Emails reveal Natural State Initiative’s big plans for state parks

Withrow and Huntsville in its sights


The Natural State Advisory Council set a bold agenda for transforming four state parks, hoping Petit Jean State Park becomes a “national climbing destination,” Delta Heritage Trail State Park becomes a “trail town” with a “significant gravel event,” Pinnacle Mountain State Park becomes a destination for a “running, hiking and biking trail along the shoreline” and Queen Wilhelmina State Park becomes a home to a gateway trail concept. 

Danny Collins, owner of Bentonville tour company 37 North Expeditions and a member of the council, sees Withrow Springs State Park as a base camp for tourism growth in Northwest Arkansas. Working with Arkansas Game and Fish, the council foresees “water trail creation projects at War Eagle Creek [and] Kings’ River.” 

The early-stage plans are in response to First Gentleman Bryan Sanders’ desire for Arkansas to become a premier outdoor tourism destination and he sees tourism overtaking agriculture as the state’s dominant industry. 

In January, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders tasked the 18-member advisory council, which also refers to itself as the Natural State Initiative (NSI), with growing the state’s tourism industry and increasing outdoor recreation. Sanders appointed her husband, Bryan, as chair. 

NSI meetings, which have been ongoing both in person and via Zoom and email, are not open to the public and the group does not maintain minutes with the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism. 

State Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forest, who represents Madison County, said, “How are they already deciding this without talking to local people first? These decisions made at 30,000 feet to me are not conducive to getting the best policy out there. 

“And, once again, the lack of transparency to already be deciding things without having open meetings is against what open government is about.”

Since its’ inception, the entire group has met roughly five times, according to member Suzanne Grobmyer, who is also chief of staff at the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism. NSI’s two subcommittees, Economic Development and Outdoor Experiences, meet more often. 

“The advisory committee, ultimately, is advising the governor on ideas,” Grobmyer said. 

Last week, the NSI released its first official report outlining “the work ahead while acknowledging work that is well underway.”

Though Bryan Sanders chairs the NSI, according to an email obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, many suggestions have come from another member of the group, Tom Walton, grandson of Walmart Inc., founders Helen and Sam Walton and co-founder of The Runway Group.

Walton and Bryan Sanders are outdoor enthusiasts who share an affinity for biking. 

Walton has also been engaged with the idea of re-designating land around the Buffalo National River as a national park or preserve. After a public backlash against the idea, The Runway Group backed off. 

The NSI was not involved with the re-designation idea, Grobmyer said, and emails obtained by The Record through a FOIA request do not mention re-designating land. 

In an email exchange in May, members of the NSI Outdoor Experiences subcommittee outlined four areas it wanted to see developed — “Petit Jean,” “Delta Corridor,” “Pinnacle Mountain,” “Mena.” 

In August, the four state parks closest to those areas, were adopted by the Administrative Rules Subcommittee of the Arkansas Legislative Council as Natural State Initiative Opportunity Zones, a state pilot project. 

As part of NSI plans, the 2023 General Assembly amended the Arkansas Tourism Development Act by creating four opportunity zones to promote and grow outdoor recreation, allow the creation of a tourism attraction in the area, and receive tax incentives. 

According to the new law, the zones must be within or no more than one-eighth of a mile outside the boundaries of a state park, a cultural or historic site, or a cultural or educational center.

The Arkansas Economic Development Commission Director is charged with developing, implementing and administering the project in consultation with the Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism.

Before the law took effect, four NSI members — Bryan Sanders, Walton, Grobmyer, and Mindy West, chief financial officer of Murphy USA, spoke to the Little Rock Rotary Club where Sanders announced the four parks were being considered for improvements in infrastructure. 

“I think we can crush our neighboring states as a destination for outdoor recreation,” Bryan Sanders told the group. 

When the NSI began, Grobmyer said the group and the parks department had identified 10 major projects, which included the four determined to be opportunity zones. 

“And so when Tom shared those [in an email], it didn’t really necessary come from Tom,” Grobmyer said.

