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Arkansas State Parks: Building a Better Future

Article follows the photos:
  • DeGray Lake Resort State Park's renovated lodge

  • Arkansas Museum of Natural Resources

  • Petit Jean State Park

  • Mt. Magazine State Park

December 26, 2001

Arkansas State Parks: Building a Better Future

(Editor's Note: The following is the final of a four-part series on the history of Arkansas's state parks. This year marks the 75th anniversary of the 1927 legislation that gave rise to The Natural State's parks system.)

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

From humble beginnings in the 1920s and '30s, Arkansas's collection of state parks had become the state's top tourist draw by the early 1980s. The parks system had just enjoyed two decades of unprecedented expansion and, partnered with tourism, had achieved Cabinet-level status within state government. Continued park acquisition and other visible improvements, though, obscured the fact that the system was descending into increasingly dire financial straits.

In the 1980s, new parks added to the system were the Museum of Natural Resources, which tells of the state's oil and brine industries (1982); Conway Cemetery, final resting place of the state's first governor, and the Prairie County Museum (both 1984); Parkin Archeological (1985); the Plantation Agriculture Museum (1986); and Cossatot River (1988).

As the number of museums within the system grew, the Arkansas Museum Services Division, which had been part of the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism (ADPT) since 1979, merged into the State Parks Division in 1988 as the Historical Resources and Museum Services Section.

Four more sites were acquired in the 1990s: the Delta Heritage Trail (1992); South Arkansas Arboretum (1994); Arkansas Post Museum (1996) and Mount Magazine (1997).

In addition to new parks, the 1980s and '90s brought better training and regulated uniforms for park employees, improved communications equipment, the use of standard colors for park vehicles and buildings, and better marketing and advertising of the parks.

Lurking Financial Woes

Yet, as those decades progressed the parks became a low priority for state spending, continually receiving flat or reduced annual budgets. Aging facilities, increased use, inflation, and legislative initiatives adding new sites without supporting appropriations for operating them exacerbated the system's financial problems.

"What happened was that, after awhile, the money we had used to fix things up ended up being shoved into everyday operating costs just to keep the doors open," recalled Richard Davies, ADPT's executive director. Davies had previously followed in the steps of his grandfather, the first state parks director, by holding that position from 1976 through 1990.

Greg Butts, state parks director since 1990, said that as the two decades unfolded parks officials kept governors and legislators informed of financial estimates of the system's needs, beginning with $40 million in 1981 and increasing to $120 million by the early ’90s. "They kept telling us," Butts said, "'We'll get to you,' but due to other state needs they never did."

By 1996, parks officials could identify some $170 million in sorely needed maintenance projects and in anticipated expenditures for undeveloped park sites. As had happened before, however, difficult times again resulted in another leap forward for the parks. While previous advances had stemmed from Great Depression work programs and from the leadership of various governors, the progress that began in 1997 was an expression of the political will of Arkansas's citizens.

The People Secure the Future

In 1993, ADPT and Arkansas Game and Fish Commission officials, working in concert with state legislators, devised a funding proposal: Arkansas's voters would be asked to approve a constitutional amendment establishing a 1/8th-cent sales tax to provide monies for those two agencies, the Department of Arkansas Heritage and the Keep Arkansas Beautiful Commission. "All four agencies had related missions and similar funding problems," Davies said, adding that the size of the proposed tax was based on careful calculations of the agencies' needs.

Mere days before the 1994 election, however, the measure was stricken from the ballot. The secretary of state had not properly advertised its text prior to the vote. The legislature again placed the proposed amendment before the voters in 1996.

Parks officials based their campaign for the measure on a detailed 10-year plan, drafted in 1993, for spending the anticipated tax revenues. "We felt it was important to tell the voters what we would spend the money on," Davies said. The plan called for 54 percent of the funds to be used for capital improvements; 22 percent for major maintenance, repairs and renovations; 13 percent for operating costs; 6 percent for capital equipment; and 5 percent for land acquisition.

Voters were also promised that during those 10 years parks officials would not support adding any new sites to the system (but would develop previously authorized parks) and that the 1/8th-cent funds would be new monies for the parks and not replace park funding from existing revenue sources.

