UNTIL RECENTLY, it seemed like the Buffalo River Trail might never be completed. That’s not to say the path, with its breathtaking views of the country’s first national river and the Ozark wilderness, is un-hikeable—very much the opposite, in fact. But the road to realizing the ultimate vision for the trail has been a bit rocky.
If you were to draw out the Buffalo River Trail on a map, it would appear as less of a solid line snaking through the Ozarks and more of a dotted one. Currently, the BRT is broken up into three completed sections that have slowly but surely been built by volunteers since the early ’80s: the 36-mile western section, the 15-mile eastern section and the newer Maumee section, which runs for 11 miles. The 20-mile gap between the first two sections lies on federally owned land, where additional trail is in the works. However, completing the 28-mile divide between the eastern and Maumee sections, located between Highways 65 and 14 northwest of Marshall, has proven to be a lot more complicated—at least until the Buffalo River Foundation got involved.
“The trail is essentially built between Highway 65 and 14,” says Ross Noland, director of the Buffalo River Foundation, “but the park service doesn’t put it on a map because you would have to trespass across the Roberts Tract to enjoy that part of the trail.” The Roberts Tract refers to a section of privately owned land residing within the federally owned Buffalo National Wilderness, and if the BRT is ever to be completed, 1,600 feet of trail need to run through it.
For more than a decade, everyone from Duane Woltjen of the Ozark Highlands Trail Association to Buffalo River advocate Ken Smith had tried to negotiate a deal with the owners of the Roberts Tract to no avail. Ultimately, it was Ross who was able to convince the Roberts family to let the foundation get the land appraised back in March 2016, which became the first step in a six-month option agreement that would allow the foundation to purchase the property.
But even in the Buffalo National Wilderness, money doesn’t grow on trees. So back in July, the foundation launched a fundraising campaign to cover the cost of the land as well as the ancillary costs of the negotiation process and the eventual endowment of the property. So far, the foundation has raised over 90 percent of their $80,000 goal.
After the property is secured, Ross says he’d like to see the land end up in the hands of the National Park Service, which maintains the Buffalo River and its surrounding wilderness, but he admits that’s still a little ways down the road. But the plan in the meantime?
“Get the trail blazed out there, make sure it’s in good shape, that there’s no hazards and that sort of thing and get that trail on the map so that the public can start enjoying it. That’s our goal.”