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The exodus continues

Once the 2010 census is completed, it will be evident that a trend that has been developing for decades in Arkansas continues unabated. I’m talking about the general shift of population from south and east to north and west.

When congressional redistricting takes place, the 4th Congressional District of south Arkansas will pick up even more counties.

The 1st Congressional District, once confined to Delta counties in east Arkansas, will pick up additional mountain counties.

The 2nd Congressional District of central Arkansas will shrink in size.

The 3rd  Congressional District of northwest Arkansas also will shrink geographically.

And so it goes.

This demographic pattern of people leaving south Arkansas and east Arkansas (though there are pockets of prosperity in each area), while central Arkansas and northwest Arkansas grow, has been occurring since the 1950s and has really picked up steam since 1980. I don’t see it changing in the lifetimes of anyone reading this post.

Within east and south Arkansas, certain places will continue to do well. Jonesboro, for instance, is booming. More and more people who work in downtown Memphis will move to Marion.

But it’s safe to assume that dozens of communities will continue to lose population. While fewer people will live in these areas, many Arkansans and out-of-state residents will visit rural east Arkansas and south Arkansas in order to hunt, fish, hike, etc. Given the migration patterns, one of the most important things state government can do is to wisely invest the proceeds from the eighth-of-a-cent sales tax imposed by Amendment 75 to the Arkansas Constitution.

When it comes to highway dollars, I’ve decided that we must do a better job than in the past of making sure the money follows the traffic counts.

When it comes to public education, much more widespread school consolidation is necessary in areas of the state that are losing population. This will ensure that schools have the critical mass necessary to provide the quality of education needed for kids to compete in the knowledge-based economy of the 21st century.

When it comes to the proceeds from the so-called conservation tax, however, a significant investment in the rural areas of east and south Arkansas makes sense.

Of the money raised by the eighth-of-a-cent sales tax, 45 percent goes to the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, 45 percent goes to the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism for state parks improvements, 9 percent goes to the Department of Arkansas Heritage and the remaining 1 percent goes to the Keep Arkansas Beautiful Commission.

The Game and Fish Commission would be wise to invest much of the almost $25 million a year it receives from the tax in improving existing wildlife management areas in these areas of the state while buying additional land. When soybean prices soared in the 1970s, thousands upon thousands of acres of bottomland hardwoods were cleared for farming. In the decades that followed, many farmers came to the conclusion that these poorly drained soils really aren’t suited for row-crop agriculture.

Prime opportunities will continue to exist for the Game and Fish Commission to buy marginal farmland and restore the hardwoods. The Choctaw Island Wildlife Management Area near Arkansas City is a great example of a quality wildlife habitat that went from private control to Game and Fish Commission control thanks to forward-thinking timber executives in the region.

Meanwhile, the Heritage Department should continue expanding the Delta Cultural Center in downtown Helena. Cherry Street is a movie set, but many of its buildings remain empty and crumbling. With continued investment that focuses on the area’s musical and agricultural heritage, the Delta Cultural Center could attract increasing numbers of tourists who are making day trips from the casinos at Tunica.

The Parks and Tourism Department has several projects in the works in east and south Arkansas that hold potential.

Back on May 1, 2009, the state took over the management of the 253-acre Bear Creek Recreation Area in the St. Francis National Forest. This was the first step in creating the long-awaited Mississippi River State Park in cooperation with the U.S. Forest Service. This 550-acre state park will be a major improvement over the Forest Service recreation areas since the Forest Service (much like U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ recreation sites in the state) has had to contend with persistent budget cuts through the years.

Additional improvements will occur at the Storm Creek Lake Recreation Area and at the mouth of the St. Francis River. The St. Francis National Forest is the only national forest in the state that touches the Mississippi River. It would be nice to see the Parks and Tourism Department eventually develop a lodge in the park since the other state park lodges (Petit Jean, DeGray, Mount Magazine and Queen Wilhelmina) are all in the western half of the state.

Another state park being built in that area of the state is the Delta Heritage Trail. It’s a rails-to-trails conversion that’s being developed along a 73-mile route that strestches from one mile south of Lexa to Cypress Bend near McGehee. The first 14 miles of the trail have been completed from U.S. Highway 49 near Barton to Lake View. The state should make it a priority to finish the other 59 miles of this trail and give the Delta a major new tourist attraction in the process. When it comes to state park capital improvements, the Delta Heritage Trail deserves to move to the front of the line.

Down in far south Arkansas, the Parks and Tourism Department has completed construction of five cabins at Moro Bay State Park. Each 1,100-square-foot cabin includes a great room with a kitchen and dining area, two bedrooms, two bathrooms with spa tubs and a screened porch facing Moro Bay on the Ouachita River. There are even high-definition satellite televisions and wireless Internet access.

The $1.59 million project was a welcome addition to the park, which is 29 miles southwest of Warren and 23 miles northeast of El Dorado.

Over on Crowley’s Ridge, Village Creek State Park has an 18-hole Andy Dye golf course that has received good reviews. Let’s hope that the state can one day finish a planned lodge at the park. If the western half of the state has four state park lodges, it only seems fair that the eastern half of the state should have at least two — one at Village Creek State Park and one at the Mississippi River State Park.

While state government can do little to halt long-term demographic trends, we can use the proceeds from Amendment 75 to protect and enhance culturally and ecologically significant rural areas of south and east Arkansas.

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