arkansas since Reconstruction to lose his seat to a Republican, Representative John Paul Hammerschmidt. Aside from being the first Republican elected in Arkansas since Reconstruction, Hammerschmidt would soon make even more history on behalf of the Buffalo.
In 1967, the efforts of the Ozark Society to promote the Buffalo River began to bear “strange fruit”, attracting a legion of theme park developers and “other commercial and social adventurers.” Of the many schemes involved in this mad dash to develop the region, the most interesting by far was Dogpatch USA, a remarkably ambitious yet doomed hillbilly-themed park loosely based on Al Capp’s Li’l Abner comic strip. The tortured history of the now-abandoned theme park is fascinating, though we will not delve into it here; I also point the reader to an interesting documentary on the park produced by Jeff Carter in 2018. A couple of months ago, I happened upon the abandoned theme park while on a long, aimless country drive; as I have a penchant for abandoned spaces, I stepped behind the gate and explored the grounds. Most of the cabins have totally collapsed, but a few still stand, and a mill-wheel still spins. An enormous water slide stands as a monument to this crucible upon which many men have broken their dreams. The area on which the park is situated is known as Marble Falls, named for the nearby waterfall, the largest continuously flowing fall in the Ozarks. This fall got its name in another sadly forgotten event in Arkansas history; as Compton described, “A short distance down the road from Marble Falls was the site from whence a block of the red St. Joe member of the Boone limestone was quarried before the [War for Southern Independence]. By ox teams and flat boat, the block was transported to Washington, D.C., where it now resides as Arkansas’s contribution to the Washington Monument. It was regarded as marble, although it was actually an especially attractive form of limestone. From that forgotten gift of the newborn State of Arkansas to the nation, the name of Marble Falls remains, but it is now obscured by a sad display of developmental gimmickry.”
Speculators from Branson, Missouri, a popular Ozark resort town, established the Ozarks Wildlife Club, which was eventually shuttered. A Kansas City financier set up the Valley-Y Horse Ranch, for which huge earthmoving and river channeling operations were undertaken, which permanently altered that section of the Buffalo. The Reverend Floyd Harris planned a Home for Wayward Boys for the children of Houston, Texas, which was to be named Kyle’s Boys’ Home for his youngest son Kyle, killed in a motorcycle accident. The boys’ home was supported by several prominent citizens, including University of Arkansas Razorbacks football coach Frank Broyles, and was partially funded by what had been Kyle’s college fund. After the bill for the Buffalo National River passed the House of Representatives in 1972, Harris sold his land to the National Park Service; this land is now known as Kyle’s Landing, one of my favorite spots on the Buffalo. Through a dense thicket of overgrown vegetation that we used to call “Vietnam”, one can find a pristine riverbank and a tall bluff perfect for jumping into the crisp, idyllic Buffalo below. Another interesting scheme was the transformation of old Hurricane Cave into “Music Mountain Caverns”, out of which a huge complex was planned, to be named “Ozarkland.” David Dortort, creator of Bonanza, my favorite television Western, and The High Chaparral, supported the concept, and saw the site’s potential as a filming location. The stars of Bonanza loved the Buffalo as well, and proposed a “Bonanza Village”, a resettlement home for retired aviators. So, the efforts of the Ozark Society to protect the Buffalo garnered the attention of those who would exploit the river. The walls were still closing in, the bulldozers bearing down, the chainsaws cranking.
Representative Hammerschmidt and Senators Fulbright and McClellan introduced the first bill for the Buffalo National River, though the bill went nowhere. BRIA members who owned land along the river vowed to “fight to the death”, and BRIA sympathizers within the State Publicity and Parks Commission influenced the Commission to announce that it would not cede the Buffalo River State Park to the National Park Service if the National River were created, a highly unusual move, as such cessions were the standard operating procedure in these cases. This was redressed in 1971, when the State Parks and Tourism Committee ceded the State Park for the National River. The vacillating and indecisive Winthrop Rockefeller, the new Governor of Arkansas, decided to support the dam, though reversed to his original position after a sustained letter campaign. The BRIA-influenced State Parks Commission decided that it was unwilling to purchase the land for Lost Valley State Park, leading now-former Governor Faubus to purchase the land for himself. Faubus sealed the land off to the public, hoping to force Governor Rockefeller’s hand. Faubus declared, “I am going [to go] up to Lost Valley and stretch a fence across the valley, shutting off the tourists from the main attractions of the area, and put up a suitable sign to explain why it has not been made a State Park, and who is responsible.” The Heyden family offered to purchase the land from Faubus and donate it to Arkansas, because, Mr. Heyden said, “the State has been good to me, I have the means to, so I feel like I want to do something for the State.” Heyden thus joined a rich tradition of private donors for our wild lands, including the prominent Easterners whose grants established Acadia National Park in Maine, and the Rockefeller family’s whose donations established the Great Smoky Mountains and Grand Teton National Parks. In any event, Lost Valley was eventually ceded to the National Park Service.
