Buffalo National River’s rock solid foundatoinFree Access

Thanks to conservation group’s efforts, park will celebrate 50th anniversary.

The Buffalo National River will mark its 50th anniversary next year. 

If not for the Ozark Society, the river would probably be just another one of the state’s many reservoirs that generate hydroelectricity — a lake hundreds of feet deep, topped with party barges and jet skis, and flanked by a tailwater stream that’s stocked with non-native species of trout.    

Two dams were planned, one at Tyler Bend and another at Black Rock, according to Ozark Society vice president Lucas D. Parsch.

The dams would have created an 80-mile long lake, a mile wide in some places, which would have flooded valley communities, said Marvin Schwartz, chair of the Ozark Society Foundation, which serves as the group’s public-education arm. 

Recently, Schwartz talked with The Leader about the group’s history and its future as it gears up for next year’s milestone anniversary.

“We have this treasure because of the vigilance of certain individuals years ago,” Schwartz said.

“(The Ozark Society) was successful in stopping the Army Corps of Engineers who were very active in building dams across the state and getting the federal government to designate the Buffalo River a national river, providing it with environmental protections and limited development in the area,” Schwartz said.

 The preservation group was founded in 1962 by Dr. Neil Compton to stop the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from building dams on the Buffalo. 

A decade later, Congress passed legislation making it the country’s first national river and protecting the 153-mile stream  and more than 100 miles of hiking trails from residential and commercial development. It is one of only a few undammed rivers in the country, according to the National Park Service, which oversees the Buffalo. It stretches from the Boston Mountains to the White River. 

In 1969, the Ozark Society won the National Wildlife Federation’s National Conser-vation Achievement Award, which may have helped Congress to create the Buffalo National River.

It has become one of the state’s best attractions, offering unforgettable scenery, camping, hiking, fishing, and what it’s most famous for — canoeing and kayaking. The state estimates 1.2 million people visit Buffalo National River every year who spend approximately $55 million in the region, including Newton, Searcy, Marion, and Baxter counties.

The foundation, established in 1975,  has published several books about the Buffalo River, including Compton’s “The Battle for the Buffalo River: The Story of America’s First National River,” Compton’s account of the campaign to keep the river pristine, “Buffalo River Handbook” by Ken-neth L. Smith, “The Buffalo River in Black and White,” a collection of Compton’s photos and with an essay by John Heuston, and “the Buffalo National River Canoeing Guide,” which explains how to navigate the river safely and lists the names of just about every bend in the river and access sites. 

These books, and others, are available at the Ozark Society’s website, www.ozarksociety.net, the University of Arkansas Press website and Amazon. 

The Ozark Society’s website also includes several maps of hiking trails across the state and information about group hikes and float trips, which are all open to the public.  

“Ken Smith was remarkable as an early naturalist in Arkansas. He was a talented writer and photographer, and he was deeply committed to the foundation and society.”

Parsch said, “Smith took leave of his employment in the National Park Service in the mid-1960s to walk, canoe, drive, and study up-close the entire 153 mile length of Buffalo River and its environs so that he could photograph and write about it in ‘Buffalo River Country.’ Thus, ‘Buffalo River Country’ was the first published document, which brought to the public’s attention the uniqueness and beauty of this unsaved gem.”

Parsch said Smith’s “Buffalo River Country” was “instrumental in saving the Buffalo.” 

Schwartz said, “There’s no end to the credit he deserves. He wrote ‘Buffalo River Handbook’ and other titles, photographed them, paid for their design, paid for their printing, and then he donated 100 percent of the proceeds to the society and foundation,” amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years, Schwartz said.  

Most recently, the Ozark Society Foundation has published “Trees, Shrubs, and Woody Vines of Arkansas,” a stylishly illustrated botanical reference book by Jennifer Ogle, Theo Witsell and Johnnie Gentry. 


Schwartz, who became chair of the foundation in 2019, said the foundation is working on some new projects. It has introduced the Sassafras Award for Excellence in Environmental Writing. Submissions can be made through the website until July 31. Non-published or published manuscripts will be accepted. Books published in the last three years are eligible.  

Schwartz has authored several books about Arkansans, including “We Wanna Boogie” about Newport’s rockabilly music scene in the 1950s and histories of Tyson Foods and J.B. Hunt. 

The Ozark Society Foundation has also begun a new grant program to support student environmental projects of nonprofit organizations in the Ozark or Ouachita regions. The application period has closed for this year’s grants, but up to 20 of them between $500 and $2,000 each could be awarded. 

The foundation will also release a documentary next year to coincide with the park’s 50th anniversary. 

“We are producing a documentary film. It’s a public policy history. It’s not just a nature film with lovely outdoor scenes. The intent is that the public is made aware of its responsibility to protect and preserve this region. The takeaway is you become more informed, a more involved citizen,” Schwartz said. 

