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We lost. The Clarendon Bridge is coming down, starting Monday.

If anyone knows President Trump, contact him and ask him please to overrule the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and tell them to stop the demolition and removal of the abandoned 2¼-mile highway through the White and Cache River National Refuges and the Clarendon Bridge over the White River.

The advocate of the bridge's demolition has been the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a part of the Department of Interior. The agency plans to take the area back to its original topography and vegetation before the bridge was built in 1931. While we understand its position, we disagree.

The bridge is on the National Register of Historic Places, also a part of the Department of Interior. We tried to convince the department to work out a compromise both to save the historic bridge and to preserve the natural setting of the bridge in the refuges. We failed.

We wanted to save the bridge aesthetically. It is a last remnant of Arkansas' architectural and engineering heritage from the early 20th century--it was built with mules led by muleskinners (mule-drivers), a profession no longer in existence. Its beauty is sublime as one looks down from the bridge on the canopy of the trees in the 550,000-acre Big Woods.

However, our primary motivation was to use the bridge as an anchor to attract cyclists and tourists who would have brought new money and created new jobs for the region. Other than agriculture, hunting and fishing, the area has been in economic decline since World War II. The area has no other significant opportunities on the horizon.

If we had saved the bridge, it would have attracted 15,000 to 20,000 tourists the first year. We have seen bicycle tourism's extraordinary impact in Northwest Arkansas, the Big Dam Bridge in Little Rock, and the Harahan Cycling Bridge across the Mississippi in Memphis. Already, over 400,000 cyclists have ridden over the Harahan into West Memphis.

Opening the Clarendon bridge to tourism was the best option for new, high-quality jobs in Monroe and surrounding counties. That option is now about to be demolished and hauled away.

In addition to the Fish and Wildlife Service, there were other opponents to saving the bridge. When the deputy assistant secretary of Interior came from Washington, D.C., in October 2017 to investigate saving the bridge, she met with us in Clarendon, and we made our case for saving the bridge. Staff members of several of our congressional delegation were in attendance. After our meeting, the secretary attended another meeting in Brinkley with opponents of saving the bridge. We asked to attend and were told it was a closed meeting, we could not attend, and the opponents' names could not be disclosed. When I asked to know the reason for their opposition, it was "private," I was told.

So we could not know why these unknown people opposed saving the bridge? Why was it a secret? That secrecy left a sour taste. This is Arkansas, after all.

So we have lost. The bridge is coming down.

Many people helped us in our fight: The Adventure Cycling Association in Missoula, Mont. (and its 55,000 members), who helped us plan to manage the influx of cyclists if we saved the bridge. State Senators Mark Johnson, Breanne Davis and Jonathan Dismang for urging the state Highway Commission to ask the Fish and Wildlife Service to do a new compatibility study. The highway commissioners for asking for a new compatibility study: Tom Schueck, Robert S. Moore Jr., Alec Farmer, Philip Taldo, and Keith Gibson.

The board members of the Friends of the Historic White River Bridge at Clarendon: Connie De Priest, Susan Caplener, Sandra Kemmer, Gary Padgett, Hollis Foster, Sheriff Mike Neal, and the Burton Family--Burt, Johnny and Jeremiah. Jim Stinson, mayor of Clarendon, for his wisdom and commitment to serve his city. Our lawyers who worked hundreds of hours: John Gill who gave and gave and gave, and his firm, Gill Ragon Owen, and Jordan Wimpy, Mitchell Dennis and Robert Jackson. Johnny Moore and Jeremiah Moore for creating the video viewed by 320,000 supporters.

Marianne Fowler in Washington, D.C., with Rails to Trails and The Coalition for Recreational Trails, for counsel. Rachel Patton, executive director of Preserve Arkansas, and her staff for their support. Scott Simon, the Arkansas Nature Conservancy, for his advice and counsel. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette for its editorial support. Martin Smith and Ecological Design Group for assistance in devising a tourism development plan for the Arkansas Delta. Keith Weaver, manager of the Cache and White River refuges for his honorable comportment and intellectual excellence in opposing us. And Governor Hutchinson and Stacy Hurst for their support. Stacy was always our strongest supporter.

The end.


Porter Briggs of Little Rock is a veteran of the United States Army and vice president of the Board of the Friends of the Historic White River Bridge at Clarendon, a 501(c)3 nonprofit.

Editorial on 08/01/2019

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