Milestones in Arkansas’s Environmental History
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.
Photo: Terry Fredrick
© Ozark Society Foundation
Public Law 92-237, signed by President Richard M. Nixon on March 1, 1972, and sponsored by Rep. John Paul Hammerschmidt, Sen. John L. McClellan, and Sen. J. William Fulbright, established the Buffalo National River and ensured the preservation of one of the last free-flowing rivers in America. The Buffalo River was the first designated “National River.”
The National Park Service administers 135 miles of the 150-mile long river that flows through Newton, Searcy, Marion and Baxter counties. Originating in the Boston Mountains of the Ozark Plateau, the river flows from the rocky crags of northwestern Arkansas to its confluence with the White River and the alluvial lowlands of the Mississippi Valley. That path goes past settlers’ cabins, abandoned mills, pasture lands and crop fields, and offers historic sites depicting the cultural history of the river’s peoples, water activities, caves, hiking trails, camping, a diversity of plant and animal species, and three congressionally designated wilderness areas. The river is fed by tributaries and springs, causing dramatic “pour-offs” down the limestone bluffs.
Numerous plans to dam the river received support among Arkansans who hoped that the creation of reservoirs and hydroelectric dams would help spur economic growth in the region while still providing opportunities for outdoor recreation. Many residents resisted the idea of a government presence in the form of either a park or dam and did not want to give up the ways of life they had known where generations had worked the lands alongside the Buffalo.
The creation of the National River signaled a victory for the Ozark Society, founded ten years earlier, on May 24, 1962, by Dr. Neil Compton and others who believed that the Buffalo in its natural state was an essential part of Arkansas’s heritage and character, as well as that of the whole Ozarks region. The Ozark Society was founded to promote conservation of, education about, and recreation in the surrounding Ozark and Ouachita mountains. Led by Compton, the organization soon launched a campaign to preserve the Buffalo River as a free-flowing, undammed river. A proposal by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build two dams on the river sparked a long and heated debate between pro-dam proponents, such as the Buffalo River Improvement Association, and anti-dam advocates, led by the Ozark Society.
Neil Compton, founding president of the Ozark Society, was born August 1, 1912, at Falling Springs Flats in Benton County. He graduated from the University of Arkansas in 1935 with degrees in zoology and geology and from the University of Arkansas School of Medicine at Little Rock in 1939. Compton served in the United States Naval Reserve from 1942 to 1946. He married Laurene Putman and the couple had three children: Ellen, Edra, and Bill. Compton led the Ozark Society’s efforts to focus regional and national attention on the importance of preserving the Buffalo River in its natural, undammed state. Compton received numerous awards for his conservation work, including the first annual Teddy Roosevelt Conservation Award awarded by Congress in 1990. Compton died on February 10, 1999, having hiked in the Ozarks just a week earlier.
Images were scanned using an Epson Expression Scanner, Model 1640XL, with a 12" X 17" scanning bed, using Epson Twain Pro version 1.75A software and Adobe Photoshop. Images were scanned at 600 dpi. All images were initially saved as TIFF files before being imported into CONTENTdm as JPEGs. Metadata and CONTENTdm indexing fields were selected from Dublin Core and MARC elements.
Manuscript collections used as resources for the “40-50-100” digital exhibit include the Neil Compton Papers (MC 1091), the Ozark Society Papers (MC 477 and MS Oz1 219, 219A-I, Ozark), the Compton Family Papers (MC 1453) and a Governor Orval E. Faubus speech (MC 1034).
A number of books have been published on the Buffalo River, including: The High Ozarks: A Vision of Eden (F 417 .O9 C65 1982), The Battle for the Buffalo River: A Twentieth-century Conservation Crisis in the Ozarks (QH 76.5 .A8 C65), and The Buffalo River in Black and White (F 417 .B85 B876 1997), by Neil Compton; Ken Smith’s Buffalo River Country in the Ozarks of Arkansas (F 417 .B85 S58) and Buffalo River Handbook (ARK COLL GB 1227 .B8 S65 2004); and the Buffalo River Canoeing Guide (ARK COLL F 417 .B85 H4), by Harold and Margaret Hedges.
The manuscript collections held in Special Collections constitute a substantial record of environmental history in the state and region. The collections address environmental policy at the state and federal level, the development of local and state-wide activist organizations, and the creation of parks and other preserves by state and federal governments.
The collections also include the records of Arkansas branches of national and international environmental advocacy groups such as the Audubon Society. Several collections pertain to Arkansas garden and horticultural clubs.
The department also holds the papers of the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Services and numerous other affiliated entities. These records show in detail the complex relationship between agricultural and timber industries in the state and the environment.
The decades-long effort to preserve the Buffalo River is particularly well-documented, including the papers of Dr. Neil Compton, the Ozark Society, and other individuals associated with documenting the ecology of the River and organizing to prevent its damming, and ultimately, to ensure its protection as a part of the National Park Service.
Several other manuscript collections document the “Battle for the Buffalo” and the efforts of activists, politicians, private citizens, and organizations related to environmental preservation and natural resource development from the early 20th century to the present day. They include the Kenneth L. Smith papers (MC 1423), the papers of the Ozark Society Foundation (MC 1811), the Gus Albright Scrapbooks (MC 1295), the Governor Orval E. Faubus Papers (MS/F27/301/Faubus), and the Congressman John Paul Hammerschmidt Papers (MC 1230). Senators David Pryor (MC 336) and Dale Bumpers, whose collection will be opened to researchers next year, proposed the Arkansas Wilderness Act of 1983 (MC 560). The proceedings of the Environmental Defense Fund, 1961-1972 (MS En89) illustrate court battles associated with environmental activism in the state.
Special Collections provided many materials for a new permanent exhibit on Neil Compton that was opened to the public in August 2012 at Compton Gardens and Conference Center. Located in Bentonville, Arkansas, adjacent to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Compton Gardens was the former home and property of Dr. Compton and his family. The Walton Family Foundation purchased the property in 2002. More information on Compton Gardens can be found at http://www.peelmansion.org/compton/ .