“We had lots of conversations about these are the major priorities state parks has and he’s like, ‘These sound really great.’ That is something we all agreed on.”

On May 10, Walton began an email exchange stating his thoughts on “how we can catalyze progress” and wrote he was throwing some ideas “out to get a reaction.”

According to Grobymer, Walton had spoken to each member individually before sending the email. 

He suggested designating Petit Jean Mountain, the Delta Corridor, Pinnacle Mountain and Mena as opportunity zones. 

Less than a month later, Bryan Sanders followed up with that idea in a letter to AEDC Chair Clint O’Neal with the recommendation to officially designate the parks as opportunity zones. 

A public hearing was held on July 7 and the public comment period expired on July 15. No public comments were received. 

On Aug. 24, the rules subcommittee adopted the four parks.

The act allows for qualified tourism attraction projects that locate in a designated opportunity zone to receive tax incentives. For a company’s project to be eligible, it must have  a $500,000 minimum investment or a $250,000 minimum investment if it is in a designated high unemployment county. 

Currently, only four areas can be opportunity zones, though the number could expand in the future depending on the success of the pilot project, Grobmyer said. 

NSI Vision

The emails stated that the NSI Vision is to establish the natural state as the designation for year-round adventure. 

That same goal is a part of the report released last week. 

NSI’s mission statement was also included in the emails and states, “In Arkansas, the outdoor economy grew by almost 23% in the last year; Arkansas must seize this momentum and further establish the Natural State as a leader in outdoor economy and a destination for outdoor enthusiasts from around the world. Double the number of entrepreneurs, workers, and the overall size of the outdoor economy and revenue from the 2% tourism tax in the next decade.”

The NSI defined its “Core Values and Beliefs” by stating, “Arkansas is the Natural State, offering limitless opportunities for year-round outdoor adventure. to [sic] win, we believe in elevating the best outdoor experiences in Arkansas; we value getting more kids off screens and outdoors to improve health and quality of life; [sic].”

Grobmyer said the goal of the advisory group is to have “as many big conversations as we can.” She said not all the ideas discussed will become reality and likened the goals to her role in building the Monument Trails.

Before joining Sanders’ administration, Grobmyer was executive director of Arkansas Parks and Recreation Foundation, a non-profit significantly financed by the Walton Family Foundation. 

In that role, Grobmyer was instrumental in working with the state parks department to build the Monument Trails, which are bike trails in four state parks, Devil’s Den, Hobbs, Mount Nebo and Pinnacle Mountain. 

In the NSI report issued last week, one recommendation was to grow those trails, “including the development of a world-class downhill mountain bike park.”

She said not all the plans for the Monument Trails came to fruition, much like the plans from the advisory group.

“The reality of what we thought we’re gonna do and what we ended up doing can really be wildy different,” she said. 

The report recommends “develop and promote major events, like the 2024 Arkansas Graveler, to showcase Arkansas as a leading destination for outdoor recreation.”

The Arkansas Graveler is a six-day bike ride on gravel roads over the state’s rural roads.

In July, officials planning the race met with Madison County officials about the possibility of an overnight stop on the Kingston Square. 

The NSI works with the state parks department, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, the University of Arkansas’ Greenhouse Outdoor Recreation Program and the AEDC. 

Plans for Petit Jean

Walton suggested coupling a “Via Ferrata,” with 200 beginner and intermediate climbing routes. A Via Ferrata is a climbing route on a mountain using steel cables, rungs, or ladders, fixed to a rock to which the climbers affix a harness securing themselves to the metal fixture.

He suggested building and recruiting climbing gym operators in the Little Rock area and to “get a deal done in the next year.”

He suggested a “master plan to position Petit Jean as a national climbing destination.” He also wanted to study “a world-class whitewater kayak park adjacent to the Arkansas River.”

Delta Corridor

In the Delta Corridor an area Walton referred to as the “MVP,” he suggests developing a world-class Hut-to-Hut system, to “pair with fishing and hunting strategy, gravel tours define [sic] by Rural Recreational Road model.”

Walton suggested Shimanami Kaido in Japan as a “biz plan model for rentals/bookings/reservation system.”

