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Polk County’s Ambitious Plan to Expand Tourism

5 min read

A grand plan backed by enthusiastic supporters would build new tourism byways to traverse Polk County by land and air.

On the ground, the proposal would expand the hiking and biking trails linking Mena and Queen Wilhelmina State Park with 115 miles of new forested paths.

Overhead, the fully realized project would carry outdoor enthusiasts through the treetops up and down Rich Mountain with a ski-lift-style system.

The combination of cabled transportation by air with gravity-fueled pedaling possibilities would create a recreational rarity in this part of the world: a lift-assisted mountain biking trail.

 

“It has the capability to be one of the best in America,” said Mitchell Allen, interim executive director of the Arkansas Parks & Recreation Foundation. “The location offers a great place to build better trails because of the tree covering of the Ouachita National Forest.”

With an elevation change of more than 1,500 feet between the State Park and Mena, the Ouachita Mountain setting would offer some of the sweetest and steepest rides east of the Rockies and west of the Appalachians.

Shaded trails entice more warm weather use. And the mild Arkansas winters would enable near year-round use, attracting bikers when snowfall closes comparable trails elsewhere.

“We have the vertical they’re looking for and the natural beauty,” said Polk County Judge Brandon Ellison. “We’re pretty excited about it. We can’t speed it up fast enough.

“We’re hopeful the proposal will become a project. We believe it will draw a lot of folks from the Dallas area.

“My take is this: Polk County is positioned well to handle the folks coming in. It’s what we do here. Tourism is something we’ve been used to doing for a long time.”

Planners expect the visionary proposal to require tens of millions of dollars in public and private funding, similar to the partnership among state and local sources and the Walton Family Foundation that is building the 84.5-mile Delta Heritage Trail in east Arkansas. For that, the foundation provided a $20 million challenge grant.

The true cost of the Trails at Mena master plan won’t be calculated until the details are finalized. For now, the proposal involves the U.S. Forest Service, the city of Mena, Arkansas State Parks and the nonprofit Arkansas Parks & Recreation Foundation, which launched six years ago and counts the Walton Family Foundation among its patrons.

The quartet formalized the master plan proposal with a memorandum of understanding in December 2022 following meetings of stakeholders and the public earlier that year.

“It was pretty much like a pep rally,” Mena Mayor Seth Smith said of the boisterous support at the public gatherings.

 

In terms of property ownership, the biggest stakeholder by far is the U.S. Forest Service, which owns 38% (more than 200,000 acres) of Polk County.

Boosters are seeking a special use permit from the Forest Service to develop slivers of an 8,832-acre patch of the Ouachita National Forest for trails, lift infrastructure and support facilities and amenities for the proposed trail network.

 

Trails at Mena Grand Plan
Trails at Mena Grand Plan (SE Group)

 

The plan also includes new parking areas and improvements to the pull-offs along Talimena Scenic Drive (Highway 88) with better accessibility to the planned trails through improved roads and new routes in the National Forest.

“The U.S. Forest Service seems to be totally on board,” Ellison said. “Is it doable? We believe it is.”

The proposed project will un-dergo federal scrutiny under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), assessing the plan’s impact on the region’s flora, fauna, historic sites and more.

“Until we have permission, it’s just super conceptual,” said Allen, of the Arkansas Parks & Recreation Foundation.

He expects a decision on the special use permit sometime between April and November 2024.

If the project is approved, it would be developed in phases over several years. By Allen’s reckoning, it could be 2026 before pre-design work and design plans are completed to launch construction on Forest Service land.

The new trail network between Queen Wilhelmina State Park and Mena would be served by eight chair-lift stations. The cabled routes would allow non-bicycle-toting riders (“leaf peepers” in lift country slang) to enjoy airborne vistas of the tree-covered mountains as well.

 

The new forested pathways on Rich Mountain would be a mix of gravity and cross-country trails that tie into the Ouachita National Recreation Trail, which extends mountain biking 108 miles east from the State Park to Scenic Highway 7 near Jessieville.

The outcome of next year’s NEPA review process will set the stage for what recreational changes will be in store for Rich Mountain.

“Once that is done, that will tell us what you can or can’t do on the mountain,” said Mayor Smith.

Expanding Scope

The big-picture idea now committed to paper began small with the goal of developing Ward Lake Park in 2020.

(Google Maps)

Cyclists recognized the 160-acre city-owned property a mile north of Mena as fallow recreational land perfect for biking and walking trails.

“Then we started looking for ways to fund this,” Smith said. “Then the Arkansas Parks & Recreation Foundation started building on our plans. It was the foundation that came up with the idea of making a trail all the way from the park to downtown Mena.”

That expanded into a grand what-if project of developing a trail network that connected Mena with Queen Wilhelmina State Park, about 10 miles northwest as the crow flies.

“There are lots to figure out, but we’re super optimistic about what it could be and what it could mean for tourism in the western part of the state,” said Shea Lewis, secretary of the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage & Tourism.

“Arkansas State Parks has always had a strong connection with Mena because of Queen Wilhelmina State Park, a flagship location, and the Ouachita Mountains, one of the most spectacular natural resources we have in the state.”

With a nod to the Trails at Mena master plan, the state is investing $3 million to improve recreation-related infrastructure at the 460-acre State Park crowned by its namesake lodge.

 

While the NEPA process proceeds, Mena also is moving forward with developing Ward Lake Park.

The city awarded Bentonville’s Progressive Trail Design a $347,900 construction contract to build a 1.2-mile all-weather loop around the original lakeshore plus 1.9 miles of intermediate trail and a 5.7-acre trailhead parking area.

The work should be completed during 2024.

This opening phase of the Ward Lake trail network will provide jumping-off points for a trail to connect a mile south to Mena and as well as future trail extensions to the east and west.

Mena officials are in the early process of developing plans to enhance biking-pedestrian connectivity with an eye toward the planned link with Ward Lake Park.

 

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