A record-setting gift with motivational strings attached is propelling the Delta Heritage Trail to cover its final 40.1 miles in five years. The $20 million matching grant by the Walton Family Foundation is accelerating the development pace of the long-envisioned, tourism-driven project.
“This is the largest grant that State Parks has ever received, public or private,” said Grady Spann, director of Arkansas State Parks. “We really want to build on this partnership.”
The agency intends to parlay the foundation’s matching grant into millions more through additional grant funding to build the last stretch between Elaine in southern Phillips County and Watson in northern Desha County, completing the 84.5-mile biking-hiking trail.
“This gift will ultimately connect the final portion of the trail, which is going to be incredible,” said Karen Minkel, home region program director for the Walton Family Foundation in Bentonville. “In my view, it really capitalizes on some of the state’s greatest assets and will allow others to come and experience these assets. The natural beauty is just remarkable.”
Between Elaine and Watson, a former Union Pacific railroad bed will become a pathway through farmland, wetlands and forested wildlife management areas crowned with panoramic bridge crossings of the lower Arkansas and White rivers.
To match the Walton Family Foundation gift, State Parks is working on grant proposals with the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Lands Access Program (FLAP) and Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development (BUILD) program.
Trail boosters hope to hear good news this month regarding a $3.8 million FLAP grant requested in the fall. The application is linked with future rails to trails work along the southern boundary of the 160,756-acre Dale Bumpers White River National Wildlife Refuge.
State Parks also is putting together a $13.8 million BUILD grant request for submission this spring. The funding is earmarked to transform the Yancopin railroad bridge spanning the Arkansas River into a biking-hiking byway.
The BUILD program’s predecessor contributed to a pair of notable projects linked with Arkansas hiking and biking.
A $14.9 million grant in 2012 provided the lion’s share of funding to add cycling-foot traffic to the rumble of trains on the Harahan Railroad Bridge in Memphis. Opened to non-rail traffic in October 2016, the nearly 1-mile truss bridge over the Mississippi River is known as the Big River Crossing to pedaling enthusiasts and pedestrians.
The project led to Big River Park in Arkansas and 6 miles of paved trail across from the skyline of downtown Memphis with more trails on the drawing board.
The Transportation Department’s Federal Highway Administration also awarded a $15 million grant to help fund the Northwest Arkansas Razorback Regional Greenway. The Walton Family Foundation provided a matching grant to make the 37.6-mile hiking-biking corridor between Fayetteville and Bentonville happen.
“The key to seeking out more grants is having the guaranteed $20 million matching grant in hand,” said Spann. “That grant allows us to close the gap. We have projected out how we can fund our $20 million even if we don’t get a single grant.
“This is a wonderful opportunity for the state of Arkansas. This is going to make a major tourist attraction for east Arkansas a reality, and it’s going to happen in the next 4 1/2 years.”
That timeline is anchored to an August 2024 deadline set by the foundation as a condition to its matching grant. The project doesn’t have to be completed by then, but final construction does need to be in motion for completion in 2025.
The Benzal Bridge over the White River carries an estimated redevelopment price tag of $11.5 million. Inspection and survey work on the Benzal and Yancopin bridges is preceding design work on the unfinished trail south of Elaine.
Construction of 4.9 miles north from Watson is expected to be underway by spring or early summer at the latest when the contract is awarded in the coming weeks.
From there, work later this year will begin pushing the trail on a trestle-dominated 0.72-mile run to the Arkansas River bridge.
The projected timetable to launch construction for the 9 miles between Elaine and Mellwood is early 2021 with a late 2021 or early 2022 start on the 12.1 miles between Mellwood and Snow Lake.
The Delta Heritage Trail was connected with the Big River Trail last year, which established an unbroken 123-mile trail in Arkansas from Elaine to the Big River Crossing.
Funded in large part by the Walton Family Foundation, the project encompassed biking improvements to the existing road network that linked the Delta Heritage State Park near Barton with Mississippi River State Park near Marianna.
A mix of signage and paving work established a course through the historic district of downtown Helena-West Helena and traversed Crowley’s Ridge in the St. Francis National Forest.
Terry Eastin, executive director of the Big River Strategic Initiative, said work is afoot to extend the Big River trail 83 miles north along the Mississippi River levee from West Memphis to Blytheville.
The levee provides an elevated pathway 70 miles south from the Big River Crossing to the Mississippi River State Park. Picking up from the southern end of the Delta Heritage Trail at Arkansas City to push more levee trail toward Louisiana is waiting in the wings.
“That could happen in a hurry,” Eastin said. “That section down there is kind of the sweet spot because Lake Chicot State Park has an established levee trail, and the levee board down there is very open and supportive of the project.”