Memoir: Hillbillies and Black Helicopters

During this week celebrating Earth Day, it’s an apt time to reflect on how oral historians’ methods can have a positive impact on environmental preservation. Excerpted from freelance oral historian Alex Primm’s forthcoming memoir, Ozark Voices: Oral History from the Heartland, this post explores what could have been if we only stopped to listen.

By Alex Primm

“Big Dams are obsolete. They’re uncool. They’re undemocratic. They’re a government’s way of accumulating authority…” — Arundhati Roy “The Greater Common Good,” in The Cost of Living, 1999.

My list of uncool jobs includes climbing rickety ladders for a roofing crew and late nights loading semis for Roadway Express. My most unprecedented and undemocratic gig involved a freelance job that sank before it started. I can’t forget this opportunity because it could have been game changing for the Ozarks and myself. A great possibility that almost made it.The Ozark National Scenic Riverways once considered establishing a Biosphere Reserve in Arkansas and Missouri. The United States has only 47 of these sites, all in cool, unique regions.

The proposal was to develop the biosphere program then sponsor increased scientific research on the two national rivers in Arkansas and Missouri. I liked the idea behind this United Nations-inspired program because a secondary purpose was supporting traditional agriculture. I felt it might fit within the cultural traditions of the Ozarks. Earlier oral history work I did on the Current River involved collecting opinions, so I felt good about gathering information from local people. I knew I could develop the necessary rapport with elected officials and others.

This is what I proposed as a freelancer and what happened.

Once impoverished, now a booming home base for the Wal-Mart Corporation, the Ozarks occupies a unique niche at the confluence of the Midwest, the South and the West. The French were our earliest settlers and still refer to this region as “l’Amerique profound,” which suggests the region’s complex cultural heritage. Curtis Marbut, founder of the U.S. Soil Survey in the 1920s, grew up here and observed how progressive, market-oriented agriculturalists bypassed the Ozarks for better, less rocky ground in Kansas or Iowa.

The Scotch-Irish arrived in the early 19th century. They were herdsmen who thrived on hills similar to Appalachia where many of their ancestors had settled after leaving Ulster. David Hackett Fisher’s Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America follows linguistic patterns in what he and others call southern ‘backcountry’ settlement. In the early 20th century these people were dubbed ‘hillbillies’ in joke and scorn. Now the name is used with pride. After 40 years of various oral history projects in the Ozarks, I appreciate how dominant and complex this backcountry heritage remains.

Rivers, streams, and rocky hills are notable natural features still. Even before the Great Depression, hydroelectric projects were developed along the White River which snakes back and forth across Arkansas and Missouri. Yet our region does not have quite as many impoundments as the southern Appalachians’ Tennessee Valley region or the Southwest in general.

Disputes over federal water policy led to the creation of two early Ozark national public riverways: 150 miles of the Buffalo River in northern Arkansas became a national park in March 1972; and earlier, in 1964, the Ozark National Scenic Riverways (ONSR) was established encompassing long sections of the Current and Jacks Fork rivers in south-central Missouri. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had designated all of these streams for multiple impoundments. Regional opposition to dams led to the creation of these popular riparian parks instead.

From their beginnings however, these national parks along rivers presented challenges. The great Ozark author and angler Harry Middleton floated the Buffalo River in 1985 with Neil Compton, an Arkansas physician who founded the Ozark Society to protect the river. “The trick is to learn to enjoy the river without abusing or harming it,” Dr. Compton said about the Buffalo in Southern Living (August 1986; pg. 88). Striking a balance between responsible public use and resource preservation lies at the heart of continuing debates about these rivers’ future.

Cultural rights and traditional uses of these Ozark rivers have presented political issues to legislators from the early days. For example, both trapping and hunting are allowed in the ONSR; few other national parks permit such activities. But some traditional uses had to be limited to accommodate thousands of typically urban visitors on river floats. This meant converting scores of farms to wilderness and some eminent domain takings to create campgrounds. Regulations limited outboard motors, and fewer country gravel roads provided river access, changes unpopular among local residents. Gradually federal park administrators and locals have reached wary accommodations in part due to new revenue from tourism.

