Monday, March 14, 2016

Trail Builders 3/7/2016

When we built that trail at what is now Buffalo Point in the national river it was then a state park. Naturalists John Green and Randy Johnson wrote the material in this guide book, and one of our naturalists, Kent Bonar, did all the artwork. He was a great artist, only about19 years old at the time. Kent was very eccentric, and today in his mid sixties he lives alone in the national forests of Arkansas in old shacks and caves here and there like an old mountain man of the early 1800's. His knowledge of nature is remarkable, but he avoids people. What a talent he had!  The self-guiding trail book sold at our nature center for 25 cents and the state park system printed about 500 of them for a bout 15 cents each…wish you could see the whole book. Today it is areal collectors item.

         A visit to the Joplin Nature Center last week caused me to recall a part of my life from years back.  I was there speaking to a group of ladies who invited me for a luncheon and I went with a great deal of trepidation. Women can be dangerous! But we had a great time and I intend to take the whole bunch of them on our next trip to the wilderness area on Truman Lake, where we will have a fish fry and do some hiking.

         If you are a hiker, and have visited parks on the Buffalo River or in the Arkansas State Park System, you have likely taken a hike on a trail I planned and laid out, or added to.  It goes back to a time when I was in my early twenties.  Arkansas State Parks had hired a young man from Texas as the new director. His name was Buddy Surles, and I think he was only a few years older than me.  He was an amazing man whom I hold tremendous respect for.  I never saw him make decisions there that were for any reason other than the betterment of the state’s park-visitors. 

         Just out of college, I told him I wanted to work as a naturalist, and he actually knew what a naturalist was. Few people did back then.  It was January, and he told me if I could hang around for only a few months, he would make me the state’s first Chief Naturalist.  
         I got a job that month as Outdoor Editor for the Arkansas Democrat Newspaper and sure enough, Buddy called me in August to offer me that newly created job.  He told me I could keep writing my weekly outdoor column for the Democrat, and he’d give me an office in the basement of the capitol building where I could work to layout a new program, consisting of finding and hiring
summer naturalists for six state parks, planning nature centers, creating amphitheatres and building trails. I had to pinch myself.  I thought that at the age of 24 years old I had died and went to heaven.

         I didn’t spend much time in that office.  Buddy gave me a state vehicle, and told me to go out and see what I could do with those six parks, one of
-->which became known as Buffalo Point, now a part of the National Park System.  It was my favorite, since I had grown up on an Ozark river.  After a couple of weeks, he called me into his office and asked for my opinions.

        One of the things I told him about was an old road at Buffalo State Park going down to one of the most spectacular little creek valleys and a huge cave used centuries before by Ozark bluff-dwellers. Local people were ruining it by driving in, having beer parties and camping out, scattering litter, burning, chopping down trees, creating tire ruts and erosion.  Graffiti was everywhere. I told Buddy what I had seen there and I told him the road should be closed for good, and an expansive trail system should be built into the cave and valley west of the road, coming out to the east of it. To this day I still can’t believe what happened. 

         Buddy called the park superintendent and told him to barricade the road and make it impassable.  I laid out the trail the next month, and many folks from nearby Yellville were up in arms because of what I had done.  In the local newspaper, the owner of Baker Real Estate agency was quoted saying that folks might see the Buffalo River polluted with one state park naturalist.  The threats got bad! I carried a pistol for a while when I went there to work.

         I visited the site last year and the trail is there exactly as we built it, used by thousands of people now.  You cannot tell where that road was!  There is no litter or graffiti at the cave!  It looks today as it might have looked a thousand years ago.  That winter, with the help of other naturalists I had hired, we built other trails, one across the river from the park, still being used today. Park Service personnel today have no idea how those trails came about, or who planned and built the amphitheater today’s NPS rangers use for interpretive programs.
         Eventually I hired several more naturalists and they were some of the best I have ever known. We built trails in Arkansas State Parks for the next three years, and nature centers and amphitheatres.  At Devils Den Park, a tornado downed some big oaks and I told Buddy we could use them to make amphitheatre benches at perhaps three or four parks.  He got in contact with the superintendent there, had the oak logs split in half and cut in 40-inch sections, then had them delivered to the parks where our crew assembled them.   
        You have never seen so much done so economically! In time the benches were replaced, but the amphitheatres are still there and they are still being used today, even though Arkansas’ park naturalist program is a fraction of what it once was.  The name ‘naturalist’ has now been replaced by the term ‘interpreter’.

         At the Joplin Nature Center the Missouri Department of Conservation had a flier taped up on doors telling how the December floods had damaged the little nature trail there. They said that it would take fifty thousand dollars to fix it and the MDC’s operating budget is only in the neighborhood of 200 million a year.

         So I make this offer to them.  Give me ten thousand dollars and I will hire some of my old crew and we will rebuild your trail better than it ever has been before.  You cannot hire anyone who has built more miles of hiking trails.  I make this offer in all seriousness, and the MDC ought to take me up on it.  But they won’t.  

         Getting fifty thousand from today’s public is a great idea because, believe me, it isn’t going to take a fraction of that to make that trail much better than it was.  Some contractor will get the job without bids, and he’ll pocket a bundle. He might even be related to a commissioner, or a local politician, as so often happens.

         They ought to give me the job.  Heck, for fifty thousand I could build a trail from Jefferson City to Arkansas! For that money I’d even make them a couple of good wooden johnboats for hikers to use to cross the Gasconade!

         I hope you get to see some of those old trails still in use on the Buffalo River and at Petit Jean Park and Devils Den and many other Arkansas state parks. The names of the young men who worked so hard to make them last for more than forty years…  Dennis Whiteside, John Green, Randy Johnson, Mike Widner, Lonnie Smith, Ray Hedrick, Tommy Cheatham, Mike Cummings and Kent Bonar.   The Arkansas State Park system should name some of those trails after them, because they accomplished so much.

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