Mississippi River State Park

Arkansas State Parks Announce ‘Park of the Year’ Awards

Searcy County Waterfall

Five Parks Chosen for Outstanding Service

(LITTLE ROCK, ARK.) – Mississippi River State Park took home the top award of 2019 Overall Park of the Year in the Arkansas State Park system. DeGray Lake Resort, Moro Bay, Historic Davidsonville, and Lake Dardanelle state parks won regional Park of the Year awards.

“Our state parks consistently excel at hospitality, taking care of our visitors, interpretive programming, maintaining our facilities, and assisting other parks,” Arkansas State Parks Director Grady Spann says. “These five state parks were chosen because of their ability to go above and beyond our mission and perform in a superior manner.”

Mississippi River State Park

Mississippi River State Park in Marianna was chosen as Overall Park of the Year for innovative partnerships that allowed park staff to serve their community in a meaningful way. Superintendent Kristina Root Carranza says most of their accomplishments were years in the making and came to full fruition this year. These collaborations increased spring break camp participation, created innovative designs for new observation shelters, and added capacity to interpretive programs.

“The projects and partnerships we created were solutions to the difficult issues we face in providing the best public service possible. These solutions didn’t have straight forward answers. It took time, listening, understanding to solve,” she explains. “In this process, we have been able to create critical stakeholders in the community, new stakeholders, and introduce a new generation to Arkansas State Parks. At the same time, we were solving problems and fulfilling the Arkansas State Parks mission.”

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Mississippi River State Park
Mississippi River State Park

Mississippi River State Park secured a grant to have an AmeriCorps NCCC team come to the park. The grant allowed the 11 volunteers to spend six weeks working at the park, a donated value of $47,520 in labor. It was an innovative solution to reduce the backlog of maintenance projects, spark new interpretive ideas, and enhance resource protection.

Park staff realized that when serving their local community, they needed to learn how to help at-risk children and families better. One way was by getting more children to attend the park’s Spring Break day camp. In past years, very few children participated, and although they enjoyed the camp, park staff knew more children in the community could benefit from the camp. What were the barriers?

Transportation, the cost of the camp, and the timeframe were three main hardships. They knew they couldn’t address these issues alone, so they reached out to the community and they answered. Transportation was provided by a local health group, Lee County Cooperative Clinic. Fees were paid by individual community members who sponsored a child to attend camp. In a community where a significant portion lives below poverty lines, the staff was overwhelmed when $2,000 in donations were collected in just two days. Every child attended for free. The AmeriCorps NCCC team allowed park staff to extend the camp hours to 7:30 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. for working parents.

These changes paid off big time. In the spring of 2019, 20 children attended a state park camp. The third- through fifth-graders were introduced to Mississippi River State Park, creating new stakeholders and outdoor enthusiasts. Of the 20 children, 15 had never been to a state park. Most campers had never been fishing, set up a tent, been in the forest, had a s’more, or touched the Mississippi River. This disconnection from their natural environment would have continued without the innovative mindset of the park staff.

Visitors to Mississippi River State Park will soon see the results of another new partnership. In the Fall of 2018, Arkansas State Parks Chief Planner Jordan Thomas led an effort to engage UA’s Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design students. They were given the opportunity to work on the design of proposed observation shelters. This partnership offered the students real-world experience and ultimately, seeing the physical completion of their work. After touring the park and learning about its mission, the students utilized storytelling and site analysis to create visually stunning plans. In the late spring of 2020, Arkansas State Parks plans to begin construction of two of those designs.

This year the park also formed a partnership with the Lower Mississippi River Foundation. This collaboration helped add capacity to the park’s interpretive programs. The foundation’s goal is to bring awareness to the ecological importance of the Mississippi River. Through this combined effort, staff was able to reach out to elementary school teachers and discover how the park could help them reach state standards and curriculum goals. In one day, they hosted meetings with kindergarten through fifth-grade teachers. Staff then translated the teachers’ concerns into elements they could insert in interpretive park programming.

“It’s easy to see why Mississippi River State Park received top honors,” Spann says. “Part of our mission is to enhance the quality of life through exceptional outdoor experiences, connections to Arkansas heritage, and provide quality resource recreational and educational opportunities to meet the needs of our citizens. Their achievements in these areas are outstanding.”

Lake Dardanelle State Park

The Region 1 Park of the Year is Lake Dardanelle State Park in Russellville. The park excelled in resource management, interpretive programming, and serving visitors despite record flooding of the Arkansas River this year and its impact on the park.

