National Park Service officials announced Thursday morning that the Buffalo National River had been closed until further notice to help stop the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
The entire park was closed to recreational use, including the Buffalo River, trails, open spaces and campgrounds.
“This emergency closure is for the maintenance of public health and safety and is in direct response to guidance from state and federal health officials,” a statement said. “The health and safety of our visitors, employees, volunteers, communities, and partners is our number one priority.”
In a press briefing Wednesday, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said that 60% of visitors to state parks and the BNR were from out of state. Those visitors could be coming from “hot spots” for the virus outbreak across the country.
In addition, the governor said some people were congregating in large groups against an Arkansas Health Department directive that people should avoid social gatherings with more than 10 people present.
So, Hutchinson said he was recommending to the Department of the Interior that the BNR be closed until the crisis subsides.
The National Park Service (NPS) said it is working service-wide with federal, state and local authorities to closely monitor the COVID-19 pandemic and will lift the closure as soon as possible.
Newton County Sheriff Glenn Wheeler said he and Newton County Judge Warren Campbell had been talking to NPS officials about the problem for several days prior to the closure.
"I really hate to see our river closed, but last weekend was a huge strain on our resources and we encountered problems all day long; both days,” Wheeler said in a statement. “Most of the people we were dealing with were not our typical tourists. The people that come here because they love the Buffalo River and the Ozarks are usually not problems and respect the area and the people. Last weekend, we were seeing more and more people from areas where the coronavirus is rampant just looking for a place to get away from it. Our trailhead parking areas were overrun causing people to park on private property and in county roads. There were disturbances and other issues throughout the day as well.
"I look forward to the day we can welcome tourists back to the river, but for right now, this is a good step in keeping our community healthy and easing the burden on the limited resources we have. I appreciate the governor and the National Park Service listening to our concerns and taking action,” Wheeler concluded.
Buffalo National River Superintendent Mark Foust said, “It breaks my heart to have to close this incredible public park. It is, however, the right thing to do to protect the people that work here, live here, visit here, and love this place. We all have to do what we can to slow and prevent the spread of the virus in and around the park. We believe this will help. I am thankful to the people of Newton, Searcy, Marion, and Baxter Counties, who everyday share the river with us and support visitors from all over the country and the world. I look forward to the time we can all welcome visitors back to the Buffalo, sharing the river and the experiences we all know to be good for our minds and bodies.”
State highways and county roads that run through Buffalo National River will remain accessible to through or residential traffic. Roads that enter and terminate within the park, are closed to all but residential traffic. We will notify the public when we can open the park and will provide updates on our website at www.nps.gov/buff and through social media channels.