The stage is set for an especially busy year of progress on the Delta Heritage Trail. Construction will be complete or in motion on more than 24 miles of biking-hiking pathway in east Arkansas backed by an estimated $9.4 million during 2021.
A $1.1 million contract is nearing completion to extend the trail 3.7 miles north from Watson to Yancopin in Desha County. Bids will be opened this spring for a 9-mile section south from Elaine to Mellwood in Phillips County and this fall for a 12.1-mile section from Mellwood to the Desha County community of Snow Lake.
“It’s going to be a significant year,” said Grady Spann, director of Arkansas State Parks.
By the end of 2022, 82% of the 84.5-mile Delta Heritage Trail should be open to recreational traffic. For now, the trail is separated into southern and northern legs.
Completed construction has pushed 20.5 miles south from Lexa in Phillips County and 24.4 miles north from Arkansas City in Desha County. By 2025, the two legs are expected to meet near the 10,268-acre Trusten Holder State Wildlife Management Area between the Arkansas and White rivers.
The swath of bottomland forest adjoins the southern boundary of the even more expansive 160,756-acre Dale Bumpers White River National Wildlife Refuge.
The last phases of trail construction will open up access to the heavily wooded wetlands and forested wildlife management areas for visitors by bike and foot. Panoramic bridge crossings of the lower Arkansas and White rivers will crown the remote pathway.
“It feels like an Arkansas rainforest,” said Molly Elders, park superintendent at Delta Heritage Trail. “The trees seem bigger. The bugs seem bigger. Everything is bigger. I’m very excited to get our visitors down in there to see some of the raw, untouched Delta. It’s a very exciting time to be here with all the activity going on.
“The big honey hole of this thing is down at the Arkansas River and White River where the two big railroad bridges cross. My trail is one of the best ways to explore that part of Arkansas.”
Delta Heritage Trail Remaining Development
Meeting a Match
State Parks officials were disappointed to learn a $13.8 million federal BUILD grant request last year wasn’t selected for funding by the U.S. Department of Transportation. They’re regrouping to prepare a new grant request to submit this year.
“Hopefully, we’ll have better luck on that,” Spann said.
In December, state officials were debriefed by DOT officials who provided suggestions to improve another grant application by the parks department.
“They thought we had a solid application,” said Jordan Thomas, chief park planner at Arkansas State Parks. “That was encouraging to hear.”
He said a main pointer given in the debriefing was better highlighting the financial leveraging opportunities presented by the Walton Family Foundation.
A $20 million matching grant by the family of Walmart founder Sam Walton is tied to completing the project by 2025. The potential gift represents the biggest grant ever for Arkansas State Parks.
“They said we didn’t play that up enough, and we need to bring it to the forefront to be more apparent to the committee,” Thomas said.
Another suggestion to improve the grant request for a 2021 submission is to get even more participation from the six members of the Arkansas congressional delegation. All six wrote letters of support for the grant, but in the debriefing, it was suggested even more direct advocacy would help elevate a 2021 grant request.
“One thing we could’ve done better was explaining what other projects this is linking to,” Thomas said. “Maybe we didn’t do a good job of explaining the big picture.”
In 2019, the north end of the Delta Heritage Trail was linked with the Big River Trail. The connection completed an unbroken 123-mile trail in Arkansas from the Big River Crossing over the Mississippi River from Memphis to Elaine.
Completing the remaining pieces of the Delta Heritage Trail will not only expand that but help make the grand vision of the Big River Initiative happen: a biking trail from the headwaters of the Mississippi River in Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico.
The BUILD grant funding was earmarked to transform the Yancopin railroad bridge spanning the Arkansas River into a biking-hiking byway.
Rebuffed for now, Arkansas Parks intends to move that project forward with $4.3 million in other grants gathered. The funds would build the remaining 1.1-mile section of trail to reach the bridge and help pay for preliminary work on the bridge.
This piece of the puzzle is scheduled to start construction in spring 2022.
“Interest is definitely growing with people calling and wanting to know when the trail will be complete,” said DHT’s Molly Elders. “That’s when the floodgates will open, and we’ll see a huge hike in our visitation.”