“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul,” once wrote naturalist John Muir. This thinking became the drive behind efforts to preserve the natural beauty of Arkansas. One of the most important figures in that effort was Dr. Neil Compton, who led the effort to preserve the Buffalo River in the 1960s and 1970s.
Neil Ernest Compton was born in rural Benton County in 1912. He attended the small schools dotting the county before graduating Bentonville High School in 1931. Like many native Arkansans, he had a lifelong love of the scenic beauty of the state. He spent many days on long hikes and canoe trips across northern Arkansas. He shared some of these adventures with his lifelong friend and future wife, Laurene Putman.
Compton attended the nearby University of Arkansas, graduating with degrees in geography and zoology in 1935. He then went to Little Rock with his new wife and enrolled at the University of Arkansas School of Medicine, earning his medical degree in 1939. After completing an internship, he took a position with the State Board of Health in 1940. Compton served in the navy medical corps during World War II. From 1942 until 1946, he served at a variety of posts across the South Pacific.
After the war, he returned to Northwest Arkansas, where he enjoyed a career as a respected obstetrician. As always, the river and the wilderness was always a part of his life.
By the early 1960s, the federal government was planning to build two hydroelectric dams on the Buffalo River. The plan, however, meant that the river basin would be flooded, and the unique scenery would be lost and the course of the river would be forever altered. Compton was one of many Arkansans upset at the prospect and believed whatever economic gains the dams would create could not match the loss of the river as it was.
The Buffalo River itself is a relatively short river. It originates in the Boston Mountains in Newton County, winds its way northward into Madison County and then runs toward Baxter County where it empties into the White River, for a total of just over 150 miles. It flows through very heavily forested and hilly areas, with tall, rock walls lining its path along portions of the way. The awe-inspiring scenery has made it a favorite among hikers, sportsmen, and canoers for generations. The Buffalo River State Park opened in 1938, began attracting thousands of visitors each year, including Compton.
Compton stepped up with his opposition to the plan, rapidly gaining support from area residents. In 1962, he was elected president of the Ozark Committee to Save the Buffalo River. For the next fourteen years as president, preserving the river became his special passion. However, he found himself at odds with the area congressman, James Trimble, and a number of powerful businessmen. Nevertheless, he pressed the case for preserving the Buffalo River to whomever would listen, from private citizens to legislators and powerful members of the federal government.
In 1966, Lost Valley State Park was opened as an effort to protect additional parts of the river, but Compton insisted that any damming would still imperil the river. The continuing controversy over the Buffalo River, in addition to national issues playing out that year, played a role in Trimble’s eventual defeat.
The efforts of Compton reached the state’s congressional delegation. In 1967, the area’s new congressman, John Paul Hammerschmidt, teamed up with the state’s two veteran senators, John McClellan and J. William Fulbright, to introduce legislation to make the river a protected historic site. The legislation finally passed in 1972, making the Buffalo River the nation’s first national river, one fully protected by the federal government.
Compton was widely honored for his work across the nation for these efforts in the late 1960s and into the 1970s. In 1987, he was made an honorary park ranger.
He had continued to serve in the naval reserves until his retirement in 1972. He wrote two books on his experiences in his later years. In 1982, he published The High Ozarks. This was followed with The Fight for the Buffalo River in 1992. Compton died in 1999 at age 86.
In recent years, concerns about waste runoff from nearby hog farms into the river has greatly concerned conservationists. Many fear that this runoff could contaminate the river, damaging wildlife and the river’s scenic appeal. Toxic algae has increased in the river because of the farm runoff, endangering river life. This continues to generate great controversy across the state. In the meantime, the National Park Service estimates about 800,000 people visit the park each year, providing a valuable economic component to the area as well as an invaluable source of natural beauty for the Natural State.