Richard M. Nixon…. Orval E. Faubus…. William O. Douglas…. Three prominent players in 20th century American politics. All vilified on one occasion or another (or sometimes regularly), but vilified nevertheless by vastly different groups for vastly different rationales, mind you. One is a disgraced Republican president. Another a defiant Democratic governor from rural Arkansas. The third a controversial associate justice of the United States Supreme Court with decidedly libertarian leanings. Aside from their propensity to generate news and create furors, what could possibly connect these three formidable men?
A river runs through them – the Buffalo River in Northwest Arkansas. All three made significant contributions to the political process which ultimately led the establishment of America’s first national river.
But first it’s important to know a little about the stream itself. The Buffalo can be traced to the highest point of the Ozark Mountains in the far reaches of western Newton County. It flows more or less east for about 150 miles – dropping roughly 2,000 feet along the way – before entering the White River near the hamlet of Buffalo City. Originally called the Big Buffalo Fork of the White River, the stream twists and turns through some of the prettiest landscapes in mid-America, delivering one scenic vista after another. With limestone-based karst topography underlying much of its watershed, the river exposes visitors to a fascinating assortment of springs, sinkholes, bluffs, waterfalls, canyons and caverns. Likewise, the riparian corridor provides habitat for many species of plants and animals – including black bear, elk and bald eagles – although the last of its namesake, the American bison or buffalo, were extirpated by the first white explorers in the early 1800s. Recent years have included reports of the elusive mountain lion from remote areas within the Buffalo’s drainage basin.
Due to the thin soil and rugged terrain, a hardscrabble existence faced the area’s settlers. A few quiet towns, such as Boxley, Ponca, Jasper, Gilbert and Rush, sprang up, but the Buffalo River country remained sparsely populated when canoeists discovered the stream in the late 1950s. The Arkansas State Park system acquired Buffalo River State Park in the stream’s lower end in 1937 and added Lost Valley State Park near the headwaters area some 30 years later.
Canoeists were not the only ones who’d discovered the Buffalo. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had thoroughly explored the river decades earlier – and had planned since the late 1930s to place two dams across the waterway, one near its mouth to be called Lone Rock and the other just upstream from the U.S. Highway 65 bridge to be named Gilbert. The outbreak of World War II temporarily postponed the projects. In the early 1960s when plans for the dams resurfaced, a heated battle developed between vocal supporters of the dams and equally vocal proponents of a free-flowing Buffalo River.
As for our notorious trio of politicians, let’s start with Douglas, the longest-serving judge in the history of the United States Supreme Court. Appointed to the bench in 1939 by President Franklin Roosevelt, Douglas was an avid outdoorsman – and that interest got him an invitation from future founders of the Ozark Society to visit the Buffalo before the Corps of Engineers moved forward with plans to impound the stream. Douglas readily accepted the offer and took a two-day float trip down the river in April 1962 – accompanied by an entourage of reporters. His verdict? “The Buffalo River,” he said, “is a national treasure worth fighting to the death to preserve.”
Joining the fray was Gov. Faubus. Unlike his headline-generating response to the integration of Little Rock Central High School in 1957, he’d carefully sidestepped the Buffalo River controversy until 1965 when he finally informed the Corps of Engineers of his opposition to the proposed reservoirs. Lacking Faubus’ support, the Corps had no choice but to table its plans to dam the river.
Whatever you think about President Nixon, or the man’s overall record, he gets credit for providing more than lip service to conservation issues. During his abbreviated tenure, Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act and later established the Environmental Protection Agency. He also endorsed the Clean Air Act of 1970, approved the Endangered Species Act of 1973, and added a number of key tracts to the National Wilderness Preservation System. And it was Richard Milhous Nixon who signed legislation creating the Buffalo National River on March 1, 1972.
So, there you have it…. Three remarkably dissimilar politicians – often looked upon with disfavor, or worse – helped create America’s first national river, a park which today is enjoyed annually by millions of visitors of all political persuasions.
Joe David Rice, former tourism director of Arkansas Parks and Tourism, has written Arkansas Backstories, a delightful book of short stories from A through Z that introduces readers to the state’s lesser-known aspects. Rice’s goal is to help readers acknowledge that Arkansas is a unique and fascinating combination of land and people – one to be proud of and one certainly worth sharing.
Each month, AY will share one of the 165 distinctive essays. We hope these stories will give you a new appreciation for this geographically compact but delightfully complex place we call home. These Arkansas Backstories columns appear courtesy of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies at the Central Arkansas Library System. The essays have been collected and published by Butler Center Books in a two-volume set, the first of which is now available to purchase at Amazon and the University of Arkansas Press.