Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders

100 Years of Outdoor Recreation and The Natural State Initiative

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The Governor praises Arkansas State Parks and lays out her vision for The Natural State Initiative

Today, Arkansans celebrate what some consider to be the catalyst for branding Arkansas, The Natural State. But that moniker would not be adopted for over 60 years. In 1923 the state not only reserved its first state park land, but it also became The Wonder State.

History can be tough. Deciding on an origin date is not a simple task. In state government, the inception of a significant event is marked on the day that legislation was signed. In the case of Arkansas State Parks, for decades, the staff did not follow the legislation to calculate its point of origin. Instead, the park system calculated its birth based on the first new construction in the parks. In March of 1933, the Civilian Conservation Corps started building roads, bridges, campgrounds, trails, cabins, lodges, and more. These facilities became the base for what most people think of as a state park. Until a couple of years ago, that was the date anniversaries were based on. So in 2008, The parks celebrated their 75th anniversary and now, only 15 years later, we are celebrating the 100th.

Park Staff celebrating (Photo courtesy of Kelly Farrel)
Park Staff celebrating (Photo courtesy of Kelly Farrell)

In the last few years, parks department staff began looking at the original legislation. Act 276 of 1923 allowed the State Land Commissioner to begin to “accept land donations for state parks and reservations.” It was at this point that property was received from the Fort Smith Lumber Company that would eventually be Petit Jean State Park. It would be another 4 years before oversight for this land would be created with Act 172 of 1927 which authorized a seven-member State Parks Commission “to select and acquire such areas of the State of Arkansas which, by reason of their natural features, scenic beauty and historical interest, have educational, recreational, health, camping and out-door life advantages,” as well as “to preserve native flora and fauna for purposes of promoting Arkansas and attracting visitors.”

In the years since the Great Depression, Arkansas State Parks have continued to grow and evolve. The state has acquired more land and established more parks, and many of the existing parks have been renovated and updated to meet the changing needs of visitors. In 1996, the state passed Amendment 75 which gave the park system the funding it needed to become known as one of the best in the country. Today, Arkansas State Parks offer a wide variety of outdoor recreational opportunities, from hiking and camping to fishing and boating. They also provide opportunities to learn about the natural and cultural history of Arkansas through interpretive programs and exhibits.

The Centennial Ceremony

This is the backdrop as dignitaries from across the state including Governor and First Gentleman Sanders met at Petit Jean State Park this morning to commemorate the 100th Anniversary of the Arkansas State Park system.

The ceremony was held behind Mather Lodge, a Civilian Conservation Corps facility named for Stephen Mather, the father of the National Park System. The threatening rain held off and guests were treated to a beautiful day with Cedar Valley as a backdrop.

Shea Lewis, Director, Arkansas State Parks
Shea Lewis, Director, Arkansas State Parks

The Director of Arkansas State Parks, Shea Lewis welcomed over 100 guests and dignitaries, introducing several past park leaders including, Richard Davies, Greg Butts, Grady Spann, and Stacy Hurst. After mentioning that the park system hosted over 8.5 million guests last year, Lewis announced the centennial by saying, “Our goal this coming year is to connect the past 100 years to the next 100 years by being relevant and meaningful for all visitors and guests.” He went on to mention how Amendment 75, passed in 1996 with the support of Governor Mike Huckabee and First Lady Janet Huckabee, parents to our current governor.

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Director Lewis also mentioned that more information on the Centennial celebration will be available at https://www.arkansasstateparks.com/centennial

Secretary, Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism, Mike Mills
Secretary, Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism, Mike Mills

After State Parks, Recreation and Travel Commissioner Randy Wolfenburger introduced the members of the commission in attendance. Newly appointed Secretary of the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism, Mike Mills took the stage next reminiscing about knowing Governor Huckabee since she was 12 years old.

Mills said, “Today we’ve reached a moment in time when we are able to celebrate the centennial of Arkansas State Parks and for all of us who know and love Arkansas, we recognize that our state is home to some of the most beautiful and natural resources in the whole world. Arkansas’s rivers, lakes, forests, mountains, caves, and trails are truly world-class and we’re going to put them on the world stage.”

He then mentioned the first meeting of the Natural State Initiative happened earlier in the day at the park visitor center, stating, “The goal of the Natural State Initiative is to further establish Arkansas as a leader in the outdoor economy and a destination for outdoor enthusiasts around the world. Together, we’re going to make sure The Natural State reaches its full potential to be a true leader in the outdoor recreation industry.”

Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders
Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders

Governor Sanders spoke to the appreciative crowd next, joking about being in a park and not at the state capital, “We’ve been in the middle, as most of you know, of my first legislative session, and no offense to all of our friends in the legislature, but I have to say I enjoy this view a whole lot better.”

The Natural State Initiative was mentioned several times during the ceremony. When mentioning her husband, the Governor said, “I’m also very glad to be here with my husband…he loves the outdoors and Arkansas State Parks. As the head of my administration’s new Natural State Initiative, he is helping take our state’s outdoor economy to the next level and I know that he will bring an unrivaled passion to that project and to our state helping us become the leader in outdoor recreation I believe Arkansas deserves.”