In 1989, a new proposal tested this uneasy understanding. A committee of U.S. National Park Service, Forest Service, and state conservation administrators decided to determine if the United Nations’ Man in the Biosphere (MAB) Programme might work in the Ozarks. These administrators were attracted to the U.N. program in part because it offered a framework for increased scientific research as well as support for traditional, sustainable agriculture outside the core park regions. The Buffalo and the ONSR have similar riparian ecosystems and surrounding hill-based farming. The Ozarks produces most of the calves that eventually end up populating smelly Western feedlot operations. 

Because I curated an agriculture museum and completed an oral history of 20th century farming’s impacts on the Current River, I became interested in MAB. For years, local people complained that the rivers were “filling up with gravel.” Oral history was one tool geomorphologists used to examine this problem. Changing Ozark land use is best recorded through the region’s collective memory. I appreciated local residents’ strong feelings for the importance of rivers in their lives.

A relatively unknown cultural and environmental conservation program, MAB created as of 1989 440 Biosphere Reserves in 98 countries. (As of 2020, 124 nations have created 701 biosphere reserve projects.)  No new reserves have been created in the United States since 1991.

Talking with Department of Interior land managers, I could see the potential benefits of the program.  In 1988, I applied for an advertised position to conduct a public opinion survey on an Ozark biosphere reserve. My approach was to interview regional public officials and opinion leaders as well as inform interested citizens via local newspapers, meetings, and a short video, “Treehouse, an Ozark Story” produced with Tom Shipley. Half of the ‘70s folk rock duo “Brewer and Shipley,” Tom is famous for the theme song ‘One Toke Over the Line’ in the film version of Fear and Loathing in Los Vegas. The MAB application was a lot of bureaucratic paperwork. The person who won the contract took a more traditional approach of focusing mainly on opinion leaders and promoting little public information. No video, of course, as to not rile up the locals.


This approach did not work, to say the least. What the regional MAB committee feared might happen did happen. The whole thing blew up. Long established networks of local people mistrustful of government programs in general heard of a “potential U.N. program” and fanned public fears with innuendo and half-truths. Public meetings were called to castigate federal and state bureaucrats. Some claimed U.N. “black helicopters” would transport noncompliant landowners to secret concentration camps. To put it simply, the MAB proposal created bad vibes that endure.  A year or two after MAB was dropped, a Missouri effort to lessen duplication of federal programs, Coordinated Resource Management, met a similar fate for our conservation efforts. Again, tales spread of black helicopters carrying off private property defenders courtesy of the state Department of Conservation, a.k.a. the pesky game wardens. More recently, a landscape-scale restoration project in the Ozarks developed by a prominent NGO, The Nature Conservancy, had similar problems in regional public opinion. Again, more right-wing paranoia.

“They never tried to build support for the project,” seems the view of sympathetic conservationists on the short history of the Ozark MAB. The proposal appeared to be “a harmless bureaucratic idea a committee was trying to sneak under the radar, and because no one really knew what a biosphere was, no one saw any need to support it.” Doomed from the start, MAB was never explained, and ultimately helped fan latent Ozark xenophobia, which probably lurks in our Celtic DNA. 

This was also the conclusion of a 1998 University of Missouri study on the proposed Ozark Highlands biosphere reserve. Carried out by Theresa Goedeke and Sandy Rikoon, their 100-page study concluded that neither Arkansas nor Missouri officials at any level of government developed interest or support for the MAB project. 

Failure to understand the culture of the Ozarks has a long tradition. In the 1830s, one Eastern settler commented on his frustration hiring local people: “I had always paid them as soon as the work was done, and I knew all they had to live on was daily wages, for they had not a foot of ground under cultivation nor a cow or pig or chicken. At last the man said, “No, we can’t go today, it will storm by three o’clock.” And they all walked back to the fire, and the old man took up his fiddle and began playing ‘The Arkansas Traveler’ and as far as I could hear, that old fiddle was just raking out the music.”