Park staff planted 11 Ozark Chinquapin trees in the park in cooperation with the Ozark Chinquapin Foundation. They have been monitoring the trees and have eight remaining, varying in size. The Ozark Chinquapin Foundation is working to restore the Ozark Chinquapin or Ozark Chestnut to Arkansas again. The tree is drought tolerant, produces a bounty of sweet nuts that humans and wildlife alike enjoy, and its wood is rot resistant. A blight wiped the tree out, but by state parks and others partnering with the foundation, the tree could make a comeback.

Lake Dardanelle State Park
Lake Dardanelle State Park

“Lake Dardanelle State Park staff came together in amazing ways this year. So many of our staff have talents above and beyond their assigned position and they are all willing to do anything they can to improve the park facilities and the visitor experience,” Superintendent Sarah Keating says.

Lake Dardanelle State Park Interpreter Sasha Bowles heads up the Arkansas Monarch and Pollinator Partnership for Arkansas State Parks and serves as a great resource for others in the agency. The partnership is a group of citizens, conservation and agricultural organizations, government agencies, utilities and agribusinesses committed to the creation, enhancement, and conservation of monarch and pollinator habitat in Arkansas. Bowles was also named Boaters Education Instructor of the Year by Arkansas Game and Fish Commission this year.

Arkansas State Parks Deputy Director Shea Lewis says, “These resource-based efforts are at the core of the division’s mission. Tenets such as preserving natural, historical and cultural resources as well as leading in resource conservation were accomplished through the efforts of Lake Dardanelle State Park.”

Also, thanks to a cooperative grant from the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, park staff installed three life jacket stations at the park’s swim beach and boat ramps at the beginning of the season. This provides all visitors with free life-saving equipment.

Davidsonville Historic State Park

The Region 2 Park of the Year is Davidsonville Historic State Park in Pocahontas. Despite a staffing shortage, Davidsonville staff was able to stay on mission, provide visitors with a variety of historical and natural educational programs, and provide recreational programs for fun outdoor family experiences. They cross-trained positions and pulled together as a team.  The Davidsonville team holds daily staff huddles and discusses what each team member needs to achieve.

The park pays close attention to ensure that the park’s gift shop offers items directly related to Davidsonville’s mission. In fact, nearly half of all sale items fall into this category.

Davidsonville Historic State Park
Davidsonville Historic State Park

Registration book comments are especially robust about the maintenance crew’s efforts. Guests say the park is “nice, lovely, beautiful, and fantastic.” This is also evident by the visitors who have now become regular guests at the park. Keep Arkansas Beautiful partnered with Davidsonville and held a tree planting event in the spring to help beautify and manage the resource.

Davidsonville Superintendent and Ranger Kendra Harris patrols the park regularly, and even sometimes on her days off, to better serve the park’s guests. By interacting with visitors consistently, she is not only able to make connections with them, but also provide visitor education to help deter situations that require law enforcement action.

“The staff at Davidsonville Historic State Park work as a team to ensure all visitors and campers have great, memorable experiences and enjoy all this little historical park has to offer. Whatever project, special event, program, or work detail being worked on, the park team unites to accomplish what is set before them,” Harris says. “This team, my work family, are wonderful, hardworking people, who care deeply for the natural resources, history, and facilities of Davidsonville Historic State Park.”

Park staff also partnered with Heritage staff to hold a living history event honoring the territorial bicentennial. They received a grant from the Arkansas Humanities Council in the amount of $6,855 to hold this special event that allowed visitors to learn about Arkansas’s rich heritage.

Moro Bay State Park

The Region 4 Park of the Year Award goes to Moro Bay State Park in Jersey. Staff provides excellent hospitality and an incredible experience to its visitors along the banks of the Ouachita River in South Arkansas allowing them to form personal connections to the resource and the park. They also maintain a superior standard in resource management.

Moro Bay State Park Superintendent Paul Butler serves on Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s Arkansas Feral Hog Eradication Task Force and the Arkansas State Parks Feral Hog Task Force. Butler developed a standard operating procedure for the park system’s trapping program and stays in communication with the state park Director’s Office with updates on the program and effectiveness.

