The state has gone through a lot of changes over the past couple of months with the election of a new Governor, the creation of the Natural State Initiative and its advisory council, and new leadership at the top of the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism (ADPHT). I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Secretary Mike Mills, the recently announced leader of ADPHT.
I first met Secretary Mills in 2006 while he was a commissioner on the State Parks, Recreation, and Travel Commission. This commission works with the Arkansas State Parks and Arkansas Tourism, providing private sector oversight. Mills got his start in the tourism and outdoor recreation industries in 1976 when he started the Buffalo Outdoor Center in Ponca, Arkansas. Beginning as a canoe and shuttle service on the Buffalo National River and eventually enhanced his business with cabin rentals, a campground, a store, a treetop zipline course, and a mountain bike trail system.
Mills was asked by then-Governor, Mike Huckabee to join the commission in 1999. Due to personal reasons, Mills was unable to accept the position. Secretary Mills, goes on to tell the story of how Governor Huckabee took the time to sit down with him to counsel him on family issues, “He took off his governor’s hat and put on his counselor’s hat and talked me through it,” Mills said. They have been friends ever since. A year later, Mills accepted the position and stayed on the commission under governors Huckabee, Beebe, and Hutchinson, retiring from the commission in 2018.
Mills had already retired from the day-to-day operation of Buffalo Outdoor Center in 2011, turning over the operation of the business to his son-in-law, Austin Albers. Secretary Mills pointed out that he likes to surround himself with highly competent people and that Austin is the right person for the job. Austin was key to the construction of the Ponca/BOC mountain bike trails a few years ago.
Besides his experience as a private business owner and his time as a commissioner, Mills has direct state government experience, serving as the Arkansas Tourism Director for almost 4 years in the early 1980s. Secretary Mills points out that the agency is run by experienced staff both in his office and in leadership at the sections that he manages. Besides the Arkansas State Parks, Arkansas Tourism, and the Department of Heritage sections, ADPHT also manages Keep Arkansas Beautiful and the newly created Office of Outdoor Recreation.
You can get an idea of his experience and involvement in the Arkansas tourism industry from this video created for his 2018 induction into the Arkansas Tourism Hall of Fame:
The Path Forward
One of the newest additions to the state outdoor recreation package is the Natural State Initiative, headed by the First Gentleman of Arkansas, Bryan Sanders. According to Mills, the Natural State Initiative Advisory Council is still being formed but will include the Secretary as a member. He sees one of the initial tasks of the council is to find ways to maintain trails throughout the state. This is a huge task in a state that has over 1000 miles of mountain bike trails alone.
Speaking of mountain biking, I asked Secretary Mills if he saw mountain biking as the key outdoor recreation activity in the state and he was quick to point out that paddling beyond the Buffalo National River should be a priority, increasing the visibility of other rivers and floating opportunities throughout the state. He also mentioned rock climbing as an area that could see growth in the future. He reminded me that as the Secretary of a statewide agency, he is tasked with promoting the entire state and expects to see the promotion of outdoor recreation in all areas of the state.
We talked a bit about Delta Heritage Trail State Park, Mills said that the department is ready to promote that attraction heavily once it is complete. (See our latest update on the DHT)
Secretary Mills has only been in his new position for about a month but he has high expectations for the department. A major goal is to move more efficiently on dealings of public and business interests, particularly with the state parks. I also noticed that a couple of months ago, the department only had one position listed on the Arkansas State Jobs Board but as of our interview, there were 35 jobs listed, mostly in the state parks. Filling these positions should bring some welcome relief to park staff after the very intense pandemic period when visitation hit record numbers while staffing was cut through attrition.
I did ask Secretary Mills the question he is probably asked the most, if he could only float one section of the Buffalo National River one more time, which would it be? True to form, he answered, “Ponca to Kyles Landing.” He is consistent.
(All photos and videos courtesy of Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism)