Gov. Sanders highlights Natural State Initiative at Mount Magazine event

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders (right) announces the calling of a special legislative session on Friday, Sept. 8, 2023, at the state Capitol in Little Rock. .(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders highlighted her Natural State Initiative, designed to expand knowledge of the state's outdoor recreational activities and build its outdoor economy, as she praised attendees of the annual Parks Superintendents Conference Dinner, held at Mount Magazine.

The governor said she and her husband's love of the outdoors comes in part from her father, former Gov. Mike Huckabee. She mentioned that her father's 1996 trip through the state on the Arkansas River with former first lady Janet Huckabee helped win support for a 1/8-cent sales tax for the state park system.

"Sometimes, if you want to get things done and you want to build excitement, you have to think a little bit outside the box, and that's exactly what Bryan and I are trying to do with the Natural State Initiative," she said. The governor referenced a council she formed by executive order in January to advise on ways to grow Arkansas' outdoor economy, which grew around 23% in 2022. First gentleman Bryan Sanders chairs the council in a voluntary position.

The 18-member council has met and, although formal recommendations are forthcoming, is working with the state Commerce department and the Parks, Heritage and Tourism department in particular on advertising the state park system's mountain biking trails to tourists worldwide, as well as promoting local state parks to Arkansans living within one-hour radiuses of each of park.

"Whether it's fly-fishing in the Ozarks, duck hunting in the Delta, paddling on the Buffalo River or mountain biking on our state park Monument Trails – which Outside magazine just named the best in America – we believe we can crush our neighbors and establish Arkansas as the top outdoor destination in the heartland," Bryan Sanders said.

The first gentleman, who visited all 52 state parks in the first eight months of the governor's term, praised state park superintendents for the roles in park law enforcement, administration, hospitality and maintenance, especially as some deal with worker shortages.

"Each of you works extremely hard and makes tremendous sacrifices to make our state parks the best in America -- and that is not lost on Sarah, and that is not lost on me," he said.

The governor said, "There is no better ally in the Legislature than" Rep. Jon S. Eubanks, R-Paris, who was in attendance, and noted legislation funding the state parks, which are celebrating their 100th anniversary this year, that passed unanimously in March.