It had now been three years since Kenneth Smith had started work on his Buffalo River photography book, finally ready for publication as The Buffalo River Country. Neil Compton recognized that “perhaps the most important factor in any effort to correct environmental problems is the matter of information, its processing and distribution. People must know what we are talking about, and our coworkers must be kept in contact.” As such, Compton initiated the quarterly Ozark Society Bulletin, which won the National Conservation Achievement Award for Communications the next year. The Ozark Society also began to hold Buffalo River clean-up floats, retrieving litter from its waters so that they may remain unsullied for generations to come. On a country drive, Compton came across the Casey sawmill in Boxley, spotting an enormous black gum log sitting in the mill-yard. He wrote later that “an accurate [ring] count could not be made since the center six inches of it was hollow, but it was ascertainable that this big gum was easily more than five hundred years old. It had been a living tree when Columbus discovered America, standing in some lost hollow all these many years, and had witnessed the rising tide of our American Empire. In October 1967, in a few minutes, it had been felled with a chainsaw by some logger who stood to profit practically nothing from its ancient carcass.” Compton saw that “commercial developments and inflationary real-estate activities pose a threat to the natural scenic wonders of our Ozark country just as great as that of the determined and senseless governmental bureaus who wish to dam, drown, and modify it beyond recognition. The real problem revolves around the definition of progress in reference to what should be done with this once-beautiful land.”
That same autumn, Compton was blessed to see a flock of wild geese, flying low in the Ozark sunset. He wrote, “As it has always been, it was thrilling to see these great birds winging so surely the route determined for them by countless generations of other wild geese who saw below them not highways, chicken houses, villages, and towns, but the limitless forests and prairies of yesterday…this would be the only flock of geese that we would be privileged to see or hear during this fall…The sight of this single flock hurtling into the darkness of night brought home the thought that the problem of their existence and ours is not so far removed one from another. In contesting the senseless ruination of the American environment by engineers, agriculturists, real-estate developers, and politicians, we are fighting a battle that involves the fate and happiness of humanity as well as the marvelous creatures that inhabit the earth with us. We must instill into the hearts of a majority of common men and women a compassion for and appreciation of the natural world. This our basic obligation — so simple — so reasonable — and yet so difficult.” At the dawn of 1968, BRIA members threatened to close the river to the public by felling more trees on their respective properties. Helter-skelter loggers raped Hemmed-In Hollow, trying to cut as many trees as possible before a National River could become a reality. DeGray Lake and Dam strangled the Caddo River, a terrible act of destruction that the Ozark Society chose not to oppose for purely political reasons; they did not wish to butt heads with Senator McClellan, for whom DeGray was a pet project. Indeed, McClellan continued to support the Buffalo National River proposal. As we can see, each step forward was several steps backward; Compton explained that, “for true conservationists, the watchword is constant vigilance.” Our ceaseless deluge of immigration will certainly make matters worse in the coming years.
In 1969, the State Parks, Recreation, and Travel Commission got a new Director, one who was no longer beholden to the BRIA. This man endorsed the Buffalo National River, followed shortly behind by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. Things were finally looking up. Senators Fulbright and McClellan reintroduced their Buffalo National River bill, and the bill was endorsed by the Senate Parks and Recreation Subcommittee, and then the full Senate Interior Committee. Representative Hammerschmidt’s bill, however, was held up in the House for various administrative reasons. In the meantime, Rush, a zinc mining ghost town, was placed for sale as a tourist development; upon the enshrinement of the National River, Rush was eventually donated to the National Park Service. In 1970, Compton lamented the game of political chess that was stalling his life’s work, noting that “at that that time the executive and legislative takeover by the various levels of the judiciary had barely begun…As it was, we were courtesans to those decision makers, our elected office holders, to the various bureaucrats serving under them, and to that third estate, the media, in print and on the air.” He knew, of course, that the hassle was well worth it, for “if we are successful in bringing about the establishment of the Buffalo National River in our time, our grandchildren will wonder why there was ever any opposition to it. If we fail, we will be remembered by the next ten generations for our greediness, lack of vision, and ineptitude.”
