Arkansas Game and Fish Commission
Arkansans have always been drawn to the outdoors. The state’s vast natural resources beckon residents — and hundreds of thousands of out-of-state visitors each year — to take a dip, cast a line, hike a trail or take part in any one of the many outdoor recreation opportunities available in Arkansas.
Outdoor rec is not only abundant in Arkansas, but it’s also accessible. For many Arkansans, simply stepping out the back door affords opportunities to enjoy the state’s natural resources. The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission maintains more than 600,000 acres of lakes and 100,000 miles of rivers and streams, and manages 400,000 acres of wildlife management areas. AGFC cooperatively manages 3.2 million acres of public land with conservation partners such as The Nature Conservancy, Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission and the U.S. Forest Service. Additionally, the Arkansas State Parks system is comprised of 52 state parks on 54,500 acres, with 1,800 campsites, 208 cabins, and five lodges. Altogether, these public offerings amount to some of the best public hunting, fishing, boating, paddling, hiking, camping and wildlife viewing in the country.
While hunting and fishing have always been popular in Arkansas, the state has a flourishing reputation for several outdoor pursuits that are growing in popularity that are helping outdoor rec boost the state’s economy even more. “Watchable wildlife” — such as birding, hiking and wildlife photography — has become the fourth-most popular outdoor pursuit for Arkansans and visitors, according to a survey by the Department of Arkansas Parks and Tourism. Arkansas now features five of the best mountain biking trails in the world, which puts the state tied with Colorado for second in the country behind California with seven. With several long distance trails (such as the Ouachita National Recreation Trail and Ozark Highland Trail) and hundreds of shorter hikes that are enjoyable in any season, Arkansas is easily one of the best states for hiking in America.
Outdoor recreation is a strong component to the state’s $7.37 billion tourism industry, regardless of how it’s being practiced. State officials estimate that each year, outdoor recreation delivers $9.7 billion in consumer spending, $2.5 billion in wages and salaries and $698 million in state and local tax revenue. And roughly 96,000 Arkansans are employed in the outdoor recreation industry.
Despite the decline in hunting and fishing participation over the last few years, the state’s bread-and-butter remains hunting and fishing. Anglers alone spent $1.2 billion in the state in 2016, delivering an economic impact of $818 million. In-state and out-of-state tourism by hunters and anglers are critical to the economic health of rural Arkansas communities. For example, the Stuttgart Chamber of Commerce estimates a daily economic impact to diners, retailers, lodging and other businesses of more than $1 million during duck season.
Younger generations indeed are adopting other means to engage the outdoors; therefore, it is vital to the future of outdoor recreation in the state that Arkansas is becoming known nationally for a greater variety of outdoor recreation opportunities. Outdoor activities like mountain biking or wildlife observation are exposing more people to the benefits of conservation and proper stewardship of the state’s natural resources. But hunters and anglers continue to lead the way in conservation efforts, which circle back to benefit the state’s overall economy through tourism, small business growth and manufacturing. Arkansans passed a crucial conservation funding measure in 1996 — Amendment 75, known as the Conservation Act — that raised the general sales tax by 1/8th of a cent with revenue dedicated to conservation and parks. But the state soon could be looking at the day that outdoor recreation in Arkansas needs a more substantial long-term investment.
The tourism and hospitality industry is the state’s second-largest industry, with outdoor recreation providing a strong and growing foundation. To cultivate that growth, Arkansans must look for ways to reinvest in its existing outdoor recreation facilities and resources. By looking at ways to increase funding for natural resource management and outdoor recreation development, the state can leverage improvements to public lands, parks, trails, waterways and the infrastructure associated to continue to attract millions of visitors to the wonders of the Natural State, and capitalize on its potential as a national leader in outdoor recreation.