Theodore Pease Russell’s memoir suggests persistent perceptions of Ozarkers as lazy and unreliable.

The cultural divide between tradition-oriented groups and modernizers remains wide.  Over time, the importance of private property rights and hunting to local people have added to these differences. Hunting and gun ownership remain important local rituals which outsiders have difficulty appreciating culturally or emotionally. The importance of the clan-based structure for Scotch-Irish families has been well documented.

Will a public agency in the United States ever again attempt to establish a biosphere reserve? The current political climate and budget shortfalls suggest that it may not happen soon. However, perhaps a significant segment of the public could demand such land-use management if these projects can be shown to offer great public benefit. Fewer than a dozen state and federal officials made up the committee led by the ONSR in 1989; broad representation of many local officials would be necessary for future success.

Maybe we’ll elect some environmentally responsive local officials before the Ozarks burns up like the West Coast. They say it can’t happen here because crown fires are rare in deciduous forests, but I am truly spooked by what increasing global temperatures might mean for us. I lived through the infamous 2009 Ozark derecho and don’t look forward to another climate catastrophe. Neither does Joplin, Missouri, blown away in another mega storm typical of climate change.

I wonder if part of the reason I didn’t get this job was basic confusion about what a biosphere is. After all, isn’t there the futuristic Biosphere 2 out in the Arizona desert? Is the whole biosphere concept just too far out for the Ozarks?

Probably also, I didn’t win this job because my credentials weren’t quite right. This is a problem all freelancers face. I learned over the years to apply for lots of possible positions and accept I will not win them all. The Ozark Highlands MAB sounded exceptional as a way to inspire research on our two states’ national rivers. I just wish I had been a little more aggressive in applying for the job.  It was won by the typical milquetoast approach. The Ozark Highlands MAB could have inspired new protection for Ozark traditions along our rivers. Now research in our National Parks remains minuscule. It shouldn’t be.

Biospheres are growing elsewhere.  It takes a while for these new agreements and purposes to be worked out.  For example, it took six years for the Frontenac Arch Biosphere Network in Ontario, Canada, and the Champlain-Adirondack Biosphere Network in New York state and Vermont to develop an agreement. These two biospheres are united by geography and close ties in the Great Lakes and St Lawrence River watersheds.

Could concern about increased environmental degradation and global climate change result in support for programs such as biosphere reserves? In my oral history interviews with Ozarkers, some have shown concern for less land available for hunting due to urbanites buying property and not allowing local uses to continue. Thus private property rights can “hollow out” traditional rights, a loss that long-time residents of this region rightly interpret as rural gentrification.

To be effective, a campaign for community conservation must show it respects local knowledge. Ozark people can determine who benefits in the long run from public projects and know their hesitation is often justified. More public discussion can result in change that local people understand and accept. Cultural rights, paired with respect for local heritage, forms a viable historic continuity. 

Diverse users of our natural resources should be able to agree on some common ground for a shared, sustainable future of land, river and community. We all have to live here together; can’t we respect one another? Could the failed Ozark biosphere reserve be just a misstep toward eventually realizing the full benefits of protecting sensitive rivers and wildlife? 


Alex Primm has been a freelance oral historian since the 1980s carrying out projects for the US Army, Forest Service, Geological Survey and other contractors in the Ozarks. He has also worked in the Arkansas and Missouri Artist in the School programs and presented storytelling theater in the region based on the life of Stub Borders, a river rafter from a century ago.
His memoir Ozark Voices: Oral History from the Heartland is scheduled from McFarland Co. in autumn 2021. It contains excerpts from diverse oral histories, reflections on teaching research methods at Hebei University of Science and Technology in Shijiazhuang, China, and comments on the changing nature of our field.

Featured image: Grand Glaize Bridge, Spanning Lake of Ozarks at U.S. Route 54, Osage Beach, Camden County, MO, Historic American Engineering Record, Library of Congress.