The conservation tax approved by Arkansas voters in 1996 remains a dynamic funding source to help upgrade and maintain the 52 state parks in Arkansas.
As of Dec. 31, the tax funded capital improvements to the state park system totaled more than $191 million. Of that, $163.7 million represents completed projects. The remaining $27.3 million reflects work in progress.
“Without the conservation tax, we couldn’t do what we’re doing,” said Grady Spann, director of Arkansas State Parks.
New visitor centers are on tap for two of the most popular state parks: Petit Jean Mountain and Pinnacle Mountain. The official unveiling of the estimated $8.5 million project at Petit Jean will be held on March 5 at Mather Lodge.
“This is the iconic park of Arkansas,” Spann said. “We’re shooting for construction to begin by July. It is time to make this happen.”
Design work on the new Pinnacle Mountain visitor center is expected to begin later this year. Construction on the estimated $4.5 million project could start in 2020, barring any unplanned expenditures on any emergency projects.
The exact site for the new structure remains undetermined, but the goal is to have it closer to the West Summit picnic area and trailhead.
“We’re going to try hard to incorporate it into the facilities that are visited the most, but we don’t want to make the traffic any worse there,” said Jordan Thomas, chief planner for Arkansas State Parks.
One of the more recently completed investments in the park system is the new 8,580-SF home for the Hampson Archeological Museum in Wilson, which opened last year. The $4.2 million Mississippi County project, which replaced an antiquated 1,740-SF building, showcases a collection of local artifacts and new exhibits.
Two other state park projects that were completed last year were the new $5.3 million visitor center at Jacksonport in Jackson County and the $1.8 million renovation of the Brunson House at Historic Washington in Hempstead County.
The work on the 159-year-old residence, now used as an events center, led to an Excellence in Preservation Through Restoration Award from Preserve Arkansas.
Biggest State Park Investments Through Amendment 75 Funding
|Lake Fort Smith||$16,083,761|
|Delta Heritage Trail||$9,363,565|
|Bull Shoals-White River||$6,923,198|
*Ranked by improvement expenditures from Amendment 75 funding as of Dec. 31, 2018. Since the 1996 passage of Amendment 75, Arkansas State Parks receives 45 percent of the Conservation Sales Tax (one-eighth of 1 percent general sales tax).
One of the biggest capital improvement projects underway now is finishing about 29 miles of trail, trailheads and associated improvements to the southern section of the Delta Heritage Trail in Desha County between Arkansas City and the Arkansas River.
Construction of a 9.5-mile section along an abandoned railroad north from Rohwer to Watson started last year and is expected to be complete in September. The big ticket items of this $5.2 million piece of the project are trailhead facilities in Rohwer and Watson along with six trestle bridges.
Construction of a 4.4-mile section, set to start this fall or spring 2020, will push the trail northward from Watson to the Arkansas River. Estimated at $3.2 million, the project will include a trailhead facility, a maintenance facility and an overlook at the Yancopin rail bridge.
Construction of the $919,573 Arkansas City trailhead facility, the southern anchor of the Delta Heritage Trail, was completed last year. From Arkansas City north to Rohwer, 14.4 miles of trail are complete along the Mississippi River levee.
The work north from Rohwer is a 73-mile rails-to-trails program to convert abandoned Union Pacific railways for recreational travel to near Lexa in Phillips County.
“To me, it’s one of the most critical projects we need to complete,” Spann said. “The only way it’s a success is when we connect all 87 miles.”
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In all, about 35 miles are finished as work pushes the Delta Heritage Trail to meet at the Arkansas and White River crossings. About 21 miles of that total are in the northern section with more in the pipeline.
Construction of a 9-mile section will extend the trail south in Phillips County from Elaine to Mellwood where a trailhead facility will be built. The nine-month project is on the drawing board at $1.5 million.
“We may not have funds for that this year, but construction should be set to start for spring or summer 2020,” Thomas said.
Also in the design phase of development is a 12.1-mile section between Mellwood and Snow Lake. Estimated to cost more than $2.3 million, this project is likely to start construction by 2022.
The 17-mile gap between Snow Lake and Yancopin, with the bridges over the White and Arkansas rivers, will be the last and most expensive section of the Delta Heritage Trail.
The route travels along the southern edge of the White River National Wildlife Refuge and crosses the Trusten Holder State Wildlife Management Area between the rivers.
The money to transform the bridges from rail traffic to bicycle and foot traffic is expected to come from a mixture of public and private sources.
“We’re in the assessment phase for the bridges,” said Jeff King, project manager for Arkansas State Parks. “Providing a shovel-ready project makes it easier to get grants and other funding.”
Augmenting the state’s work, a $2.1 million public-private venture will provide a biking-hiking link between Delta Heritage Trail State Park and Mississippi River State Park.
“We’re ready to sign contracts and start construction,” said Terry Eastin, executive director of Big River Strategic Initiative. “Our plan is to finish up as much as we can this year.”
Work will start soon on about 12 miles of trail paving and signage through the St. Francis National Forest between Bear Creek Lake to Storm Creek Lake. The overall project will connect with the Delta Heritage Trail via Helena-West Helena. All told, the project will cover 30 miles.