Asa Hutchinson was in his final days as governor and Stacy Hurst in her final days as director of the state Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism when they gathered on the Tuesday before Christmas alongside Arkansas 10 just west of Little Rock. They were there to celebrate the opening of Blue Mountain Natural Area.
"Blue Mountain is in the chain of Maumelle Pinnacles that includes Pinnacle Mountain, Rattlesnake Ridge and Blue Mountain," Hutchinson said that day. "They will all be preserved for generations to come."
U.S. Rep. French Hill of Little Rock was smiling that day. Hill has worked for years to create an outdoor recreational corridor stretching from the state's largest city to deep in the Ouachita National Forest. Visitors will be able to hike, bike, picnic and take part in other activities in the almost 460 acres of woods that now make up Blue Mountain Natural Area. The northern part borders land protected by Central Arkansas Water.
The tract was acquired by the state in 2021 from PotlatchDeltic with $4 million in state and federal funds and another $1 million from the Nature Conservancy of Arkansas. The Nature Conservancy raised $1 million in additional funds for trails and a parking lot. The state has almost 80 natural areas.
Blue Mountain has a rare natural community known as a Ouachita Mountain sandstone outcrop barren. It's a grassland habitat that occurs atop mountains.
"Our natural areas tell a story about Arkansas heritage and are a valuable resource for conservation and outdoor recreation," Hutchinson said that day.
Nearby Pinnacle Mountain, where a state-of-the-art visitors' center is being constructed, is the most visited of the 52 state parks. The recreational corridor will now connect Pinnacle Mountain State Park, Rattlesnake Ridge Natural Area, Blue Mountain Natural Area, Central Arkansas Water lands and the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission's Maumelle River Wildlife Management Area.
Following a donation of land and a home from the Lee Bodenhamer family, the Nature Conservancy and the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission opened Rattlesnake Ridge Natural Area in 2018. About $3 million was raised so 373 acres could be protected while adding six miles of trails. More than 50,000 people visit Rattlesnake Ridge each year.
Attractions such as Cliffbrake Trail are now popular following thousands of volunteer hours that went into developing a trail system.
On a trip to the top of Rattlesnake Ridge in 2021, Theo Witsell, the Heritage Commission's chief of research and inventory, told me: "One thing the pandemic made clear was the importance of public conservation lands and the need for more places for outdoor recreation. Pinnacle Mountain is crowded. The parking lot often is full here at Rattlesnake Ridge also."
Preserving places such as the Maumelle Pinnacles are about more than tourism or giving residents something to do on weekends. In the knowledge-based economy of the 21st century, economic development is no longer just about attracting manufacturing plants. It's about attracting talented people. These well-educated folks demand quality-of-life amenities. Key among them are outdoor recreational opportunities.
Protecting natural attributes such as Pinnacle Mountain, Rattlesnake Ridge and Blue Mountain is a key to growth in per capita income and population. The Heritage Commission and the Nature Conservancy are just as important these days as the Arkansas Economic Development Commission.
In Dale Bumpers' first year as governor in 1971, a bill was passed tasking the Arkansas Planning Commission with establishing a system for the preservation of natural areas. There was, however, no funding included to acquire and protect natural areas. In 1973, Bumpers successfully pushed for establishment of the Arkansas Environmental Preservation Commission to implement the 1971 plan. The agency was renamed the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission in 1975.
In 1997, the Legislature transferred the duties of the Arkansas Natural and Scenic Rivers Commission to the Heritage Commission. Among its many duties, it maintains an extensive database of the locations and status of rare species.
Meanwhile, the Nature Conservancy created its Arkansas chapter in 1982. It was the 29th chapter in the country and was established with the help of a $1 million challenge grant from the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation. The Virginia-based organization already had been at work in Arkansas since the 1970s, acquiring land that became Hobbs State Park-Conservation Area in northwest Arkansas, Overflow National Wildlife Refuge in southeast Arkansas and Logoly State Park near Magnolia.
In 1978, the Nature Conservancy and the Heritage Commission launched the Arkansas Natural Heritage Inventory Program, the central repository of data on this state's biodiversity. The two organizations have worked closely together ever since.
When I was doing economic development work, I constantly preached to city, county and state officials that they must play to their strengths. Arkansas' greatest strength is its natural beauty and diversity. Our ability to protect, enhance when possible and then promote these gifts will determine if Arkansas reaches its potential in the years ahead.
We're fortunate to have Hill at the federal level, several agencies at the state level and a nonprofit organization such as the Nature Conservancy working together to achieve that potential. The recreational corridor reaching into the Ouachita Mountains is the latest fruit of their labors.
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.