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State announces series of moves on recreation, conservation

by Rachel Herzog | June 22, 2021 at 7:08 a.m.
(From left) Representative French Hill, Governor Asa Hutchinson, Hugh McDonald from the Nature Conservancy, and John Gill from the Arkansas Parks and Recreation Foundation look over photos from the Lake Sylvia Recreation Area on display before the start of a press conference where Governor Hutchinson announced a new Arkansas Office of Outdoor Recreation, which will exist under the leadership of Secretary Stacy Hurst and in the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism on Monday, June 21, 2021. See more photos at arkansasonline.com/622gov/ (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)

Arkansas officials on Monday announced the purchase of about 450 acres of land in Pulaski County for conservation and recreational use, as well as an agreement to put the Lake Sylvia Recreation Area and Camp Ouachita under the state parks system.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson has also established by executive order the new state Office of Outdoor Recreation and the Arkansas Outdoor Recreation Advisory Board, he said Monday.

Blue Mountain, the third and final peak in the chain of Maumelle Pinnacles that includes Pinnacle Mountain and Rattlesnake Ridge, was purchased from PotlatchDeltic, the Spokane, Wash.-based timberland real estate investment trust, by the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission and The Nature Conservancy for about $5 million.

Though the area between Lake Maumelle and Arkansas 10 has some old roads, Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission Director Bill Holimon said the commission plans to work on foot and bike trails, as well as a parking lot, which he expects to be complete by fall 2022. Before that, he said, the commission will have surveys done to ensure that any recreation doesn't damage the ecosystem.

Holimon said the 459-acre tract was acquired with environmental protection in mind, because it contains a rare natural community called the Ouachita Mountain Sandstone Outcrop Barrens, a grassland habitat that occurs atop the mountain ridges.

He said The Nature Conservancy, a nonprofit, raised about $1 million for the purchase and that the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission contributed nearly $4 million. About half of the $4 million is expected to be reimbursed through a federal grant from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, Holimon said.

Gallery: Governor Press Conference

The Nature Conservancy has planned to raise at least another $1 million to go toward to the trails and parking lot as well as the site's maintenance, Holimon said.

The commission manages the state System of Natural Areas. Rattlesnake Ridge opened as a natural area in 2018, which state Parks, Heritage and Tourism Secretary Stacy Hurst said Monday led to a "robust increase in visitation" to the area.

U.S. Rep. French Hill, R-Ark., who attended the announcement in the Governor's Conference Room at the state Capitol on Monday, said afterward that Pinnacle Mountain State Park has more than 1 million visitors a year and isn't able to serve them all. Hill said the trails there will connect to a system with an exit onto Arkansas 10.

The state Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism has also signed a memorandum of understanding with the U.S. Forest Service that will allow the state parks system to operate the Lake Sylvia Recreation Area and Camp Ouachita, which are located in Perry County, as a unit of Pinnacle Mountain State Park.

The memorandum of understanding states that the two parties are working toward the issuance of what is known as a historic property lease, which will enable Arkansas State Parks to manage both sites and provide year-round access to the recreation area and work to protect Camp Ouachita, the only surviving Girl Scout camp constructed by the New Deal-era Works Progress Administration.

Pinnacle Mountain State Park doesn't have campgrounds, and the Lake Sylvia area isn't open year-round. Hutchinson said the agreement will allow the state to offer expanded recreation opportunities and amenities at the two sites, and he credited Hill with leading the effort on the national level.

"It's a great natural area, and to have that managed and to be able to have the greater capability there for services there to the public will allow that to be utilized in a greater way," Hutchinson said.

Hurst said the acquisition of Blue Mountain and the Lake Sylvia Recreation Area memorandum of understanding "represent partnerships that will result in increased access for the public, sound conservation and increased economic activity for Arkansas long-term."

"With the remarkable natural assets we have here in Arkansas, it only makes sense that we would carefully and deliberately maximize our opportunity to grow the outdoor economy in our state," she said.

Hutchinson said the new Office of Outdoor Recreation will "coordinate our stewardship, our investment and our marketing of the great outdoors so that it will be available in an expanded way to all of Arkansas," as well as maximize Arkansas' economic opportunities and national standing when it comes to the outdoor recreation sector.

The office's director will work under the leadership of Hurst in the Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism. Hurst said after Monday's announcement that "we are going to post the position, and hopefully I think we'll have a lot of good candidates."

She said she doesn't have any particular person whom she is interested in hiring for the post. Hurst said she is looking for "someone with a passion for the outdoors and the ability to work across government and the private sector and nonprofit entities, so a person who is comfortable in all those things.

"We anticipate one of the focuses will be working with the business community to grow the opportunities to bring outdoor-related businesses to Arkansas," she said.

Hurst said the department needs a multitalented person for the job, "but really we need someone who is very interested in the outdoors and loves Arkansas."

She said she expects to post the position this week, advertise the opening for two or three weeks and "see what we get."

Hurst said she hopes to fill the position this summer.

She said the department will "cross grade" an existing vacant position into a different position, and that won't require approval of the Legislative Council. The vacant position is an information technology position that will be changed into a program manager position in the department, according to department spokeswoman Melissa Whitfield.

The salary range for the position is $56,039 to $81,257, Whitfield said in an email.

Hutchinson's executive order, which he signed Thursday, also establishes the Outdoor Recreation Advisory Board, which will be composed of up to 10 people, including representatives from the private sector.

The governor said he had not yet completed the appointments. But three of the board's members will be Mountain Harbor Resort owner Bill Barnes, Buffalo Outdoor Center founder Mike Mills and former SeaArk Boats owner Robin McClendon, Hutchinson said.

Information for this article was contributed to Michael R. Wickline of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Print Headline: State announces series of moves on recreation

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