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Outdoor Recreation is ‘Big Business,’ With Room to GrowLock Icon

4 min read

Outdoor recreation contributed nearly 40,000 jobs and $3.5 billion to Arkansas’ gross domestic product in 2021, but state officials believe that is just a fraction of what the industry can accomplish.

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders made the industry’s importance clear when she created the Natural State Initiative Advisory Council in late January and named her husband, Bryan, as the volunteer chairman. She appointed 17 people to the council on Tuesday, names that included top government officials, business leaders and outdoor enthusiasts.

“I am proud to appoint a talented team of bold, passionate, and innovative outdoor recreation leaders to the Natural State Advisory Council,” Sanders said when she announced the appointees. “These individuals bring the experience and expertise our state needs to promote tourism and grow our outdoor economy — sharing with the world what we already know: Arkansas is God’s Country.”

One of the biggest names on the new council is Tom Walton, grandson of Walmart Inc. founder Sam Walton, who is a biking enthusiast and passionate supporter and developer of the booming trail systems in northwest Arkansas. Walton is the co-founder, with his brother Steuart, of the Runway Group, which invests in outdoor developments.

“Outdoor recreation is more than just shared experiences with family and friends on trails, rivers, lakes, etc.,” Walton said. “It is big business. Those are impressive numbers, but with a heightened focus on this industry, we can push ourselves to challenge other outdoor recreation hubs like Colorado. Tourism dollars from outside the state can supercharge our local economies.”

The council will work in cooperation with state departments such as Parks, Heritage & Tourism, Commerce and the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission; all have leaders on the council.

“I am a huge proponent of partnerships and teamwork,” said Mike Mills, secretary of the Department of Parks, Heritage & Tourism. “This is really the first time Commerce and the Department of Parks, Heritage & Tourism will be working together. Then throw in Game & Fish on top of that and it just goes on and on. What happens in that partnership, we find more ways of promoting Arkansas and helping with infrastructure and bringing other businesses into Arkansas.”


Outdoor recreation runs a gamut from fishing and hunting to cycling to hiking to paddlesports.

Northwest Arkansas there has seen a surge in businesses associated with cycling. Members of the council say that with promotion and support, businesses can grow around other outdoor activities across the state.

“Northwest Arkansas has seen an explosion in the outdoor economy due to strategic investments in infrastructure and experiences,” Walton said. “There’s no reason a person couldn’t start a small business or make a career in the outdoor industry here. And it’s the council’s job to make those opportunities visible to all Arkansans. We used to be called the Land of Opportunity, and now we are the Natural State. There’s no reason we can’t be both.”

Mills said the council brings together bright and varied minds. While the state has iconic outdoor venues like the Buffalo River and a duck-hunting paradise in the Arkansas Delta, other gems go underappreciated.

“It’s not necessarily the industry as much as it is the location,” said Mills, who founded the Buffalo Outdoor Center in Ponca in 1976. “The Buffalo National River is always going to be the No. 1 paddle place in Arkansas, but how about the Saline? There are so many other rivers.

“Lake Village, Arkansas, is just as important to me as Bentonville. Bentonville may be way ahead, but when it comes to looking at state parks, we have 52 state parks and 79 natural areas within the Department of Heritage.”

Outdoor Hub

The council hasn’t held its first meeting so definitive strategies and goals haven’t been established. It is required to submit to the governor an annual report summarizing its recommendations for growing Arkansas’ outdoor economy.

The industry’s $3.5 billion contribution is about 2.4% of the state’s GDP. There is a lot of room for growth; Steuart Walton told the Rotary Club of Little Rock on Tuesday that 66 million people live within a day’s drive of Arkansas so making it a recreation destination holds enormous potential.

“And so you’ve got an outdoor recreational opportunity of a lifetime, I think, right here in the state that can be leveraged to drive our economy,” Steuart Walton said. “And there’s 66 million people that are within a day’s drive that would love to come here and recreate.”

Council member Phil Shellhammer, director of the Greenhouse Outdoor Recreation Program at the University of Arkansas, said the state has grown more popular with tourists and entrepreneurs. Shellhammer’s program is an incubator for outdoor businesses.

“The state is this hub of activity that states all around us see as potential,” Shellhammer said. “That’s the place to go to mountain bike; it’s the place to go to hike and camp. It is the outdoor rec activity destination for a lot of states around us.”

Mills said the outdoor recreation initiative is seeking long-term success.

“Outdoor recreation is something that the entire state can wrap its arms around because it is everywhere,” Mills said. “We are going to become the great outdoor recreation destination of the United States and in some ways the world.”

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