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Gov. Sanders focusing on outdoor recreation to bring tourism to Arkansas

A new focus for the governor is to promote things like biking, hiking, camping, paddlesports — as well hunting and fishing.

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Outdoor recreation contributed to 40,000 jobs and $3.5 billion dollars to Arkansas' gross domestic product in 2021.

But state officials think that only scratches the surface of what's possible—and a new advisory council aims to find strategies to grow that business in a big way.

In her first several weeks in office, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed an executive order to establish the Natural State Initiative to "promote nature-based tourism" in Arkansas.

Arkansas Business Editor Lance Turner examines this new initiative, including Gov. Sanders talking about the need to grow Arkansas's outdoor economy.

How has the new initiative started off?

The governor last week announced the 17 members of her new Natural State Advisory Council, which aims to coordinate efforts among several state departments — particularly Parks, Heritage & Tourism and Commerce — to make Arkansas a big player nationally when it comes to outdoor recreation.

That includes things like biking, hiking, camping, paddlesports — as well hunting and fishing.

Sanders named her husband Bryan to lead that council — but there are other big names on it, including Walmart heir Tom Walton and representatives from companies including Dillards and Murphy USA, as well as leaders from Arkansas tourism companies, conservation groups and state agencies like Game & Fish and the Office of Outdoor Recreation.

What is the opportunity for outdoor recreation?

Steuart Walton, who is Tom Walton's brother, put it pretty simply last week during a panel discussion in Little Rock.

He said that within about a day's drive to Bentonville, there are 66 million potential visitors to Arkansas outdoor attractions. 

If you draw the same radius around Breckenridge, Colorado (a major outdoor recreation hub), you have only 16 million people.

So if Arkansas can increase the access to and promotion of our outdoor amenities, he sees that as the recreational opportunity of a lifetime.

What are the next steps?

The council hasn't met yet. But eventually, this group will get together and begin working on strategies and recommendations. And they'll have to submit an annual report to the governor about their work.

Mike Mills, who is the new secretary of Parks, Tourism & Heritage, is on the council and says he's excited about the possibilities of working closely with other state departments. 

He said that this will mark the first time his agency works closely with the Department of Commerce, which is typically involved in economic development matters.

Another council member is Phil Shellhammer, the director of the University of Arkansas' Greenhouse Outdoor Recreation Program.

He thinks Arkansas can be the great outdoor recreation destination of the United States — and even the world.

Read more about business news throughout the state on the Arkansas Business website.

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