Hill: Flatside expansion would provide Arkansans with more ‘untouched wilderness’

by Alex Thomas
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
June 26, 2023

WASHINGTON -- The Flatside Wilderness Area is a special place to U.S. Rep. French Hill.

When the Little Rock Republican was a member of Little Rock Catholic High School's backpacking club, Hill and his classmates would hike on the Ouachita National Recreation Trail, which cuts through the current wilderness area in Saline and Perry counties. In 1983, Hill climbed to the top of Flatside Pinnacle.

Those trips happened before President Ronald Reagan approved making the Flatside Wilderness a protected area in October 1984.

"Those two memories of Flatside stick out from a long time ago," Hill told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

The Flatside Wilderness Area is furthermore a priority of Hill's current legislative work. The congressman introduced legislation, the Flatside Wilderness Additions Act, on June 13 to designate 2,215 acres in the Ouachita National Forest as part of the Flatside Wilderness Area. If the related bill becomes law, this space would receive the highest federal protection for limiting human construction and industrialization.

Since Congress' approval of the Wilderness Act of 1964 to establish a nationwide system of wilderness areas, lawmakers have designated more than 111 million acres -- including 153,000 acres in Arkansas -- as protected space.

"Their view was this is a place to camp, hike, fish, backpack [and] climb, but do that in the solitude of an untouched block of wilderness," Hill said.

The congressman's legislation completes a multi-Congress effort to expand the Flatside Wilderness Area. Federal lawmakers approved a Hill-led measure designating 640 acres in the Ouachita National Forest as part of this space in 2018. According to Hill, his legislation addresses acreage originally proposed as a protected area in the 1980s, but lawmakers at that time reduced the size amid congressional negotiations and discussions.

Hill cited a 2021 U.S. Forest Service report in determining what lands should receive federal protection.

"We're actually going back to the original intent of the Flatside area and including something that was advocated for back in 1984," the congressman said.

The Pew Charitable Trusts, the Southern Environmental Law Center and the Wilderness Society -- organizations with priorities involving environmental protections -- have voiced support for the bill. John Seebach, Pew Charitable Trusts' senior manager on U.S. public lands and rivers conservation, said Arkansas' national forests are "white hot" with biodiversity.

"There is so much great geospatial information out there right now that lets us visualize ecological values," he told the Democrat-Gazette.

Anders Reynolds, Southern Environmental Law Center's federal legislative director, said the space's "rugged landscape" offers important habitats for wildlife such as bears and wild turkeys.

"It's just a really gorgeous, beautiful area really deserving of protection," he said.

There are recreational benefits to increasing the protected acreage. Reynolds, a Wynne native, made note of the wilderness area's proximity to Little Rock, a 30-minute drive for some residents.

"I think it's important that we continue to protect premier outdoor experiences on federally managed lands in our state," he said.

"Outdoor recreation is playing a larger and larger role in our economy. I think as younger people move into the state, it's important that we retain that talent. I think you're seeing in place after place that workers are increasingly choosing to move into places where they know they can get outside and recreate on our public lands."

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders wrote to Hill expressing support for the measure. In a May 23 letter obtained by the Democrat-Gazette, Sanders described the expansion as "directly in line with our state's agenda to grow Arkansas' outdoor economy and show the world why we are The Natural State."

The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and the state Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism additionally want the expansion to happen.

"In my role as Arkansas State Parks director and as interim secretary, I am passionate about doing all I can to ensure the natural beauty of our state is preserved to be enjoyed by all Arkansans and by tourists from around the world," department interim Secretary Shea Lewis told the Democrat-Gazette in an emailed statement.

"The additional 2,215 acres will provide more beautiful places for Arkansans and tourists to explore and will give the state another tool to grow our booming outdoor recreation economy."

This support is important for Hill and the bill's chances of becoming law. The House of Representatives' Natural Resources Committee will consider the proposal, supporting research and its champions to determine if the full congressional chamber should consider the matter.

Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., serves as the committee's chairman. The Hot Springs congressman's communications director told the Democrat-Gazette that Westerman is reviewing the legislation.

Hill acknowledged Westerman as a vital resource in studying the expansion in the years preceding the current Congress. Westerman has engineering and forestry experience dating prior to his election to the House.

A possible option for approving the expansion could involve inserting relative legislative language in this year's farm bill. Congress needs to pass a new farm bill -- a sweeping agricultural measure concerning conservation, nutrition and rural development -- before the existing statute expires at the end of September.

The Senate and House agriculture committees have been studying possible changes to existing policies and programs. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., serves on the Senate committee as its top Republican, while Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Ark., is a member of the House committee.

"We're talking to [Hill] seeing how we can be helpful in the Senate to get it done," Boozman said. "This is something that has been embraced by the region. ... This is a really, really small amount of acreage, and that will complete the project."

Members of both congressional chambers returned to their home states and districts at the end of last week for a two-week work period. Lawmakers are not scheduled to return to Washington for votes until July 10.

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