Governor Sanders speaking at Pinnacle Mountain State Park.

Follow Up on the Elimination of State Parks and Reduced Staffing

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Last week, we posted an opinion piece on irregularities seen at the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism, the Governor’s Office, and the First Gentleman’s Office. It started with the unexpected ouster of Mike Mills as the secretary of the department. Due to a lack of information surrounding the removal, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and the Arkansas Times filed FOIA requests for emails and other information surrounding Mr. Mill’s resignation. Due to the importance of the Arkansas State Parks to outdoor recreation in the state, we felt it was important to further expand on the circumstances surrounding the information provided in the emails released. – Joe Jacobs

On Thursday, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette released a follow-up article on the email that former Secretary of the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism sent to then-State Parks Director Shea Lewis on May 24. The newspaper provided more information on the seven Arkansas state parks mentioned in the email and points out that several of them are National Historic Landmarks. It also provides more information on current staffing levels.

The Parks Elimination “Plan”

In the emails referred to by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the only place a “plan” is mentioned is in a statement attributed to interim Director, Shea Lewis when he said, “The plan was created by former leadership and did not follow the directive of the Governor’s office.” In response to the Arkansas Outside article on Tuesday, former Secretary Stacy Hurst responded that there was no such plan under her leadership from 2019 until the end of 2022. (Hurst was replaced by Mills in January). As mentioned in Tuesday’s article, Mills’ email never uses the word “plan.”  This list of low visitation, low revenue parks has been considered for years when discussing what/if scenarios while contemplating solutions to budget cuts.

It should also be noted that state park directors or agency secretaries do not have the power to close a park. All state parks are created by an act of legislation. It would take the support of the governor, legislature, or state supreme court to reverse this legislation.

On May 24, Secretary Mike Mills asked for a meeting with the governor to discuss the elimination of these seven parks, staffing levels, and a few other concerns. There is nothing in any of the correspondence that I have seen that suggests Secretary Mills was for or either against the closures, only that he wanted to discuss them. There is also no way to tell from the current information if he was asked for this information or if raising the subject was his idea. As late as May 31, Mills was still asking for a meeting with the governor. Late afternoon on Friday, June 2, Mills was asked to resign. It appears he never had the requested meeting with the Governor. There is more information on this reported by the Arkansas Times.

The Staffing Issue

Thursday’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette featured more information on staffing at Arkansas Parks, Heritage and Tourism from Shealyn Sowers,

“Arkansas State Parks is still operating with 585 filled and 93 vacant full-time positions. The agency also has 444 filled and 501 vacant part-time positions, said Shealyn Sowers, spokesperson for the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism, in a written response to questions Tuesday.” (Reported in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette 06/22/2023)

Doing the math, out of 1,523 total positions in the Arkansas State Parks 594 are currently vacant, which means that the Arkansas State Parks are currently down 39% in total personnel.  As of 8 am today, there were a total of 24 positions advertised on the website, 4 of which are Department of Heritage positions. The numbers mentioned by Sowers are for the entire agency, not just state parks. The Arkansas state parks make up the vast majority of positions in the agency.

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AR Careers Website 0800, 06/26/23.
AR Careers Website 0800, 06/26/23.

Park managers (Superintendents) are given a budget each year that they must stay within. Often the number of positions they have exceeds that budget which means that some positions can’t be filled.  A few years back, in an attempt to cut costs, the Lower White River and Arkansas Post Museum, which were mentioned in the May 24 email, reduced their operational hours to Wednesday through Saturday. This measure was taken to save on staffing and utility expenses. During my tenure as the marketing and revenue manager under Governors Huckabee, Beebe, and Hutchinson, the parks were always under pressure to reduce costs and staffing.

On January 10, 2023, as one of her first acts upon taking office, Governor Sanders created an executive order to institute an immediate hiring and promotion freeze. This was her first executive order. I have found no record of this order being changed or rescinded since.

According to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Alexa Henning, a spokesperson for the governor, said in a written statement Monday that Sanders is “committed to elevating our State Parks, not closing them, or firing our excellent and dedicated Parks staff, and that is one reason among many she decided to promote State Parks Director Shea Lewis to interim Secretary of Parks, Heritage, and Tourism.” While the governor may not be actively firing “our excellent and dedicated Parks staff,” I do not see an effort to fill the almost 40% of total positions that remain unfilled.

It is particularly worrisome that the park system staffing is down over half of the total part-time (often referred to as seasonal) positions in the middle of the Summer season. These employees work no more than 1800 hours per year but contribute immensely in the areas of law enforcement, interpretation, maintenance, and service roles such as restaurant and lodging staff. They provide the support needed to handle the large influx of visitors arriving during the year’s busiest time.

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During the recent pandemic, the parks experienced a reduced workforce while also setting records in park attendance. They have yet to fully recover from this. New facilities came online during the pandemic most notably the Monument Trail system. This collection of four state-of-the-art mountain bike trail systems in four state parks consists of almost 100 miles of trails. It was good to hear interim Director Lewis mention at the State Parks, Recreation and Travel Commission meeting last week that four new maintenance positions were approved for parks with Monument Trails. I asked Mr. Lewis if these positions are funded last week, ADPHT Chief of Communications, Shealyn Sowers emailed this morning saying that the positions are funded and the, “Position creation process is ongoing through OPM (Office of Personnel Management). We are hoping to advertise by the third week of July.”

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While there may not be active firing happening at the parks but by freezing hiring, staffing is being cut through attrition. The harder the job gets due to the lack of employees to support visitation, the more experienced and talented employees look for other career options. The governor can open up hiring at the state parks and within any government agency. If you’re visiting a state park, and you notice that the trash cans are full, the grass isn’t mowed, the bathrooms aren’t clean, the restaurant service is slow, or there just don’t seem to be as many interpretive programs as in the past, know that park staff is trying their best to get it done. Hopefully, the state’s leaders are fulfilling their duties and providing adequate support to the staff.

Joe Jacobs served as the Marketing & Revenue Manager for Arkansas State Parks from 2005-2021, Mr. Jacobs also served as the chair of the Governor’s Advisory Council on Cycling from 2017 to 2021. He is currently the owner/editor of

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2 Responses

  1. You should also look into how Heritage was actively ignoring OPM policy for years and not paying part time workers holiday pay. They owe hundred of thousands, if not more in back pay to workers.

  2. Arkansas has quickly turned into a stooge baby Texas state…anything Texas does Arkansas does better. I think that’s the new motto for Arkansan politicians. FYI The reason Texas cut their state park budgets is because nobody goes to their state parks 🤣 The Big C

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