REX NELSON: A conservation ethos

Posted: January 28, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.

There are few predictions that can be made with confidence these days when it comes to national politics. In Arkansas, though, it's safe to assume that Republican control of state government will continue for a long time. The surprise in this state wasn't that the shift from Democratic to GOP control happened. It was how quickly it occurred.

At the end of 2010, five of the six members of the Arkansas congressional delegation were Democrats, all seven of the statewide constitutional officers were Democrats, and there were large Democratic majorities in the state Senate and the state House of Representatives. Now, all six members of the state's congressional delegation are Republicans, all seven of the statewide constitutional officers are Republicans, and there are large GOP majorities in both houses of the Arkansas Legislature. I don't see that changing in November.

The Democratic stranglehold on Arkansas politics lasted 130 years. I suspect the pendulum will swing before 13 decades pass, but here's a sure way for the GOP to lose control in Arkansas earlier than its members would like: Forget the history of your own party and fail to understand your constituents and what makes them tick.

The resurgence of most Republican state parties in what had been the solidly Democratic South began when Southerners deserted their previous party to protest Democratic support of civil rights reforms at the national level. Congressional approval of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was anathema to many white Southerners. Large numbers of these Southerners voted for Republican Barry Goldwater in 1964 and for George Wallace on the American Independent Party ticket in 1968. They then voted for Richard Nixon's re-election in 1972 and likely have voted for almost every GOP nominee since then.

Arkansas is different. The modern Arkansas Republican Party is the creation of Winthrop Rockefeller, who lost to Democratic Gov. Orval Faubus in 1964 but came back to win two-year terms in 1966 and 1968. Rockefeller was the first Southern governor since Reconstruction to appoint blacks to high-level positions in his administration and was the only Southern governor to join hands with black civil rights leaders following the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis five decades ago. Rockefeller was an advocate for an improved education system, prison reform, and conservation of the state's natural resources. As you can see, the history of the Arkansas Republican Party is nothing like that of its counterparts in places such as Mississippi and Alabama.

When it comes to understanding the voters, the first thing officeholders must understand is that we call ourselves the Natural State, and Arkansans take that seriously. The percentage of Arkansans who hunt, fish, hike and otherwise enjoy the outdoors is higher than the national average. In a column at the end of 2017, I wrote about trends I've noticed in my travels across the state. I noted a renewed emphasis on conservation. Public concern about commercial hog-growing operations in the Buffalo River watershed has ignited a new era of activism in Arkansas.

Conservation shouldn't be confused with environmental extremism. A balance must be reached in a state where farming and forestry are major parts of the economy. When in doubt, however, the safest route in Arkansas is to side with the conservationists. That can be hard for elected officials to do when their top donors are pushing for no regulation. But when it comes to the ballot box, there are a lot more Arkansans out there hunting, fishing and hiking than there are people giving big campaign donations so they, in turn, can make more money. The math is simple.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a moderate Republican on most issues, understands this. I'm not sure that legislators do.

In that same end-of-the-year column, I noted that some of the Arkansas heroes of the 20th century were people who organized efforts to preserve our state's beauty and natural resources. Officeholders would do well to read the stories of men such as Dr. Neil Compton of Bentonville and Dr. Rex Hancock of Stuttgart.

Compton was the founder of the Ozark Society and led the fight to prevent dams on the Buffalo River. The Ozark Society was formed during a meeting on May 24, 1962, at Fayetteville. John Heuston writes for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture that Compton was "a physician of obstetrics by profession and a conservationist by avocation" who led "a vigorous and eventually successful campaign to stop the construction of two dams on the Buffalo River (Gilbert and Lone Rock) that were proposed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers."

Nixon signed legislation on March 1, 1972, that made the Buffalo the nation's first designated National River to be managed by the National Park Service. Compton's 1992 book The Battle for the Buffalo River: A Conservation Crisis in the Ozarks was nominated for a National Book Award. Compton died on Feb. 10, 1999, at age 86.

Hancock, a dentist, led the battle to prevent channelization of the Cache River in east Arkansas. He was born and raised in Missouri, but his interest in duck hunting led him to move to Stuttgart in 1951. Congress had first approved funds in 1950 for the Corps of Engineers to dredge the Cache. Hancock helped form an organization called the Citizens' Committee to Save the Cache and received national media attention for his dogged determination. A federal court halted dredging operations in 1972, and the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge was later created. Hancock, who served as president of the Arkansas Wildlife Federation and as a regional director of the National Wildlife Federation, was named by Outdoor Life magazine as the national Conservationist of the Year in 1973. He died on July 8, 1986, at age 63.

Most Arkansas officeholders are too young to remember Neil Compton and Rex Hancock. They would be wise to read their stories. After all, we're the Natural State.

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Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Editorial on 01/28/2018