The Governor then went on to outline her expectations of The Natural State Initiative, “The Natural State Initiative will aggressively market our state as a destination for both tourists and new residents. We’ll invest in the outdoor workforce we need to take our parks to the next level. We’ll invite new vendors and add new experiences at our parks to enhance their appeal. We’ll examine new tax incentives and opportunity zones to draw outdoor entrepreneurs and businesses to our state. None of these plans would mean anything though without our state’s natural endowment, it was here long before we got here and will be here long after we’re gone. We need to do everything we can to protect it and preserve it and make sure we pass that on so that many generations have the ability to enjoy it in the way that we do.”

During an interview with Secretary Mills a couple of weeks ago, I mentioned to him that I had heard that she intended to continue her father’s conservation legacy in the state, he said that her intention is to be even stronger than her father in this regard. It looks like she will be using The Natural State Initiative as the vehicle for this.

The Governor handing out Centennial Pins to the park staff
The Governor handing out Centennial Pins to the park staff

After signing the proclamation recognizing 100 years of Arkansas State Parks and proclaim 2023 as the Arkansas State Parks Centennial Year, she then handed out the official Centennial uniform pins to all uniformed park staff in attendance.

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Below is the text of the proclamation.


Proclamation on Arkansas State Parks Centennial Year

WHEREAS:    One hundred years ago, Governor Thomas Chipman McRae signed into law an act authorizing the acceptance of land for parks and state reservations in Arkansas; and

WHEREAS:    Through the passion, pursuit, and founding vision of Dr. T.W. Hardison, House Bill 873 passed without a dissenting vote and was signed into law as Act 276 of 1923, serving as the foundation by which the entirety of the Arkansas State Park system was established; and

WHEREAS:    Initial land was acquired for the creation of Petit Jean State Park on September 10, 1923, making it the first state park established in Arkansas; and

WHEREAS:    The passion and pursuit of Dr. T.W. Hardison and the state park idea, culminating in the 1920s, is a legacy that we appreciate and enjoy today, 100 years later; and

WHEREAS:    The Arkansas State Parks Commission was created in 1927 to select and acquire areas of natural and scenic beauty and promote recreational enjoyment for the people of the state and the attraction of visitors; and

WHEREAS:    The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), created by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the Great Depression, began work in 1933 to construct Arkansas’ first state parks at Petit Jean, Mount Nebo, Crowley’s Ridge, Devil’s Den, Lake Catherine, and the future Buffalo National River; and

WHEREAS:    During his term, Governor Dale Bumpers invested more in Arkansas State Parks than ever before, doubling the number of state parks, an unprecedented, visionary investment in preservation, conservation and recreation; and

WHEREAS:    With the support of Governor Mike Huckabee, in 1996, voters approved an amendment to the state’s constitution for the collection of a one-eighth of one percent sales tax to support Arkansas State Parks, Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, Arkansas Heritage, and Keep Arkansas Beautiful, thus confirming the importance of wildlife conservation, state parks, and heritage resources to the citizens of Arkansas; and

WHEREAS:    With 52 state parks, 55,000 acres, and parks in 49 counties, Arkansas State Parks has grown into a representative sample of Arkansas scenic beauty, rich history and treasured culture; and

WHEREAS:    Each state park is a significant part of the fabric of Arkansas, and the Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism is charged with an important role in interpreting, maintaining and protecting some of the most cherished natural, historical, and cultural resources found in Arkansas; and

WHEREAS:    The State Parks of Arkansas have impacted and enhanced the quality of life of Arkansans and served guests from around the world; and

WHEREAS:    Collectively the Arkansas State Park system is one of the state’s largest tourism and economic drivers, adding over $1 billion each year to the state’s economy and having last year welcomed over 8 million guests into Arkansas parks and museums;

NOW, THEREFORE, I, SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, Governor of the State of Arkansas, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the laws of the State of Arkansas, do hereby proclaim the year 2023, as

“ARKANSAS STATE PARKS CENTENNIAL YEAR”

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And urge the citizens of the state to take cognizance of this event and participate fittingly in its observance.

IN TESTIMONY WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Great Seal of the State of Arkansas to be affixed the 1st day of March, in the year of our Lord 2023.

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One Response

  1. The silver lining of the dark, ominous cloud of Governor Sander’s new administration – I support The Natural State Initiative and the recognition that the economic potential of our beautiful state is only limited by the state’s willingness to conserve, protect, and restore the ecological health of our public lands, habitats and waters, regulating private industry and personal use only as needed to protect the public resources that industries and individuals rely on.

    Public funds and actions enhance Public resources to the benefit of private investment and entrepreneurship as well as the public good. In the same vein, public funds and actions should be invested in public education and public services – a rising tide that lifts all boats, including the liveability, safety and economic future of the communities and neighborhoods where private and home schooled children and their parents live. All our private property values go up and down with the quality of Public Education available, regardless of whether a property owner has school-age children. Quality trails, pristine waters, healthy habitats and beautiful scenery generate a billion eco-tourism dollars in revenue and sales taxes that benefit every Arkansan, whether or not an individual chooses to hike, bike, bird, paddle, fish and/or hunt. Public dollars invested in public resources benefit all. Our personal choices can magnify that benefit based on our individual values and choices, but all benefit and have the freedom to maximize that public benefit.

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