I recently wrote about the group of tourism industry officials, historic preservationists, hikers, canoeists and parks advocates who approached Gov. Mike Huckabee during his first days in office in July 1996. They urged him to support the so-called conservation amendment to the Arkansas Constitution.
That proposal passed in November 1996 with less than 51 percent of the vote and now stands as one of the smartest things Arkansas voters have ever done. The amendment has provided hundreds of millions of dollars and given Arkansas the best state parks system in the country, a well-managed network of wildlife management areas, and more.
Now is the time for a new group of advocates to approach Gov. Asa Hutchinson. The 2021 legislative session will be Hutchinson's final regular session as governor. Only a budget session and perhaps one or more special sessions will remain before he leaves office after eight years. So 2021 is his legacy session--the session when Hutchinson can push for the things for which he will be remembered long after leaving office. What I've proposed isn't a constitutional amendment. It's instead a $20 million annual appropriation (that hopefully future legislators will renew) to help ensure that Arkansas lives up to its moniker as the Natural State.
Rather than calling on taxpayers to do all the work, this proposal would bring in nonprofit partners such as the Nature Conservancy, the Walton Family Foundation, Quail Forever, Ducks Unlimited and Audubon Arkansas. It also would unleash an army of volunteers to clean the state's streams and roadsides. The proposal calls for $5 million per year in state seed money for each of four programs--stream preservation, quail habitat restoration (which also benefits songbirds and pollinators), planting hardwoods, and roadside beautification. By partnering with outside groups and calling on thousands of volunteers, the impact becomes far larger than $20 million per year.
Fortunately, we're already seeing public-private partnerships. Take the $2 million grant that came from the Walton Family Foundation to support development of the first of what are known as Monument Trails for mountain biking at Hobbs State Park in northwest Arkansas. The trail opened in June 2019. Tom Walton, the grandson of Sam Walton, calls it "a signature characteristic of the quality of life in northwest Arkansas and an economic engine for tourism."
That has led to Monument Trails being added at Pinnacle Mountain State Park near Little Rock, Mount Nebo State Park near Dardanelle and Devil's Den State Park in northwest Arkansas. Grady Spann, the state parks director, says: "By building the Monument Trails, we're focusing on increased recreational opportunities, educating visitors on resource conservation and enhancing the economy through trail-based tourism."
Suzanne Grobmyer, executive director of the Arkansas Parks and Recreation Foundation, says the trails "take all users into consideration, whether you're looking for a world-class mountain biking trip, a leisurely ride with beautiful stops, or a short bike packing opportunity to a secluded campside."
Our state parks system has come a long way since the first park was established atop Petit Jean Mountain in 1923. The Legislature passed Act 276 that year, allowing the state land commissioner to accept land donations for parks and reservations. The state didn't actually have an agency to oversee the development of parks until 1927 when a legislative act created the Arkansas Parks Commission "to select and acquire such areas of the state of Arkansas which, by reasons of their natural features, scenic beauty and historical interest, have educational, recreational, health, camping and outdoor life advantages."
The commission was given the power to acquire tax-delinquent lands, which is what happened when the second state park was established atop Mount Nebo. Prior to passage of Amendment 75 in 1996, a system of 52 state parks was considered far too many. There were millions of dollars in deferred maintenance. For almost a quarter of a century now, we've invested heavily in those parks thanks to the sales tax of one-eighth of a cent established by Amendment 75. We now see the private sector partnering with the state in a big way.
In January, the Walton Family Foundation announced a $20 million matching grant to complete an 84.5-mile biking and pedestrian trail from Lexa to Arkansas City in the Delta. The Delta Heritage Trail will be completed during the next five years. Hutchinson says it "will infuse renewed energy into southeast Arkansas along the trail. Hikers and bikers will see bottomland hardwood forests and views from the levee that we don't see from our cars."
"The Delta Heritage Trail will connect the region's expansive natural beauty and create ways to experience its unique cultural offerings," says Jim Walton, Tom Walton's father. "This joint effort is a dream nearly 30 years in the making, a bold idea now being realized in a community that, with continued support, can reach its enormous, untapped potential."
We're about to enter a post-pandemic period in which the Arkansas economy will thrive. With northwest Arkansas the headquarters of Walmart, and Little Rock soon to be a regional hub for Amazon, Arkansas finds itself well-positioned for growth. The key going forward will be the state's ability to provide the quality-of-life amenities necessary to attract and retain a quality work force. It's why that delegation needs to go see Hutchinson right now.
Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.