“That entire region would be under water, but people got involved and influenced public policy. That’s the intent of this film…and to make the audience aware there is going to be another confrontational issue and let’s make sure we’re ready for it.”


“One of our biggest challenges is engaging young people. They inherently understand environmental issues, but they don’t join organizations the way my generation does. To influence public policy, you have to have a public voice. Individuals need to work together to get things to change or stay the same if it’s conservation,” Schwartz said. 

“So one of our challenges is to engage young people, people of color, and new citizens in Arkansas and the region and give them a voice in the conservation dialogue. We are recruiting some younger board members and trying to motivate them to get involved,” Schwartz said. 

“I think the organization is positioned to do some more good for the state. It has about 1,000 members from around the country,” he said. 

Annual membership fees start at $30. The organization has regional chapters in Little Rock, Bentonville, Fayetteville, Gilbert, Shreveport, La.; Springfield Mo.; and Cape Giradeau, Mo.

“What I’ve been trying to do with the foundation is make people more aware of who we are and what we do for the purpose of when the next environmental issue comes. If we need phone calls or letters or people to come to committee meetings to voice their position, we want people to be aware of what they can do, so projects like grants to youth organizations, awards for writing , documentary films, this is a way to engage the public to make them aware of that ultimate issue that we rely critically on public vigilance to preserve these treasures,” Schwartz said. 

The Buffalo’s future is not guaranteed and other environmental risks at other cherished sites remain, he cautioned.  


“When you look at the Ozark Society’s website, you’ll see a wonderful quote from Neil Compton: ‘The 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.’” 

“So it’s a direct challenge from our patriarch and our founder to the citizens of Arkansas to learn what’s happening and get involved,” Schwartz said. 

“Neil was a man way ahead of his time. He was a doctor who lived in Bentonville. He was an avid outdoors person in the 50s and 60s. He and his friends would go on floats at the Buffalo. His friends included Sam Walton and the young children of the Walton family. Compton was a highly respected and successful physician in that area. He became aware of the Army Corps of Engineers’ plan to build two dams on the Buffalo River that would have created an immense reservoir,” Schwartz said.  

“He engaged in a public intervention, rallied many folks to change that plan. He took people on buses to Washington. They testified in Congress. He arranged for dignitaries to come visit the Buffalo, including Supreme Court Associate Justice William O. Douglas and artist Thomas Hart Benton, who floated the Buffalo in 1960s,” before it was designated a national park.

Many of Hart’s paintings are on view at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville. He was born in the Ozarks community of Neosho, Mo., in 1889, and was an early member of the regionalism movement, which focused on rural and smalltown American culture. He died in 1975.  


President Nixon signed a bill introduced by Sen. J. William Fulbright and Rep. John Paul Hammerschmidt, designating the Buffalo a national river on March 1, 1972, which was the 100th anniversary of President Ulysses S. Grant signing the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act that created the nation’s first national park, Schwartz noted. 

Hammerschmidt, a Repub-lican who represented  the Third District in northwest Arkansas, passed away in 2015. He spoke about why conservation matters and the park’s importance to the country during an event for journalists at Tyler Bend hosted by the Park Service a few years earlier to commemorate the park’s 40th anniversary. 

Hammerschmidt’s support, Schwartz said, was vital to stopping the dam, and then establishing the national river status. 

“It was his position that was really critical in achieving that political outcome. He is credited as being very astute and being on the right side of the issues at that time. Some of the national leaders, Sen. McClellan and others, were not so supportive,” Schwartz said. 

“It was a contested issue because the people in the Marshall area and other towns along the river supported the dam and the creation of the lake. They saw this as an economic-development opportunity for their region. It took a tremendous amount of public education to show that the conservation and recreational impact would be far better for everyone than to flood the land and sell lakefront property,” Schwartz said. 

According to the Ozark Society’s website, in 1992, the Ozark Society helped pass the federal Arkansas Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which was introduced by Sen. Dale Bumpers and supported by Sen. David Pryor and Rep. Hammerschmidt, and added eight rivers in the Arkansas Ozarks and Ouachita national forests to the National Wild and Scenic River System.

The Ozark Society also worked to create Arkansas’ first two U.S. Forest Service Wilderness Areas, Caney Creek and Upper Buffalo in 1975. It joined the Arkansas Conservation Coalition’s effort to pass the federal Arkansas Wilderness Act of 1984. 

The Ozark Society stopped other proposed dam projects for the Saline, Strawberry, Meramec and Eleven Point rivers and Cadron Creek.

Its members in Oklahoma helped enact the Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Act, which protected the Illinois River, native tall grass prairie lands, and created wilderness areas in the Ouachita National Forest.

For more information about the Ozark Society and the Buffalo National River, visit www.ozarksociety.net and www.nps.gov/buff/index.htm.  


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