1972 Buffalo River decree seen now as right course

Initially on dam list, national park turns 40

Ellen Compton, with a picture of her father, Dr. Neil Compton, projected behind her, talks Wednesday at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville about her father’s efforts to preserve the Buffalo River.

— Doretha Dillard Shipman can still visit her family’s homesite on the Buffalo National River and go to the spring where her mother washed clothes.

The log cabin is gone now, but the rock she pretended was a slide is still there.

If the Buffalo River had been dammed, as proposed, all that would be under water.

“I’m happy with what it is,” said Shipman, 87, of the Mull community in Marion County. “Of course, they took our land away, but it’s still there, and it’s not covered up by water. I’m proud and thankful that we can still look at it. They protected the land and the timber.”

The Buffalo National River is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. But 21stcentury visitors may not be aware of the controversy that surrounded the founding of the national park.

With passage of the Flood Control Act of 1938, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers put the Buffalo River on its list to be dammed along with sections of the White River, which was dammed to create Beaver, Bull Shoals and Table Rock lakes.

Decades of debate ensued. Developers and conservationists clashed until federal law in 1972 designated the Buffalo as America’s first national river. Now, it’s a 94,293-acre national park that includes 135 miles of the 150-mile-long river, which traverses Newton, Searcy and Marion counties before emptying into the White River just inside Baxter County.

In 2010, the Buffalo National River attracted 1.5 million visitors who spent $47 million in the vicinity, according to the National Park Service.

To create the park, the federal government bought land from 940 families, individuals, corporations and estates in the Buffalo River area, said Kevin Cheri, superintendent of the Buffalo National River.

Thirty families sold their property to the government and received easements allowing them to live there until 2004. Twenty other families never sold their property but gave the government “scenic easements” allowing use of the property.

Shipman said her family was going to lose its 100-acre farm one way or the other, either to a dam or a park, so it sold the property to the government.

“I cried about that,” she said. “It really did break my heart to give up our land. We just didn’t want the dam to cover up everything.”


Sybil Craig, president of Buffalo National River Partners, said she believes most of the former landowners are happy with the result. The partners, founded in 2008, is a “friends group” that advocates for the park.

“There are still people who are furious — no, make that disgruntled — that it was designated a national park,” she said.

“I think the people who are happy about it far outweigh the people who are disgruntled. It has definitely calmed down from what it was in the ’70s.”

Former Congressman John Paul Hammerschmidt of Harrison said he heard complaints for a few years after the 1972 law was passed.

“I don’t anymore,” he said Wednesday. “The first 10 years were still pretty vocal, then it began to fade.”

Hammerschmidt, who was instrumental in creating the Buffalo National River, said many people who lived near the river thought a dam would attract economic benefits to the area. Some who lived a short distance from the river thought they would have lakefront property if the river was dammed, so they were all for it.

“Most people up and down the river were opposed to the National Park Service,” said Hammerschmidt. “They wanted the dam.”

Others, like Shipman’s family, were against damming the river. Shipman said her father, Pate Dillard, spoke out against the dam every chance he got.

“Daddy didn’t want the dam,” she said. “Daddy did everything he could and knew what to do to prevent it. We’re still glad we didn’t have the dam. We still have the memories. ... You can still see the river in its free flowing state, and I love it.”

Cheri remembers what it was like during his first stint at the park in 1978.

“Most of that harsh, illfeeling is gone,” he said.

But, Cheri said, he occasionally encounters someone who’s still angry and says, “I haven’t been back” since the government took the land. Others have forgiven the federal government, he said, and are happy that the scenic river can be enjoyed by millions.


Early inhabitants of the Buffalo River area included Osage, Shawnee and Cherokee indians, according to the National Park Service. The first European settlers arrived there in the late 1820s. Another wave of homesteading took place in the area between 1880 and 1915.

A small state park on the Buffalo River opened in 1938 at Buffalo Point in southern Marion County. Constructed as a project of the Civilian Conservation Corps, it had cabins, a store and a campground. Another park, Lost Valley State Park, opened in 1966 near Ponca. The state parks became part of the national park when it was created.

Dr. Neil Compton of Bentonville wrote a letter to his daughter, Ellen Compton, in 1960 saying, “I’m going to try to pitch the Buffalo gorge as a national park.”

Neil Compton, who was born in 1912 and died in 1999, had been working to preserve sections of the Buffalo River, but he apparently decided it made more sense to protect the entire river, said Ellen Compton, who works for the University of Arkansas’ library in Fayetteville. Ellen Compton made the comments Wednesday while speaking at an event at UA honoring her late father, the Buffalo National River and others who helped save the river from being dammed.

By the early 1960s, the issue was gaining national attention.

Time magazine published a full-color picture of the Buffalo River in July 1961. The Ozark Wilderness Waterways Club persuaded U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas to float the Buffalo in May 1962, which produced widespread publicity, wrote Tom Dillard in a Sept. 9 column in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living in Farmington. He’s no relation to Doretha Dillard Shipman.

The movements coalesced around two groups formed in 1962: the pro-dam Buffalo River Improvement Association established in Searcy County by newspaperman James Tudor, and the Ozark Society with Neil Compton as its president.

Things came to a head on Memorial Day 1965, when pro-dam forces tried to block the Buffalo River to canoeists by felling large trees into the water, stringing barbed wire across the river and firing gunshots, wrote Dillard. Nobody was hit by gunfire, and nobody was seriously injured when their canoes collided with barbed wire and debris, Dillard said.


In late 1965, just before leaving office, Gov. Orval Faubus came out against the proposed dam, in effect killing the Corps of Engineers’ plan because the governor’s approval was required for it, Dillard wrote. But that did not ensure that the river would be permanently protected.

The next year, Hammerschmidt defeated Congressman James Trimble, who favored the dam. Hammerschmidt worked to get the area protected as a national park.

It was Hammerschmidt, along with former Arkansas Sens. J. William Fulbright and John McClellan, who first introduced legislation in 1967 to create the Buffalo National River.

The first two attempts in Congress to create the park failed. The final legislation declaring the Buffalo National River was introduced in 1971, according to The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. That legislation was approved by Congress on Feb. 9, 1972.

President Richard Nixon signed the legislation on March 1.

Hammerschmidt said he’s happy with the way things turned out.

“I am a preservationist,” he said. “I grew up on the Buffalo River.”

Danny Roth of Harrison said he has canoed on the Buffalo National River every year for the past 40.

“Because of people like Neil Compton and John Paul Hammerschmidt, who realized a long time ago that the Buffalo River should be a national park, it’s really made the grand old lady just as pretty as she was 40 years ago,” said Roth. “I think that was great foresight on their part. ... We have plenty of lakes, but there’s only one Buffalo River.”

Front Section, Pages 1 on 09/23/2012