OPINION | ARKANSAS SPORTSMAN: National forest set up to be recreation powerhouse

U.S. Rep. French Hill wants the Ouachita National Forest to become a major outdoors destination.

Troy Heithecker, the new supervisor for the Ouachita National Forest, seemed to embrace the proposal Friday in a meeting at the Lakeside Country Club near Hensley. Also attending the meeting were Stacy Hurst, secretary of the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism; Doug Akin, state forester for the National Resources Conservation Service; Joe Fox, the state forester for the Arkansas Department of Agriculture's Forestry Division; and Scott Simon, director of The Nature Conservancy in Arkansas.

The new Great American Outdoors Act, which President Donald Trump signed in August, provides $1.9 billion a year for five years to maintain national parks, forests, wildlife refuges, recreation areas and American Indian schools. Royalties from offshore oil and natural gas will permanently provide $900 million annually to the Land and Water Conservation Fund to invest in conservation and recreation opportunities across the country.

Arkansas -- which contains more than 3 million acres of national forests, national parks and national wildlife refuges -- can use these funds to transform itself into an outdoor recreation powerhouse.

Heithecker, 44, has served in the U.S. Forest Service in Alaska and other western states. He said that national forests in the West are managed primarily for recreation due to the demands of what he called the "REI culture."

National forests in Arkansas are used more diversely, he said, which could make it easier to form partnerships and coalitions among disparate user groups.

The timing is right to recalibrate priorities. The REI culture is already here and flexes considerable economic muscle, as evidenced by the proliferation of nontraditional recreational activities in the Ozark National Forest centered in Bentonville. A healthy, adventurous lifestyle is a major draw for young professionals in the tech industry to relocate in Arkansas. Northwest Arkansas is way ahead of the curve in this respect, but the Ouachita National Forest offers just as much to Central Arkansas.

Changes in work habits and lifestyles wrought by the coronavirus pandemic have brought outdoor recreation to the forefront. In today's high-tech telecommuting environment, people can work from anywhere. Professionals who can't afford to live on the West Coast can be just as productive in places like Arkansas where the cost of living is more reasonable.

The Ouachita National Forest has facilities that are well positioned to enhance recreational opportunities, including the Lake Sylvia Recreation Area near Perryville. It has cabins and other structures, but the area is essentially used only as a swimming area in the summer. It closes Sept. 30, before the peak of autumn use, when the weather and scenery are best.

Hill suggested a partnership between the Ouachita National Forest and state parks department to convert Lake Sylvia into an overflow facility to relieve pressure on Pinnacle Mountain State Park, the most heavily used park in the system.

"You don't have to re-create it in the image of Petit Jean and Mount Magazine," said Hill alluding to the ornate lodges and visitor centers at those parks. "Everything you need is already there. It just needs to be maintained."

"If that's what you want to do, I'll hand you the key to the place today," Heithecker said.

There was also considerable discussion about expanding trail riding opportunities for all-terrain vehicles. The response was cool. Fox said that unrestricted off-road ATV use is not compatible with the Ouachita National Forest's management priorities.

"When I'm hiking in Flatside Wilderness Area, I don't really want ATVs around me," Hill said, "but I also recognize that (Forest Road) 132, the Ouachita National Forest's version of Interstate 30, is very popular with ATV riders."

I asked Heithecker whether the three float camps on the Ouachita River between U.S. 70 and Lake Ouachita could be incorporated into a new recreational paradigm. He was not aware the camps exist, but he said that because of the deadly Albert Pike flood in 2010, campgrounds in floodplains will remain closed. You may still access the Ouachita River at Rocky Shoals, River Bluff, Dragover and Fulton Branch.

It is encouraging for a recreation-conscious administrator to be assigned to the Ouachita National Forest. It is an undiscovered treasure. The selfish part of me likes it that way, but changing times demand that it figure a little more prominently into our lives.

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