Elusive Mississippi River Park Nears Home in National Forest

Article follows the photos:
Storm Creek Lake
Storm Creek Lake
The St. Francis National Forest
The St. Francis National Forest
October 29, 2002


Elusive Mississippi River Park
Nears Home in National Forest

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By Jim Taylor, travel writer
Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism

More than 30 years after first being envisioned, Arkansas's 42nd state park, Mississippi River, now seems on track to become a reality. A pending special use permit would allow its development within the St. Francis National Forest, building on U.S. Forest Service recreation sites near the southern end of Crowley's Ridge. Included would be property on the river's shoreline. For more information, phone (501) 682-7743 or visit www.ArkansasStateParks.com and www.fs.fed.us/oonf/ozark/stfrancis/stfrancis.html.

MARIANNA -- Sometimes the dream of a new state park collides head-on with real-world difficulties. That, in short, is why Arkansas's 42nd state park, initially envisioned in the late 1960s and authorized in 1973, has yet to be developed, although 10 later parks are currently welcoming visitors.

Now a cooperative effort by the state Department of Parks and Tourism and the U.S. Forest Service seems likely to bring the long-awaited Mississippi River State Park to life within the St. Francis National Forest southeast of Marianna. "The whole thing makes so much sense, it's scary," Richard Davies, the department's executive director, said recently.

With natural marvels and beauty on display at state parks across Arkansas, it seemed only logical that such a park should showcase America's most legendary stream. Moreover, the Mississippi River park has long been seen as a potential source of aid for the depressed economy in the state's eastern Delta region.

The problem came with finding a suitable location. State parks officials thought they'd found the right place by the early 1970s and began purchasing in 1979 land south of Osceola in northeastern Arkansas, only to discover that moorage easements (for barges traveling the river) made additional acreage too expensive. Another problem, Davies noted, was that the river wanted the site as badly as the state and was laying its claim through erosion.

"Finding a spot was a tough trick," Davies said. "If you're on the river side of the levee, you get washed away in high water. If you're on the dry side, you can't see or access the river, so what's the point?"

Since the Mississippi forms almost the entirety of Arkansas's eastern border, it would seem there'd be a lot of choices for locating a park along the stream. However, the big river and its tributaries have spent millennia meandering through and flooding the Delta, washing away its high ground. Only one major area has managed to survive that process.

At points up to 10 miles wide and rising steeply as much as 250 feet above the surrounding Delta, Crowley's Ridge extends for some 160 miles in Arkansas from north of Piggott south to the historic river port town of Helena. According to the prevailing explanation of its origin, the ridge was left standing between the ancestral Mississippi and Ohio rivers as the streams carved away the land to its sides. Wind-blown material deposited over subsequent centuries added to the ridge's height, particularly along its southern reaches.

The ridge is renowned, though, for more than its elevation. The composition of its forest has been described as more closely resembling that of Tennessee's hills to the east than that of the closer Ozark Mountains on the west.

By the early 1930s, logging had taken a severe toll on the ridge between Helena and the Marianna Water Gap (where the L'Anguille River cuts through the ridge east of Marianna). From 1935-38, the federal Resettlement Administration, a Depression-era agency, acquired more than 21,000 acres of that area. Originally known as the Eastern Arkansas Grazing, Recreation and Wildlife Area, the land was administered by several federal agencies before coming under U.S. Forest Service control in 1954.

In November 1960, the acreage became, by presidential proclamation, the St. Francis National Forest. It was named after the St. Francis River, which flows just east of the ridge throughout its length in Arkansas and empties into the Mississippi a few miles north of Helena.

While most of the forest's territory lies on Crowley's Ridge, it also includes America's only national forest property on the Mississippi's shoreline below the river's headwaters. From the St. Francis' mouth, the forest's riverfront extends south along the outside shore of a wide and lengthy bend in the Mississippi, thus enabling visitors to see from a single vantage point several miles both upstream and down.

The national forest has long provided recreational opportunities. Two reservoirs were built on the ridge in 1938, the 625-acre Bear Creek Lake in the north end of the forest and 420-acre Storm Creek Lake in the south end. The scenic lakes and access points on the St. Francis and Mississippi rivers have made the forest popular with anglers seeking striped bass, largemouth bass, crappie, catfish and bream. Abundant wildlife readily seen in the forest includes whitetail deer, squirrel, raccoon, rabbit, wild turkey and a wide variety of other birds. Alligators are sometimes seen on ponds and oxbows in the forest's lower terrain.

Swimming, camping and hiking are available at the two lakes. Bear Creek's three campgrounds (31 individual campsites and one group site) remain open year-round, while Storm Creek's campground (13 campsites) is open from April through Labor Day weekend. The only hook-ups available are for water at 17 sites on Bear Creek Lake. The campgrounds lack bathhouses and rely on vault-style toilets, though a bathhouse with showers is located in Storm Creek's day-use area. While paved roads reach Bear Creek from the north and Storm Creek from the south, most of the forest's roads are gravel, including those within campgrounds.

