Ozark Highlands Trail

In the heart of the Lower Buffalo Wilderness, a dispute between two outdoor organizations over a fractured trail has been brewing for decades. Is now finally the time to make a mend?

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There’s a line across northwest Arkansas.

It runs from Fort Smith to the shores of Norfork Lake, and if you follow it, it’ll guide you through 253 miles of the most covertly scenic country the nation has to offer. Along the way, you’ll cross open Ozark ridgetops and secluded mountain hollows. You’ll pass towering arches, moss-covered bluffs, and eerie stone ruins—remnants of a bygone era when man confronted wilderness head-on, and sometimes lost. You’ll see rocky-bottomed streams, dozens of trickling waterfalls, and, if you’re lucky, a bull elk crashing through the underbrush on his way to a mate.

It’s called the Ozark Highlands Trail—the OHT, for short—and it’s one of Arkansas’s best kept secrets.

There’s only one problem—it’s broken.

You see, there’s been a bit of a disagreement between those who are building the trail—the Ozark Highlands Trail Association—and those whose property the trail must cross. It’s a matter that’s been simmering for decades, a conflict that ultimately centers on how best to preserve the environment—and the philosophy that entails. Specifically, how that applies to a 15-mile stretch of pristine wilderness maintained by the National Park Service along the banks of the Buffalo River.

Back in 1987, volunteers with the OHTA completed the first 165 miles of trail, from Lake Fort Smith to the Buffalo River. From there, the trail was supposed to extend east through NPS property along the river, but more than a decade of bureaucratic delays prevented construction. In 2003, tired of waiting for the NPS to act, the OHTA skipped over those lands that fall within the territory of the Buffalo National River and built a discontinuous 31-mile stretch of trail, the Sylamore Section, in the Ozark National Forest near Norfork.

screen-shot-2016-09-30-at-12-52-27-pmA year later, the NPS announced a plan to extend the trail and unite the two unconnected sections of OHT. But this plan came with a surprising twist: Although 43 miles of trail were authorized to pass through the developed portions of the park, there would still be no trail through 15 miles of the Lower Buffalo Wilderness. None. Nada. Zip. A giant black hole smack-dab in the middle of the OHT, sandwiched between 208 miles of completed trail on one side and 31 on the other.

The reason? Follow the Buffalo River upstream and you’ll run into the Ponca Wilderness, also managed by the NPS. The area has dozens of miles of trail and is a hot spot for hiking and horseback riding—the loud, outspoken life of the party compared to its shy, taciturn counterpart, the Lower Buffalo Wilderness.

“The opportunity for solitude and primitive and unconfined recreation is greater in the Lower Buffalo Wilderness than it is in the Ponca Wilderness,” explains Chuck Bitting, an NPS veteran and current Natural Resources Program Manager at Buffalo National River. “I personally don’t like running into a bunch of people when I’m in the wilderness, hiking or camping. I never get that feeling anymore when I’m in the Ponca Wilderness … but I do get it in the Lower Buffalo Wilderness.”

Sure, the NPS happily allows hikers attempting to complete the trail end-to-end to bushwhack through the area on their way to the next stretch of trail. They simply don’t want a new footpath cut through that tract of land.

By keeping trails out of the Lower Buffalo, NPS planners hope to retain the isolated quality that has been lost in places like the Ponca Wilderness. But human values aren’t the only thing at stake here. The Lower Buffalo also serves as home to several endangered species, including two species of mussel, the American eel, and four species of bat. OHT hikers who explore the local caves could potentially spread white-nose fungus, a highly contagious disease that has decimated bat populations across the U.S. (though Bitting concedes that locating the trail strategically would minimize the risk).

Regardless, some community members view the Park Service’s rejection of the OHT in the Lower Buffalo as a broken pledge.

“Back in the ’70s, [the Park Service] had committed to allowing the trail corridor through the area,” says John Pennington, president of the OHTA, “but in 2004 they changed their mind.”

“The promise hasn’t been kept,” agrees Duane Woltjen, an OHTA member who has been advocating for the trail for nearly three decades.

For trail proponents, extension through the Lower Buffalo would make the OHT a more attractive proposition for potential hikers. As the trail has lengthened, the OHTA has received an increasing number of inquiries for information about the trail from members of the public. And the prospect of connecting the OHT with Missouri’s Ozark Trail—a 500-mile route that is 80 percent finished—could bring the trail national acclaim on par with well-known treks like the Pacific Crest and Appalachian Trails.

Northern Arkansas could benefit economically, too. “If there is a willingness of the park to allow recreational opportunities, you could almost have a recreation-based economy,” Pennington says. “[Hikers] will want a shower, they’ll want a beer and a hamburger,” adds Woltjen.

And while they want to avoid overuse, OHT supporters assert that bringing more people into contact with nature via the trail would only do positive things for conservation.

“The reason we need to share [this area] is because people cannot really be protective of a place that they haven’t seen or experienced,” says Woltjen. “We need constituents who want to conserve the beauty and bounty of the Ozarks. They can’t do that unless they come here and experience it. You can read about it, or look at it on your iPhone. But being here and living it and doing it, that’s the thing.

“I don’t want to see a bunch of clubhouses all over the place. I want to see it pristine—not overrun, but not underrun. It takes a balance.”

Balance. Ultimately, the motivations of the two opposing factions are remarkably similar—both want to see the Buffalo retained in its natural state. Both want to preserve the scenic beauty and wilderness qualities of the Ozark high country. And both want to ensure that visitors to the Lower Buffalo Wilderness find what they’re looking for.

Striking that balance is what the NPS will try to accomplish as it moves forward with its next round of planning. Today, nearly 41 of the 43 authorized miles of Buffalo River OHT have been constructed, and the rest are tentatively slated to be finished by the spring of 2018. What’s more, the NPS intends to produce a new trails-management plan for the Buffalo National River beginning in 2017, and extension of the OHT through the Lower Buffalo will receive consideration, according to Bitting.

“As time wears on, sometimes we have to go back and reconsider decisions that were made and see if it’s time to make a different decision,” he says.

The path to resolution currently remains unclear, but one thing’s for certain: With a place as cherished as the Buffalo River, disagreements over how to manage it are sure to run hot.