Moro Bay State Park
Moro Bay State Park

“Feral hogs are considered an animal nuisance species and cause millions of dollars in damage in Arkansas and more than a billion dollars nationwide each year,” Spann says. “Thankfully, the Arkansas Legislature and Governor Hutchinson created this task force that unites several state agencies and organizations together to fight this problem. Paul is playing an important role in representing Arkansas State Parks and leading our effort to eradicate feral hogs in our parks and to assist other stakeholders to be effective in their efforts to do the same.”

Moro Bay staff members also make substantial contributions to the Natural Resources Inventory Database (NRID). They contribute records and photos of flora and fauna found within the park. NRID plays a vital role in the management of Arkansas State Parks’ natural resources. For example, NRID allows park staff to create custom checklists for birders and wildflower lovers, so they have an opportunity to explore and make discoveries of their own. It also helps students better understand species and where they occur in habitat.

“The staff we have at Moro Bay is truly exceptional. In fiscal year 19, despite nine months of moderate flooding, the park set a record in our attendance for our fall cross country event and reached a record in total revenues. Our interpretive staff presented 254 programs,” Butler says. “Guests rave about the cleanliness of our cabins, the tidiness of the grounds, and the condition of our facilities. This doesn’t happen without dedicated maintenance, housekeeping, and visitor center employees committed to serving those who visit the park whatever their reason. We have learned that partnering with local volunteers, agencies, professionals, and schools is also a key to the park’s success, so we seize every opportunity to do so.”

Efficiency is key to maintaining a state park. Park staff saw a need and built new metal firewood racks with wheels that can be lifted by a front-end loader and moved. This creative solution allows staff to load and move firewood without having to handle it more than one time.

DeGray Lake Resort State Park

The Region 5 Park of the Year Award goes to DeGray Lake Resort State Park in Bismarck. DeGray Lake Resort is one of five lodge parks in the park system. The park thrived in interpretive programming that provided visitors with a personal connection with the resource and the park.

DeGray Lake Resort State Park delivered 1,090 programs for 15,261 people, 88 school programs for 5,770 students, and made more than $40,000 in revenue from programming.

DeGray Lake Resort State Park
DeGray Lake Resort State Park

“Island Adventure” is a new program developed by park interpreters David Armstrong and Kayla Gomance that allows visitors to experience so much of what the resource has to offer. Island Adventure is a full day of adventure on the island with kayaking, hiking, park interpreter-led programs, food from the Shoreline Restaurant, and an evening campfire.

Island Adventure participant Alisa Beecham says, “I hope you do [the Island Adventure] again because it was the best day ever! Every attention to detail was planned out and thought out by your wonderfully attentive staff. This rivaled some seriously expensive excursions I’ve done off cruise ships before. Absolutely stellar! We can’t thank you enough for all your hard work! Well done!”

Park guest Kay Hardin says, “Beautiful lake. Well maintained campground facilities. Amazing park interpreter guided activities for adults and kids. One of our favorites.”

The park also faced difficulties meeting revenue projections due to lodge construction. To address this issue, park staff delayed filling salaried and extra help positions. This fiscal responsibility didn’t come easy, but the park staff was committed. They banded together as a team by absorbing duties of vacant positions, saving the park system $89,552 in regular salaries and $152,420 in extra help pay.

DeGray Lake Resort State Park Superintendent Walt Reding says, “I am proud of what our staff was able to accomplish this year. Even with trying to keep staffing at a minimum level, we accomplished some very remarkable in-house projects, such as revamping the No. 8 green on the golf course and building a new buffet for the Shoreline Restaurant. The staff here at DeGray Lake Resort State Park is focused on creating an organizational culture centered around hospitality to our guests and being good stewards of the facilities and resources that the citizens of Arkansas have entrusted us to manage.”

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About Arkansas State Parks

Arkansas State Parks is a division of the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage, and Tourism. Arkansas state parks and museums cover 54,400 acres of forest, wetlands, fish and wildlife habitat, outdoor recreation facilities and unique historic and cultural resources. The system includes 1,100 buildings (including 183 historic structures), six National Historic Landmarks, a National Natural Landmark, 16 sites on the National Register of Historic Places, and War Memorial Stadium.

The state parks have 1,800 campsites, 1,050 picnic sites, 208 cabins, five lodges, and 415 miles of trails. Eight million visitors annually come from all regions of the country. Park staffs provide over 42,000 education programs, activities and special events to more than 700,000 participants each year.
Established in 1923, Arkansas State Parks preserve special places for future generations, provide quality recreation and education opportunities, enhance the state’s economy through tourism, and provide leadership in resource conservation.

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