Keeping the Natural State Natural
|"Arkansas' natural resources are like the state's beating heart - they provide Arkansans with not only natural beauty, but a natural lifestyle filled with fishing trips and family picnics. Thanks to a commitment from Arkansans, our natural resources will continue to thrive for many generations to come."|
By the mid-1990s, the future of Arkansas’ natural areas, Game and Fish Commission projects and other conservation and educational efforts were sliding into an increasing state of peril due to budget constraints. Years of inadequate funding were finally catching up with Arkansas' state parks. One of first things Mike Huckabee did after becoming governor was to fully support a proposed constitutional amendment to ensure our state parks would be rebuilt and maintained for many generations to come. Proceeds from that amendment -- supported overwhelmingly by Arkansans-- have been used during the past decade to fund the state’s conservation agencies.
Many years have now passed since Mike and Janet covered the Arkansas portion of the Arkansas River, he in his bass boat and she on a jet ski, to promote the conservation amendment. Both will be quick to tell you it was a rewarding journey; however, they will be just as quick to let you know the true credit passage of the conservation amendment goes to the citizens of Arkansas. It was their recognition that fish, wildlife, parks, tourism and natural heritage constitute a major economic resource to Arkansas. It is the willingness of the citizens of Arkansas to provide much needed funding that makes the preservation of Arkansas' heritage and natural resources possible.
Under the leadership of Mike Huckabee, Amendment 75 became an example of his insistence that when government makes promises, it keeps those promises. The conservation sales tax has produced more than $430 million since it became effective. The money generated each year is split among the conservation agencies: 45% to the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, 45% to the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism, nine percent to the Department of Arkansas Heritage and the remaining one percent to the Keep Arkansas Beautiful Commission.
The impact of this funding was felt from the start. The furst major land acquisition utilizing the funds was 4,885 acres in Hempstead County which is now the site of the Rick Evans Grandview Prairie Conservation Education Center. Today, this habitat is open prairie, woodlands, savanna, and non-native grasslands. It is home to white-tailed deer, Eastern wild turkey, Bobwhite quail and other common game species, as well as numerous non-game animals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and insects.
In 2001, the first of four nature centers was opened with the dedication of the Governor Mike Huckabee Delta Rivers Nature Center in Pine Bluff. This facility was designed to resemble a waterfowl hunting lodge and covers an impressive 13,000 square feet. The second of the nature centers to be completed was the Forrest L. Wood Crowley's Ridge Nature Center in Jonesboro. This 17,000 square foot, three-story facility is set on a backdrop of 160 acres of prairie and woodlands. The most recently completed nature center is the Janet Huckabee Arkansas River Valley Nature Center in Barling. Dedicated in August of 2006, this facility sits on 160 acres of land formerly comprising part of the Fort Chaffee complex. The final nature center, currently in the design phase of construction, will be the Witt Stephens Jr. Central Arkansas Nature Center in Little Rock.
As Amendment 75 was passed by the citizens, one could see that Arkansas' state parks were in terrible condition. Roofs needed repair, fishing piers needed replacing, sidewalks were cracked and often dangerous, lodge rooms were worn out. Because the people of Arkansas understood the needs and were willing to take action, Arkansas now has without a doubt the finest system of state parks in the country. The Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism has spent in excess of $91 million, including $4.5 million on the recently completted Jim Gaston Visitor and Education Center at Bull Shoals White River Park. This 15,744-square foot visitor center is located on a highpoint across the river from the other park facilities and affords a spectacular view of the White River, Bull Shoals Dam, and Bull Shoals Lake.
The $37.3 million received by the Department of Arkansas Heritage facilitates a better job identifying and preserving Arkansans natural and cultural treasures. Arkansas now has true showplaces, including the Delta Cultural Center in Helena and the Old State House in Little Rock. The Arkansas Territorial Restoration in downtown Little Rock was transformed into the fabulous Historic Arkansas Museum.
Keep Arkansas Beautiful uses Amendment 75 funding as their primary source of income. Thus far, almost $4 million has been generated. One program intuited as a result of this funding is "The Great Arkansas Cleanup," a nationally-recognized litter education and prevention program.