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Secretary of Arkansas Parks, Heritage and Tourism steps down after less than 6 months

by Will Langhorne | June 3, 2023 at 7:31 a.m.
Then-Gov.-elect Sarah Huckabee Sanders (left) watches as Mike Mills speaks during a news conference in Little Rock in this Dec. 6, 2022 file photo. Sanders had just announced her plan to nominate Mills as Arkansas' secretary of Parks, Heritage, and Tourism. Sanders announced Friday, June 2, 2023 that Mills had resigned from the post, less than six months after the December announcement. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Stephen Swofford)

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced Friday that Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism Secretary Mike Mills is stepping away from her administration after less than six months as secretary.

Sanders spokeswoman Alexa Henning said in a written statement that Mills resigned as secretary. Mills, who is the first secretary to leave the administration, did not return phone calls from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Friday evening. There are 15 Cabinet secretaries in state government.

The Republican governor appointed Shea Lewis, currently the director of Arkansas State Parks, to serve as interim secretary, Sanders announced in a news release issued late Friday afternoon.

"Arkansas is the Natural State, and with his strong record of leadership in Arkansas parks and tourism, Shea Lewis is perfectly equipped to step seamlessly into this new role and continue our work to grow our outdoor economy and make Arkansas an unparalleled place to live, work, and raise a family," Sanders said in the new release. "I thank Secretary Mills for his service to this administration and years of work as a pioneer in Arkansas' tourism industry."

Lewis was selected as the 10th director of Arkansas State Parks in 2022, according to the governor's office, In that role, he was responsible for the day-to-day operation of 52 state parks found in 48 counties, covering 55,000 acres across the state.

He started his career with Arkansas State Parks as a seasonal park interpreter in 1995. With nearly three decades under his belt, he has also served as a full-time interpreter, park superintendent, region supervisor, and deputy director for Arkansas State Parks.

Lewis' salary as director of Arkansas State Parks is $130,970.11, according to Arkansas' transparency website.

In December, Sanders announced that she would nominate Mills to serve as secretary of the Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism.

Mills is the founder and owner of Buffalo Outdoor Center in Ponca, which was Arkansas' first log cabin resort. From 1982 to 1986 he served as Arkansas' director of tourism, where he started Partners in Tourism, and he was inducted into the Arkansas Tourism Hall of Fame in 2018.

"Mike Mills is one of the premier outdoor recreation and tourism leaders not only in the state of Arkansas but across the country, and I am proud to announce my intention to nominate him as the next secretary of Parks, Heritage and Tourism," Sanders said in announcing her nomination of Mills in December. "Arkansas is the Natural State, and from our unparalleled natural beauty to our world-class outdoor recreation to our rich cultural heritage, we have an incredible story to tell. Together, we will share it with the rest of the nation and the world and take our state to the next level."

In December, Sanders said she based her decision to nominate Mills on maximizing the "outdoor economy" in Arkansas.

"There is nobody who spends more time living, loving and enjoying the outdoors," Sanders said.

Mills' salary as secretary was $201,699.89, according to the transparency website.

His departure comes after Travis Napper, director of tourism in the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism announced plans to step away from his position to take a job in tourism consulting.

According to its website, the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism has three major divisions: Arkansas State Parks, Arkansas Heritage and Arkansas Tourism. Arkansas State Parks manages 52 state parks and promotes Arkansas as a tourist destination. Arkansas Heritage aims to preserve and promote Arkansas's natural and cultural history and heritage through four historic museums and four cultural preservation agencies. Arkansas Tourism seeks to improve the state's economy by promoting travel and enhancing the image of the state. In addition to the three major divisions, the department also includes the Keep Arkansas Beautiful Commission and the Office of Outdoor Recreation.

Sanders has pointed to promoting tourism and outdoor recreation as a priority for her administration. In January, she established the Natural State Initiative and Natural State Advisory Council and tapped first gentleman Bryan Sanders to serve as its chair.

Two key officials in the governor's office have also departed in recent months.

In mid-May, Aaron Black, the budget director in Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders' office and the state Department of Finance and Administration, resigned, citing personal reasons.

In March, Andrew "Vu" Ritchie resigned as chief legal counsel for Sanders, saying he had been presented with professional opportunities outside of state government over the previous couple of weeks that it was important for him to have "clarity of mind" as he fully considered all of his options. He said he had submitted his official letter of resignation to Sanders, which was effective March 17.

In mid-May, Stephens Inc. announced Ritchie as vice president of government relations, a role in which he manages Stephens' legislative priorities at the federal, state and local levels and serves as a policy adviser to Stephens' executive leadership.

Print Headline: Mills resigns as state parks secretary


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