LITTLE ROCK, Ark.— Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders today received a report from the Natural State Initiative advisory council detailing the group’s recommendations to increase access to outdoor recreation and grow Arkansas’ outdoor economy. The Governor established the Natural State Initiative at the beginning of her term through Executive Order, requiring an annual written report summarizing its progress. Arkansas’ First Gentleman, Bryan Sanders, leads the group’s advisory council.
“Arkansas is the Natural State, and our mission is to establish Arkansas as a leading destination for year-round outdoor adventure,” said First Gentleman and Natural State Initiative Advisory Council Chair Bryan Sanders. “I’m proud of this group’s work and encourage Arkansans to read the report and offer their input and feedback. Together, we can make our state not only the best place to visit and spend time outdoors, but to live, work, and raise a family.”
“Since its inception earlier this year, The Natural State Initiative has worked to help leverage Arkansas’ unmatched natural beauty to promote tourism and grow our outdoor economy,” said Shea Lewis, secretary of the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism. “The initiative has been an important step in Governor Sanders’ bold approach to involve multiagency and private partners working together to ensure that Arkansas does not just compete in the outdoor economy space, but rather, is a true national leader in outdoor recreation and the outdoor economy. The initiative has provided a framework to market the beauty and potential of The Natural State to the world for recreation tourism and outdoor business opportunities.”
The presentation provided doesn’t mention any private partners but does list several agency partners including Arkansas State Parks, Arkansas Tourism, the Arkansas Office of Outdoor Recreation (all three of which are sections of the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism), Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, and the University of Arkansas’ Greenhouse Outdoor Recreation Program.
The Natural State Initiative’s topline recommendations are below. A full list of the group’s recommendations and proposed ways to achieve them can be found here.
Invest in enhancing the Arkansas State Park experience
- Develop the Arkansas State Parks “Next Centennial” campaign — charting the next 100 years that focuses on master planning, maintenance, and operation of Arkansas State Parks
- Partner with local businesses to offer quality food and beverage, including alcohol sales, at higher-visitation state parks
- Grow the Monument Trails system, including the development of a world-class downhill mountain bike park Building new trails and funding trail maintenance, including the hiring of a dedicated trail manager at each Monument Trails system
- Expand rock climbing in Arkansas State Parks, including traditional and sport routes and via ferrata to provide access for all skill levels
- Expand and improve campgrounds in Arkansas State Parks with an emphasis on restrooms and camper cabins
- Continue to build out broadband connectivity within Arkansas State Parks.
Establish Arkansas as a year-round tourism destination
- Establish Arkansas Tourism office as a national leader in tourism
- Identify and utilize brand partners that reflect Arkansas’ culture and can further advance the vision of Arkansas Tourism
- Empower regional tourism associations to develop and market their tourism products that feature unique cultural and recreational experiences
- Develop and promote major events, like the 2024 Arkansas Graveler, to showcase Arkansas as a leading destination for outdoor recreation
- Maximize the impact of the Great American Eclipse in April 2024 — convert one-time visitors into repeat visitors
Further enhance Arkansas’ outdoor economy
- Codify the Office of Outdoor Recreation into state law to create greater opportunities for access to state revenue and federal grants
- Explore natural areas to support conservation
- Partner in a more intentional manner with NGOs, such as The Nature Conservancy
- Consider long-term funding for Outdoor Grants and provide greater flexibility to grant awards that provide statewide impact
- Utilize dollars from the tobacco settlement to provide outdoor recreational grants
- Create the Outdoor Business Alliance to act as a statewide trade organization to promote and advocate for a growing and impactful outdoor industry
Educate Arkansans to the personal and economic benefits of a thriving outdoor economy
- Educate Arkansans to the health benefits of outdoor recreation
- Promote opportunities within Arkansas State Parks for establishing a healthy lifestyle
- e.g., First Day Hikes
- Expand outdoor recreation programs in schools to introduce more kids to the outdoors and improve health
Promote careers in outdoor recreation, tourism, and hospitality
- Increase and emphasize career options in outdoor recreation, tourism, and hospitality at the high school and community college levels
- Emphasize and strengthen CTE programs
- Develop a statewide strategy for recruiting talented workers to the state
Provide greater investment in and support to those engaged in Arkansas’ outdoor economy
- Compete with other states by exploring the idea of creating a venture fund specific to outdoor recreation
- Create an outdoor accelerator program to fill a gap in the pipeline of resources available to the industry
- Explore the availability of incentives and other tax credits to include outdoor recreation companies
- Align businesses with in-state investor networks to provide greater access to investment capital
- Extend mentoring and business consulting resources to middle-stage and mature outdoor recreation businesses
- Develop a guidebook for identifying resources
- Host an Arkansas-specific trade show with an emphasis on smaller brands and direct-to-consumer companies
Grow the Arkansas Delta Recreation Economy
- Expand access to recreation and cultural assets to improve Arkansans’ health and well-being
- Establish a series of gravel bicycle routes and water trails that connect rural communities and cultural assets with nearby state parks, public lands, and other high-quality destinations
- Establish vibrant and historic Main Streets with connected natural amenities that draw more visitors to the community
- Cultivate local food economies throughout the focus area
- Target the specific markets of Little Rock; Conway; Pine Bluff; Jonesboro; Memphis; Jackson, Tenn.; and Cape Girardeu, Mo.
- Develop the Big Woods hardwood bottomland forest in Arkansas (27 counties) into a destination for tourists to participate in biking, hiking, trail running, bird watching, and water trailing
- Establish Crowley’s Ridge as THE destination for gravel biking in Eastern Arkansas — the fastest-growing sector of the bicycle industry
Use mobile technology as a driver to fuel the outdoor economy
- Develop a digital platform featuring verified trails and outdoor adventure data curated by experts, accessible for free via a mobile app
- Digitally curate trails and expeditions tailored to visitors’ interests and experiences within the app
- Enable visitors to navigate trails with turn-by-turn directions using GPS navigation
- Showcase trending/popular outdoor attractions within the app
- Offer offline maps, virtual tours, and 3D views of trails on the mobile app platform
- Provide attraction information such as distance, elevation, trail grade, and real-time weather information – water levels, trail conditions, etc.
- Customize dining and accommodation hubs strategically located near attractions, elevating the overall visitor experience
- Develop a platform within a mobile app to connect the outdoors with hospitality allowing visitors to book lodging and reserve dining experiences
- Establish an engaging digital community focused on promoting outdoor tourism in Arkansas
There is little information offered from the Natural State Initiative for funding which makes this somewhat of a wish list. The state parks have relied on the Amendment 75 Conservation Tax (1/8th of a cent of sales tax goes toward Arkansas State Parks, Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, Keep Arkansas Beautiful, and the Natural Heritage Commission) that was championed by Governor Sanders’ father, Governor Mike Huckabee. Over the past almost 30 years, this funding has moved from construction and maintenance to more operations leaving little for park development, could the administration be looking at increasing this from 1/8th of a cent to 1/4th of a cent? The parks have also relied on grants from the Arkansas Parks and Recreation Foundation (mainly funded by the Walton Family Foundation) for the construction of the Monument Trails. Jim Walton can be thanked for providing the funding necessary to complete the Delta Heritage Trail. Will the parks look more toward private donations for their part of the plan?
Arkansas Outside will explore the plan in future articles.