NWA EDITORIAL | National Park Service adjusts well after listening to Buffalo River’s outfitters

Park service steers a better course


Floating an idea about changes to the Buffalo River or even property nearby has been known to land people in turbulent waters. Agencies, too.

Back in December, the National Park Service canceled its earlier solicitation for concessionaire proposals after the concessionaires already operating on the river got sideways over limitations it set. The federal agency had some new ideas about how these partners in tourism should operate over the next 10 years. Concessionaires are the people licensed to operate on and around the river with kayak and canoe rentals, land-based shuttle transports and other services.

What would have changed had the agency stuck with its initial request for proposals? According to its Nov. 6 prospectus, outfitters would have been barred from shuttling private vehicles to take-out points along the river. That prohibition would have required outfitters to pick up paddlers en masse at the end of their treks and haul them back to the outfitter's main base of operations, where ostensibly the park service thought all private vehicles would be concentrated.

For those unfamiliar with river floating, it's quite an orchestration for paddlers to make sure they have access to a car or other land transportation once they've traveled down the river. It's possible for a group of paddlers to position vehicles at their take-out point, but the process adds considerable time on logistics when all most folks want is to get on the water as quickly as possible.

For years, paddlers have been able to pay outfitters to help position their private vehicles so that once their float trip is over, the paddlers can hop in their vehicles at their take-out point and depart quickly. Hopping aboard a shuttle back to the outfitter's base could delay that departure for an hour or more. Yet that was the scenario the National Park Service pursued, with a goal of reducing parking issues and traffic congestion at the river's access points.

Not a bad goal, but would this approach achieve it?

The catch is that private individuals would still be able to do as they pleased if they wanted to coordinate multiple vehicles themselves. Experienced concession operators immediately knew the park service's plan stood a good chance of increasing traffic congestion around the river, rather than decreasing it. If left to choose between a delay getting on the river or a delay getting home after a day on the river, a lot of paddlers would choose the former. If outfitters didn't offer shuttling of private vehicles, the traffic situation around the river could get messier, not better.

Before you knew it, one of the state's congressmen was involved. Rep. Bruce Westerman listened to the concerns and -- surprise, surprise -- the National Park Service didn't hesitate to listen to a sitting congressman. As we said in a Dec. 17 editorial, the situation resulted in some definite backpaddling.

Last week, the agency released a new solicitation that appears to go with the flow by effectively leaving the vehicle shuttling opportunities as they have been.

We're glad to see the National Park Service, when faced with reasonable concerns about a proposal that surprised just about everyone, was capable of backing off. And we continue to suggest the agency engage its concessionaires in conversation prior to issuing unexpected edicts. Such conversations likely would have helped avoid the turmoil of the last few months.

The Buffalo National River isn't a massive park like Yellowstone. It seems entirely reasonable that park service officials could have discussions with all 12 concessionaires ahead of time just to gauge any ideas for changes in how the park is managed.

Here's a suggestion: Build a campfire, sit around it and talk. We suspect everyone would understand each other a little better. And it probably wouldn't even require a congressman's involvement.