The tax proposal received an unexpected and effective boost, Davies said, from the state's new governor. Mike Huckabee, who had become the state's chief executive in July 1996 upon his predecessor's resignation, campaigned actively in support of the measure. He succeeded in focusing the state's attention on the issue when, accompanied by First Lady Janet Huckabee, he boated down the Arkansas River making 16 campaign stops in four days.

In November 1996, the voters approved Amendment 75, which from 1997 through 2000 provided almost $65.4 million dollars to the parks system.

Davies credits Arkansas's voters, Huckabee and the legislature with launching "one of the most exciting eras in the history of Arkansas's state parks" by providing substantial and on-going financing for the parks system. State legislators, Davies added, deserve special recognition for appropriating the Amendment 75 revenues in keeping with promises made to the voters.

In future years, Davies said, he hopes Arkansans will say of the governor, the legislature and parks officials: "'They did what they said they would do.' That would be high praise, and it would mean the existing parks will have been placed in first-class condition and the undeveloped parks -- Mount Magazine, Beaver Lake, Cossatot River, Delta Heritage Trail and Mississippi River -- will have been developed."

Revenue Results

Major projects accomplished with Amendment 75 funds have included a $7 million renovation of the lodge at DeGray Lake; expansion of the visitors centers at Lake Chicot and Withrow Springs; the addition of elevated, barrier-free boardwalks at the Cedar Falls and Petit Jean Gravesite overlooks at Petit Jean; completion of the first four miles of the Delta Heritage Trail, a planned 70-mile, rail-to-trail conversion in east Arkansas; complete renovation of the campground at White Oak Lake; and restoration of the Mary Woods II sternwheeler at Jacksonport.

Currently under construction at Lake Dardanelle are a $2.3-million visitors center and a multi-purpose pavilion that can be used for fishing tournament weigh-ins. The center’s exhibits will include three aquariums totaling more than 5,000 gallons and historical and cultural exhibits with the theme "One River, Many Voices." Design work is also in progress for new visitors centers at Beaver Lake and Cossatot River.

Cabins have been renovated at Lake Ouachita, Lake Catherine, Petit Jean and Mount Nebo, and two new cabins have been built at Devil's Den to replace two built by the Civilian Conservation Corps that were lost to fire.

Across the parks system, visitors are seeing new and renovated campgrounds, picnic areas, playgrounds, bathhouses, marinas, boat ramps, fishing piers, swimming pools, amphitheaters, trails and exhibits.

Projects to shore up and enhance the parks' infrastructure have included reroofing and painting buildings; renovation and expansion of water, sewer, electric, heating and air-conditioning systems; repaving roads and parking areas; sidewalk repairs; replacement of fences and gates, and shoreline erosion-control work.

Butts noted that many of the parks' older facilities are being retrofitted and remodeled and new construction is being carried out to allow barrier-free access to visitors with disabilities in accordance with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

"Amendment 75 is making a tremendous impact on our state parks," Butts said, "and the improvements reflect our commitment to preserving Arkansas's heritage, providing quality recreational and educational experiences for our citizens, and enhancing the state's economy."

Indicative of the progress currently under way in the parks system is the development of Mount Magazine State Park, atop the state's highest peak. Using previous state appropriations, Amendment 75 revenues and grants from other state agencies, water and sewer systems have been installed; roads have been repaved; a new visitors center, pavilion and restrooms have been constructed; a former U.S. Forest Service campground has been renovated and upgraded to include water, electricity and a bathhouse; the Greenfield picnic area has been completely renovated; and design work has commenced for a lodge and 15 cabins.

Also on the horizon for the parks system is a Mississippi River site, first authorized in the late 1960s. A pending agreement with the U.S. Forest Service is expected to soon make available acreage within the St. Francis National Forest for the park.

"We are," Davies said, "building on the foundation handed to us by previous generations and pursuing improvements that will make our system of diverse parks among the finest in America."

If Dr. Thomas W. Hardison, the country physician who sparked the system's creation in the 1920s, could see Arkansas's state parks at the dawn of the 21st century, it seems likely he would be smiling.


Submitted by the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism
One Capitol Mall, Little Rock, AR 72201, (501) 682-7606

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