|Vol. VIII, No. 4, 1995|
by Julie Bloodworth
Several times a month, Marti Olesen drives the twenty miles from her home in Ponca, Arkansas to Jasper, the county seat of Newton County. There, in a storefront building not far from the banks of a gentle tributary of the Buffalo River, she meets with some of her neighbors. They all share an interest in preserving the wild beauty of their county and the Buffalo River, while at the same time aiding the local economy. Marti is one of almost twenty Newton county residents who guide Ecotours for the Newton County Resource Council (NCRC), a locally organized nonprofit organization.
Twice a year, fall and spring, she leads a small group of outdoor enthusiasts along the bluffs overlooking the Buffalo River. The five-mile hike offers the group, never more than twelve members, something more than they might receive on a traditional hiking tour. Primed with selections from Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and other nature writers, the participants not only hike an increasingly rare area of American wilderness, but discuss its value in the American experience as they go. Marti, herself a nature writer, often comes away from these tours with ideas for her own poetry.
Other recent Ecotours have provided outdoor experiences for walkers at almost every level of physical fitness. One, "Buffalo River Past and Present," was an easy three-mile stroll along the Buffalo River. It included stops at the Parker-Hickman farmstead, the oldest preserved homestead on the fiver, and at Cherry Grove Cemetery, final resting place for several of Newton County's pioneers. A new fall offering, "Power Walk Along the Buffalo," was a strenuous 9-1/2 mile hike recommended for "only the strong of heart and those accustomed to extended fast-pace walking." Other tours included "Women in Nature," "Walk on the Wild Side," and "Mules, Crosscut Saws, and Fields of Corn and Sorghum."
Since the Ecotourism Project began in 1993, over 450 people have paid from $10.00 to $100.00 each to participate in the ecotours and related workshops. Money earned from the project is used locally to combat the poverty that ranks Newton County last among the 75 Arkansas counties in average income. Some tour guides are low income residents themselves and benefit directly from the guide's fee of $75.00 to $100.00 a tour. County businesspeople profit because Ecotour participants spend an average of $58.00 each on lodging, food, services, and crafts during their stays in Newton County. In addition, NCRC makes a yearly donation directly to the county to strengthen its infrastructure.
The Ecotourism Project is overseen by NCRC Administrative Director Fay Knox, an unprepossessing woman who describes herself as "a college dropout who could never figure out what she wanted to be in life." But as she talks about her job, her passion and enthusiasm for NCRC and its projects are obvious.
Fay's personal goals dovetail with NCRC's mission: "To help improve the quality of life in Newton County while preserving and enhancing the county's traditions, values, and natural resources." The breathtaking beauty and rustic peacefulness of Newton County explain why many of its citizens, like Fay and Marti, display a tenacious devotion to living there. Newton County demands tenacity. It is composed of sparsely populated, rural communities. To conduct day-to-day business, its residents must brave miles of narrow, often treacherous, roads, occasionally impassable in bad weather. More than half the county's work force must travel outside Newton County to find employment.
Most daunting, however, is the poverty rate in the county. Newton County residents earn only 60 percent of the national average per capita income. The federal government manages 59 percent of the county as the Buffalo National River and the Ozark National Forest. While the Forest Service makes a contribution to the county in lieu of taxes, the Park Service was required to pay county taxes for only five years after it took over the land in 1972. The very government entities that have helped to preserve Newton County's pristine charm have eroded its local tax base. Those who depend on that tax base for their livelihoods find themselves struggling to make a living.
In accordance with its mission, NCRC determined to battle the poverty. It enlisted the aid of VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America). In October 1991, members of the VISTA project for community economic development conducted studies to find out how best to use the county's resources to provide jobs for local residents. The results of these studies pointed to ecotourism, which is defined simply as responsible travel to natural areas that preserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.
By October of 1993, volunteers had formed an ecotourism task force, and designed four prototype tours: "Outlaw Gangs in Legend and Facts," led by local historian Lou Kilgore; Marti Olesen's nature writers' hike, now called "Walk on the Wild Side"; a tour focusing on botany led by naturalist Kent Bonar; and an all-ages tour through lost Valley led by educators Steve and Tam Keltner. All the original guides are still active in the Ecotourism Project, and the numbers of participants have grown steadily. Popular spring tours began in March with a hike along a new section of the Buffalo River Trail between Ponca and Boxley. They ended in July with an introduction to caving. Last spring, 213 people signed up for ecotours, more than double the number of visitors the previous autumn. Each ecotour season brings another increase in visitors to Newton County.
According to Fay Knox, participants come from all over the country, but primarily from Northwest Arkansas, the Little Rock area, and from in and around Springfield, Missouri. Visitors are, of course, drawn to the county's untamed beauty. In fact, Newton County's 52,000 acres of wilderness make up more than one-third of all the wilderness in Arkansas. Tour guides lead their groups through this wilderness to natural sights with fanciful, evocative names: Goat's Bluff, Pedestal Rocks, Hemmed-In Hollow, Jigsaw Blocks, Long Devil's Fork. In the spring, hikers will likely pass by lady slippers and redbuds in bloom. If they're lucky, they'll see elk, up to thirty at a time, roaming the area. Northwest Arkansas boasts the only elk herd in the central United States, brought there in the early 1980s by the Arkansas Fish and Game Department. In fall, the autumn colors of maple, oak and hickory seem to set the hills on fire. Hearty, independent hikers who set out in the winter discover that the bluffs, largly stripped of green, appear primitive, the hills solemn and dignifified without their frivolous groundcover and wildflowers.
Marti and Fay, like all those involved in the Ecotourism Project, are committed to protecting these sights from any negative effects of tourism. Between tourist seasons, teams of trained monitors, made up both of guides and other interested community members, evaluate the ecotour sites. They document incidents of vandalism, waste, and erosion; record areas where detours are necessary, and note sensitive plant and animal communities and habitat. Results of these trips are given to ecotour guests and are kept in the Visitor's Center.
The Newton County Resource Council doesn't have to look hard to find qualified guides willing to take on the duties involved in ecotourism. Those interested in leading tours work closely with Fay and Jack Seamon, Director of Tour Development for NCRC. Jack is a gifted nature interpreter, Fay says, who uses hands-on experience in nature, rather than classroom lectures, as a teaching tool. All guides speak of "teachable moments" that occur when people and place interact. A chance encounter with an elk along the trail provides such a teachable moment-an opportunity for the guide to discuss the unique offerings of Newton County without being confined to a scripted lecture. Guides believe strongly in stewardship of the land and take seriously their responsibility to preserve the natural resources along the Buffalo River for future generations.
Some guides, like Eugene Villines, trace their connections to the Buffalo River back over 150 years. Eugene's ancestors settled along the river in the 1840s, and he now leads strenuous hikes over the same rugged terrain they once traversed. His cousin Lester also leads tours and is a natural storyteller who shares stories about daily life when his ancestors first worked the formidable Newton County land. The Villines name has been common in Newton County for almost two centuries. Other Newton County citizens, like Marti Olesen, are fairly recent transplants. She and her husband Larry came from Missouri and Minnesota, respectively, to make their home by the headwaters of the Buffalo. Last fall, Larry offered a new ecotour, a guided canoe trip along the Buffalo.
The tours are constantly changing as guides respond to the requests of their guests. Ecotour guides even design custom tours, accommodating everyone from family reunion groups to church ladies looking for an outdoor excursion.
As the guides prepare for the spring season, they are building on the successes of previous years. No longer relying almost solely on word of mouth for their promotion, Ecotours are now being advertised in Travel Weekly, a national travel magazine, and through the state-wide tourism agency. Participants in the Ecotourism Project are united in a common goal: to champion and protect the natural treasures of their county for years to come.
On Highway 43, headed south to Ponca, Arkansas, I roll down the car windows and turn off the air conditioner, even on a scorching morning in late August. The road is canopied with tree branches, so the drive is a shady, pleasant journey through some of the most stunning scenery the Arkansas Ozarks has to offer: high stone bluffs, savage-looking rock escarpments, roadside stands of oak and hickory. Up and down along the serpentine two-lane highway, I drive through the small town of Compton and pass by Plumlee and Possum Trot before descending a final, gear-busting hill and gliding into Ponca, Arkansas, population 37.
I am visiting my high school friend, Marti Olesen, one of Ponca's residents. Marti, her husband Larry, and their five-year-old daughter, Nonah, live right off the highway in the heart of Ponca. My instructions are to turn immediately after passing the mill pond on the left side of the road. Here, Ponca Creek and Adds Creek meet to form Adds Creek Pond. The combined creeks then flow through Ponca to join the Buffalo River at the low water bridge on the edge of town. I follow directions and turn right up a steep and rocky driveway. The Olesens' rambling, eclectic country house is loudly guarded by three large dogs, none of which turn out to be particularly fierce. The general store owned by the family is right across the street. Area visitors have been known to knock on the Olesens' door late at night, begging to be allowed to buy a pack of cigarettes, some diapers, a quart of milk for cereal the next morning. There are no Seven-Elevens in Ponca.
Here's what is in Ponca: a tiny post office, the general store, two canoe concessions, and the homes of Ponca's citizens. Folks who live in Ponca have to leave town to eat out. They go to cafes in Jasper or Kingston or to fast-food chains in Harrison. If they stay in town, they may pick up their sandwich fixings at the general store and picnic around the low-water bridge, entertainment graciously provided by grazing elk nearby. They may walk along the Lost Valley Trail just outside town, renowned as a superb hiking trail long before it was federalized as part of the Buffalo National Riven There, they may eat their lunches outside Cob Cave, serenaded by the cascading Eden Falls. Further up the hillside is yet another waterfall, this one spilling over a ledge near the ceiling of a small cave and gushing out into the gorge. Another popular picnic spot, The Steele Creek area just be-yond the town's border, offers breathtaking views of the Buffalo and the bluffs that rise beside it.
It's my first visit to Newton County, and Marti is anxious to show off its allures. She first discovered them for herself on a vacation trip with a friend nearly a decade ago. Enchanted with the region, she returned often and made plans to move to the area from Springfield, Missouri, where she was teaching in a program for gifted and talented children. Her long-term plans were sped up when she met Larry Olesen, who was working as a "boat ape," handling canoes and equipment for visitors putting in at the Buffalo River in Ponca. His family owned the cabin where Marti stayed. She married Larry in 1989 and moved to Ponca. Although she stays busy as a librarian in the Harrison school district, she sometimes helps in the family business, Lost Valley Canoe and Lodging. The business includes the general store, three rental cabins, a bunkhouse, a campground, and a bathroom with public showers for campers. Marti takes me on a tour of Ponca. The general store features cold drinks and postcards, lunchmeats and T-shirts, and jewelry handmade by a local teenager. Outside, twin gas pumps stand sentry. Along a craggy, wooded driveway, Lost Valley's rental cabins are almost hidden behind an overgrowth of trees and bushes. Although I'd like to look inside, the cabins are full of visitors. I promise to come back and stay in the cabin with the Jacuzzi sometime soon. At the low-water bridge, Marti and I stop briefly to look at the Buffalo River, barely a trickle after the hot, dry summer. Depending on rainfall, Marti tells me, the canoe season generally begins in March. By July 4, canoeing is usually over. But the Olesens' cabins remain busy year round because Ponca is the gateway to some of the best hiking trails in the state. An avid hiker herself, Marti believes the best hiking is in the winter when the leaves are off the trees and the spectacular views from the hillside are unobstructed.
After a visit to Jasper, we again clamber into Marti's pick-up, newly repaired after an accidental run-in with a deer. On the drive back to Ponca, climbing up to Mount Sherman, Marti turns off the truck's air conditioner so the engine will have the power to pull the vehicle up the steep hill. Again, the trees on the roadside provide shade enough for a comfortable ride. Marti glances out her window. She smiles. "I love it here," she says. "I have no desire to live anywhere else." --Julie Bloodworth
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