Landowners often forgotten in history of national river

Dr. Brooks Blevins speaks to a packed house at a Buffalo National River Partners program at the Boone County Library last week.

According to Dr. Brooks Blevins, there’s a lot of dam history behind the formation of the Buffalo River’s designation as a national river.

Blevins is the Noel Boyd Professor of Ozarks Studies at Missouri State University. He’s written two volumes of A History of the Ozarks and a third is on the way. He spoke to a packed house at the Boone County Library last week in a presentation sponsored by the Buffalo National River Partners.

Blevins said official history texts often don’t include the landowners who were displaced as a result of the Buffalo National River.

“It’s always seemed to me an unfortunate thing that those are the folks that we forget about,” he said.

He went on to say that his great-great-grandparents were in their 80s and living near Pigeon Creek in northern Arkansas when the Norfork Dam was created. There were physically removed from their land, so he felt a kinship with those people in the Buffalo watershed.

Dams can often be a boon to economic development, he said. The first hydroelectric dam built in the Ozarks region was near Joplin, Missouri, in the late 19th century. It was built by a private power company to serve mining activities and not one of the high dams often seen in postcard photos.

Just downstream from Branson, Missouri, Powersite Dam was completed in 1913. Another hydroelectric dam, it also supplied power for the Joplin mining district.

Bagnell Dam was completed in 1931 and created Lake of the Ozarks. Many property owners lost their land for what was at one time the largest man-made lake in the world.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at that time wasn’t truly interested in building dams. Then came the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, causing millions of dollars in damages. Politicians began clamoring for something to be done to prevent another such flood and Congress ordered the Corps to conduct studies of dozens of river systems.

That effort began in the late 1920s and results were released in the early 1930s. Blevins said most of those studies provided locations where dams could be built for flood control, although they would be expensive and the difference for flood control was up in the air.

As the Great Depression roared, politicians wanted to do something to get people back to work. The dam projects the Corps identified seemed like an ideal way to get work done in their districts.

“So, really,” Blevins told the crowd, “a lot of this is more about politics than it is about the Army Corps of Engineers in the 1930s.”

U.S. Rep. Clyde T. Ellis was the congressman from northwest Arkansas in the 1930s. He was a big proponent of dams as a way to get electricity to the people. He was behind Norfork Dam. Such dams were built with federal dollars, not state money that Arkansas didn’t have in the first place.

Corps studies had identified five locations for dams on the Buffalo River. President Dwight Eisenhower vetoed two such proposals because he was a fiscal conservative and the projects would be expensive.

When President John F. Kennedy was elected, he resurrected some of the ideas. Then-U.S. Rep. James Trimble proposed a dam on the Buffalo near Gilbert, but Gov. Orval Faubus was opposed and it was shelved. John Paul Hammerschmidt defeated Trimble in 1966 and JPH was strongly opposed as well. President Richard Nixon then signed the declaration creating the Buffalo National River in 1972.

Enter the National Park Service, which originally went into development of the BNR property with the intention of leaving about 10% in private hands.

However, when the NPS set up offices in Harrison, it then set about claiming as much land along the river as possible, Blevins said.

NPS representatives used some hard-sell techniques to convince landowners to sell outright, not bothering to mention the option of signing a scenic easement to the NPS. That would have put some restrictions on land use, but it would have remained in private hands.

Some of those property owners were savvy enough to request scenic easements, but much of the property was taken under imminent domain.

Within a few years, about 97% of the property was in the government’s hands. By the mid-1980s, the NPS was under “new management” and began trying to mend fences with residents by getting some of those property owners back near the river.

Ironically, many of the property owners were caught between losing land as a result of a dam project or creation of the national river, Blevins said.

The property rights movement was something of an offshoot of such government efforts seen as globalism, exacerbating anti-government sentiment and conspiracy theories.

Those feelings might have been different if the NPS had followed that original plan to leave as much property as possible in private hands.

“The end result is that very few landowners ultimately got to stay on in the Buffalo valley for one reason or another,” Blevins said.

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