Despite its recreational history, the forest's outlook for accommodating visitors had become bleak. "Their recreational facilities are not in the best of shape because of federal budget constraints," said Davies, "and they have little hope of getting any money to fix them."

The St. Francis forest was one of eight sites for the Mississippi River park that state parks officials were considering in the early 1990s. Even though it subsequently became the chosen site, action was delayed for lack of funding. Then, in 1996 Arkansas voters approved the Amendment 75, one-eighth-cent conservation tax from which the parks and tourism department receives 45 percent of the proceeds. Development of the river park was among the promises made to voters during the campaign for the tax.

In late November 1999, forest and state parks officials signed a "memorandum of understanding" committing their agencies to "preserving, protecting, constructing, and maintaining the St. Francis National Forest recreation areas as a Mississippi River State Park for the benefit of Arkansans and the United States."

"They had the high ground and access to the river we needed," Davies said, "so we wouldn't have to buy the site. That would allow us to put our money into developing the park facilities and keeping alive the national forest's recreational tradition. We ended up with a win-win situation."

Joe Bonnette, the St. Francis forest's district ranger, said the park plan would have additional benefits for the forest service. "There is a real opportunity here," he said, "to showcase our natural resource management skills through state parks' interpretive programs and recreation management. Many more visitors will be exposed to active forest management operations and the opportunities for an outdoor classroom in conservation education are limitless."

A required environmental assessment of the park proposal has been completed and forest service and state officials are currently working out the final wording of a special use permit for the park, according to State Parks Director Greg Butts. Then, Butts said, final approval will be needed from the forest service's regional office in Atlanta as well as the State Parks, Recreation and Travel Commission, the governor's office and the Arkansas Legislative Council.

"It's all still tentative," Butts said, "but we hope design work can begin by late 2002, construction by the spring of 2004 and that at least some park facilities will be open for visitors by 2005."

As currently proposed, the park would be located on 575 acres at sites scattered across the forest. The anticipated $12.9 million in park improvements would include numerous projects designed to bring a modern-day infrastructure to the national forest's recreational areas. Roads would be paved, water and electrical systems would be improved and expanded, and wastewater systems would be installed.

The park's northern gateway would be located at the existing forest ranger station on Ark. 44 near Marianna. The 16 acres to be developed there would include a visitors information and education center, maintenance facilities, and a picnic area, restrooms and barrier-free trail at Ranger Pond.

Planned for the 261 acres to be developed at Bear Creek Lake are up to 15 full-service cabins; up to 10 camper cabins; 50 campsites with hook-ups; a small marina; swimming beach and picnic area improvements; a group camping area to include a horse corral and stable (to serve a planned horse/mountain bike trail to the Storm Creek area); three bathhouses; three pavilions; a playground; and the addition of a barrier-free trail with fishing access. In addition, a nursery pond of up to 10 acres would be built in cooperation with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission to supply crappie for stocking the lake.

The Storm Creek area would serve as the park's southern entrance. Major projects taking place on 231 acres would include a visitors information center/administrative office building; up to 15 full-service cabins; up to 10 camper cabins; a concession building at the swimming beach; 30 campsites with hook-ups; two bathhouses; an enclosed pavilion; and an archery course.

Twenty-six acres to be developed along the St. Francis River near Phillips Bayou would include an improved St. Francis boat ramp, three picnic sites and three primitive campsites. A 19th-century replica river village of three to six small buildings and several houseboats is anticipated for more distant years. At a nearby site of former gravel pits, an interpretation/education facility is planned, while a barrier-free boardwalk trail and observation deck and an enclosed activity area with restroom are anticipated for the Beaver Pond area.

Projects on 39 acres at the mouth of the St. Francis would include the construction of picnic sites, barrier-free trails, observation decks and a boat launch area (but no ramp). At the cypress-lined Horner Neck Lake, the existing boat ramp and wildlife viewing trail would be improved and up to three picnic sites would be built. Limited improvements are also planned for the Crowley’s Ridge Overlook and Horn Lookout Tower areas.

"It's been a long haul, bringing the Mississippi River State Park to life," said Butts, "but I believe that Arkansans and our visitors from out of state will see that it has been worth the wait. We're confident that we've found the right place, but it should be noted that this project wouldn't be possible without the willing and capable assistance of our partner in this effort, the U.S. Forest Service."

"Opening this park will be particularly satisfying to those of us in state parks," Butts added, "because it will represent the fulfillment of a major promise made to the voters who approved Amendment 75. And I think this park will demonstrate clearly that Amendment 75 is not only improving recreation in the state but is creating economic benefits as well."

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Submitted by the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism
One Capitol Mall, Little Rock, AR 72201, (501) 682-7606
E-mail: info@arkansas.com

May be used without permission. Credit line is appreciated:
"Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism"