A bill that would rename a gathering spot on the Buffalo National River has been introduced by U.S. Rep. French Hill of Little Rock. Under the legislation, the Tyler Bend Visitors Center in St. Joe would become the Dr. Neil Compton Visitors Center, according to an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette report.
As a Bentonville doctor, Neil Compton helped deliver a multitude of Arkansas babies. As a conservationist, he helped give birth to the country’s first national river.
Now, more than two decades after his death, members of the state’s all-Republican congressional delegation want to rename the visitors center.
U.S. Reps. Bruce Westerman of Hot Springs, Steve Womack of Rogers and Rick Crawford are co-sponsors.
In addition to the name change, the bill authorizes the secretary of the interior to “display information” at the site “to educate the public about the contributions of Dr. Neil Compton to the history of the Buffalo National River.”
Next year marks the 50th anniversary of the creation of the nation’s first national river.
The unharnessed, 153-mile, free-flowing stream begins in the Boston Mountains, just inside Westerman’s district, cuts across Womack’s territory, then empties into the White River in Baxter County, which Crawford represents.
A proposal by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to place two dams on the Buffalo unleashed a more than decade-long battle between supporters and opponents of the project.
Compton, a Benton County native and an enthusiastic outdoorsman, was one of the first to join the fight and, in 1962, he helped launch the Ozark Society, serving as its founding president.
The organization played a key role in mobilizing preservationists.
The debate ultimately pitted key Democratic leaders against each other, with U.S. Rep. James William Trimble in favor of development and Gov. Orval Faubus ultimately opposed.
Trimble, a native of Carroll County, portrayed the dams as instruments of progress. Faubus, a native of Madison County, sided with preservationists, calling the Buffalo River “one of the greatest examples of the majesty of God’s creation.”
“The beauty of the region,” Faubus wrote, “cannot be adequately described in any of the many languages of man.”
Outsiders also weighed in, including U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, who floated down the river and urged its preservation.
After years of skirmishes, Trimble’s loss, in 1966, to John Paul Hammerschmidt helped turn the tide.
The Republican upstart would go on to sponsor legislation bestowing national river status on the Buffalo.
It was a bipartisan effort: Democratic Sens. J. William Fulbright and John L. McClellan championed the concept, successfully shepherding it through the Senate.
After President Richard Nixon signed legislation in 1972 creating the national river, the Ozark Society continued its efforts to safeguard the state’s natural wonders.
The work continues to this day.
Compton, who died in 1999, would eventually write “The Battle for the Buffalo River: The Story of America’s First National River.”
Hill, who once hiked in the upper Buffalo with Compton, said he had been brainstorming with his House colleagues and with National Park officials about how to commemorate the national river’s golden anniversary.
“I could think of no more fitting manner than to recognize Neil Compton for his lifetime of work,” Hill says.
Having Westerman’s backing is notable, he says. The bill has been referred to the House Natural Resources Committee, where Westerman serves as ranking member.
Hill takes a personal interest in the river, even though it lies just outside his district’s boundaries.
“The Buffalo is like a family member to me; it’s my earliest memory of outdoor exploration and adventure, both on the river and on the trails around the river,” he says. “It is a crown jewel of the national park system, and I’m so pleased that all my colleagues in the House are original co-sponsors of this legislation.”
In a statement, Womack says he hopes the legislation is successful.
“To have Dr. Compton’s name adorn the visitor center that overlooks the land he loved and hiked is a tribute that reflects his enduring legacy,” he says.