He wanted to “plan a significant gravel event” starting in 2025.

Part of the longterm regional plans would include exploring “a Top-to-Bottom designation for a scenic by-way Regional Scenic Corridor.”

The longterm objective is “Helena becomes a trail town.” 

Walton suggested Cooper Harbor, Mich., as a model, stating it was a “town of 85ppl, over 1000 on the wknd there to ride, and it’s a 9-hour driver from metro.” 

NSI member Martin Smith wrote he loved the idea of the Delta Corridor as a hub. He suggested Mississippi River State Park also as an opportunity zone focusing on mountain bike trials, primitive cabins and marketing and tourism by the state parks department. 

Smith suggested hut-to-hut destinations and exploring “Leave no trace routing via Amtrak and Viking Cruise Lines.” 

The recent NSI report also recommended, “Building new trails and funding trail maintenance, including hiring a dedicated trail manager at each Monument Trails System.”

Pinnacle Mountain

Walton suggested unlocking “trapped value by activating the connection to Lake Maumelle for recreation, focusing on running, hiking and biking trail along the shoreline.” He wrote the area could become a “gem of active recreation for LR metro. Leverage the Game/Fish relationship and prioritize developing a trail system that gets 10x use to any trail in the state on the water’s edge and opens additional fishing/paddling experiences.” 

NSI member Bill Dillard III agreed. “This is the hidden gem in Central Arkansas. Maybe for the Whole State. Central Arkansas can support a large influx of tourists if it had the draw. 

“If you can make it a place for mountain biking, trail running, hiking and kayaking … it will explode. The state designating somewhere near the lake to have a brewery, lodging, outdoor store, etc. would be vital. I can see triathlons, MTB races, gravel race starts and finishes there,” Dillard wrote.


Walton suggested developing a “gateway trail concept with city/state own [sic] property in town. Plant the seeds to build stronger cycle culture by easy access to trail infrastructure to drive engagement” and “create a seamless riding experience.”  He suggested working to identify a trail route “from downtown to the lift/bottom of the hill.” 

More suggestions

Collins weighed in saying he was happy to be a part of the group,  calling it “An outlet to share passions and dream concepts for the future outdoor recreation in our region is super special.”

He suggested adding two additional zones in the future: Hobbs State Park and Withrow Springs State Park.

Dillard emailed that he was “thankful for your and Bryan’s leadership and engagement on this project. How exciting for our state to be thinking strategically, yet with the skill-set and resources to execute tactically.”

Dillard suggested an app to “aggregate all the disjointed places an outdoor enthusiast goes now to find out what they want to know. ‘One App to rule them all.’ A ‘Natural State’ App.”

He also wanted to use the state parks as a central hub, suggesting to regional examples. Village Creek was one.

NSI’s report highlighted the hope of “implementing a refreshed brand across all content and platforms,” and “enhancing the user experience on” 

Walton’s role 

Grobmyer said Walton has been a leader on the NSI committee but his role is not outsized and that he has been “very collaborative.”

“It’s easy to paint a broad brush, right? You have a very impactful family that is participating in something like this,” she said. 

“When it comes to outdoor recreation in Arkansas, a lot of people are talking about trails because of the Walton family and their investment in that. 

“When we’re talking about outdoor recreation, we don’t want to have that conversation without them.”

Neither Walton nor The Runway Group responded directly for a request for comment.  

However, Michael Clark, a partner in 4Media Group called on their behalf.  Clark said he was not an official spokesperson but rather a “clearinghouse for them,” and, “they’ve decided not to do any media right now.”

“Especially with the holidays, you know, amongst us and so, really, I think they’re just reducing any interactions with media representation right now. I wouldn’t call that a no comment. I don’t think that’s fair,” he said. 

“But rather they’re just not participating in media representations,” Clark said. 

“I think the hard part is when you think about an email without context, it is whatever you want it to be,” Grobmyer said.  “And I think it’s important that people know that this has been a very collaborative process,” she said.

Next in our series, The Record looks into increasing tourism in Huntsville and Withrow Springs State Park.


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