In 1971, Senators Fulbright and McClellan reintroduced the Buffalo bill again, and Representative Hammerschmidt followed suit, again. At an Ozark Society event at Mather Lodge in Petit Jean State Park, newly-elected Governor (and future Senator) Dale Bumpers cheerfully announced, “I am for the Buffalo National River!” Bumpers would go on to shepherd the Wilderness Bill through the Senate in 1984, adding over one hundred thousand acres to the Ozark and Ouachita National Forests. Ozark Society delegates traveled by bus to Washington, D.C., for a hearing before the House Subcommittee on Parks and Recreation; they warmly named their chartered bus “the Jubilee Bus.” At the hearing, Compton spoke, stating, “In the years during which I have been identified as a conservationist involved in an effort to salvage some of the remaining natural beauty of my part of the country, my position has been questioned by a few as to why a physician should be involved in such matters…Almost all human afflictions are definitely affected by tension, anxiety, and frustration, which factors become increasingly a part of our daily lives as technology and artificial existence become compounded. Thus, more and more we yearn to seek out the undisturbed, remote and beautiful places away from the crowds of people, the unending miles of pavement and heavy traffic, and the hurly-burly of urban living which has practically engulfed us all. Along the Buffalo River…we may still seek spiritual, emotional, and physical reconstitution, and here those of us who know it seek to turn from the stress of our daily lives…There’s no use trying to keep people well in a dead land.”
The Battle Won, the War Only Just Begun
On March 1, 1972, after passage through the House and the Senate, President Richard Nixon signed into creation the Buffalo National River, the very first National River in American history. Senator J. William Fulbright later said that “of all the legislation that I have authored during my time in the Senate, I take more pride in the bill for the Buffalo National River than all the rest.” Dr. Neil Compton reflected that this decade-long struggle “to save the Buffalo River in the Arkansas Ozarks brought to the fore manifestations of a worldwide plague generated by the hand and mind of man.” Compton continued, “If we have at last become as gods, it is now past time to extend to the earth and all of its creatures the compassion and understanding that we have hitherto assigned to the gods.” Much work, infinite work, remains for us to accomplish “if there be places on this earth where our descendants can know and understand the wonders of Creation.” The Buffalo National River will never be totally safe, just as none of our wild lands and rivers can ever be totally safe; in fact, a factory hog farm was allowed to open on a major tributary of the Buffalo in 2014, and despite fierce opposition was not shuttered for a whole six years, until January 2020. The Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality granted the original permit without public hearing, public notice, or consultation with the National Park Service. The environmental impact on the Buffalo of this pig waste contamination, roughly two million gallons, or the same annual fecal and urine output as a city of 35,000 people, flushed untreated into lagoons and then spread over hayfields, the runoff from which flowed into Big Creek and then into the Buffalo River downstream, has yet to be determined. This runoff almost certainly leached into the porous Karst limestone that constitutes the Ozarks and corrupted our groundwater.
Compton dedicated one of his books, The High Ozarks, to his grandchildren, and “to all the thousands of other grandsons and granddaughters of my generation who find joy in the unspoiled out-of-doors. To witness their appreciation of it makes all the effort worthwhile.” Neil Compton and his Ozark Society bequeathed to every successive generation of Arkansans not only the sublime Buffalo National River, but also a challenge, a call that must be answered; this challenge “goes on. There are other lands and rivers, other wilderness areas to save and to share with all. I challenge you to step forward to protect and care for the wild places you love best…For those who feel in their hearts a compassion, whether inborn or acquired, for the beauty of our land, there remain a multitude of places, some hidden and some well-known, in need of the attention of anyone willing to strive to preserve them.” This call must be amplified beyond Arkansas, to every Southerner, to every American. How dare we claim to honor our ancestors without honoring the land which provided them material and spiritual sustenance? The conservation of our people, our traditions, our culture, is wholly meaningless without the conservation of our land, and all of the blue jays, cardinals, chipmunks, deer, raccoons, and squirrels who call it home. Perhaps the greatest tragedy to befall our beloved Dixie was the century-long evisceration of her hills and hollers. It is high time that we reclaim them.
Compton, Neil. The High Ozarks: A Vision of Eden (Little Rock: The Ozark Society Foundation, 1982).
Compton, Neil. The Battle for the Buffalo River: The Story of America’s First National River (Fayetteville: The University of Arkansas Press, 1992).