GLENWOOD – Overwhelming support for the re-opening of Albert Pike Recreation Area to overnight camping was shared with a sprinkling of opposition during a town hall meeting hosted by Congressman Bruce Westerman.
Westerman opened the meeting with an update on the aftermath of the flash flood in 2010. He recalled how 20 lives were lost and family’s were turned upside down as a result of the tragedy.
Some families filed civil law suits against the U.S. Forest Service which prompted the forest service to close the campgrounds to overnight camping. They also closed most of the public restrooms at Albert Pike.
Westerman explained that the law suits prevented the forest service from moving forward with Albert Pike, but as of July 2018 the law suits have been dismissed.
He stated that he has since met with the chief of the U.S. Forest Service, as well as Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue regarding the issue.
Westerman said that he believes the campgrounds are an integral part of the community. He cited economic, as well as aesthetic reasons he believes this to be true. He shared that some of his church friends moved to Arkansas after visiting Albert Pike.
When asked about his personal feeling regarding the issue, Westerman stated that he believes public land should be public. He added that he understands there are inherent risks for people when they are in a natural setting. He also said that if we were to close every site that had suffered the loss of life then most would be closed.
However, He did share that he understands that the forest service wants to do the right thing. He also pointed out that there are multiple sides to the story.
He did say that he believes the U.S. Forest Service has been doing a better job managing national forests than they have in the past.
Congressman Westerman turned the floor over to Norman Waggoner who works with the U.S. Forest Service.
He began by saying that dealing with the Albert Pike situation is an unenviable task. Waggoner stated that he believes it is important to have an open dialogue and that he has talked with several people about the area.
It is also important to look at topographical concerns, restrooms and other issues. The forest service has begun the process of making a decision on the future of Albert Pike Recreation Area by launching an environmental analysis. The environmental study includes input from citizens.
Congressman Westerman opened the floor up to public comment. The meeting was attended by over 50 people with several speaking. Those in attendance included local residents, public officials, and business owners, as well as many people from other areas in Arkansas and other states.
Everyone in attendance had a connection with Albert Pike. Many admitted to having first visited when they were children. Everyone who spoke shared a reverence and love for the area. They also shared their condolences for the families who lost loved ones in the 2010 flood.
Marty Walker was the first to speak. He shared that he lived in Texas, but has visited Albert Pike annually since 1964. He had friends who died in the flood. Friends he had made camping at Albert Pike over the years.
Walker has recently started a Facebook group titled “Save Albert Pike.”
He stated that the same storm that produced the flash flood at Albert Pike also caused a flood in Texas the day before which killed two. The area in Texas was not closed down. Instead a recreation district was created and an early warning system was installed.
He verified with Waggoner that an environmental analysis was not performed before Albert Pike was closed. He then stated that he didn’t feel they should have to do one to reopen the area again since one wasn’t used in the decision to close it.
He closed by saying it was time to move on and open the campground to overnight camping again. Walker did support the installation of an early warning system.
Most of those who spoke shared Walker’s sentiments regarding opening the area up to overnight camping once again.
Glenwood Mayor B.T. Smith shared that the closure of Albert Pike to camping has had a huge economic impact on Glenwood. Other public officials, including Kenn Greene from Montgomery County, supported his statements regarding economic impact on local businesses in Pike, Montgomery and Polk Counties.
Micah Goodwin, a representative of the Arkansas Canoe Club, stated that his club helped in the rescue and recovery efforts after the flood. He shared that they would also like to see overnight camping return to Albert Pike Recreation Area, but asked about issues that have arisen upstream at areas like Crooked Creek. He stated that the forest service has been turning people away from these areas as well.
He argued that any early warning system that might be installed would need to include the installation of a rain gauge upstream from Albert Pike. The current rain gauge for the area is in Langley which would not provide an accurate enough measurement in another instance like what happened in 2010.
Several business owners, including some who have owned bed and breakfasts in the area, shared how the closure has affected their businesses. They also stated that many people have moved to the area and become involved in local communities after a visit to Albert Pike.
A woman identified only as Phyllis stated that you clean a cemetery and Albert Pike has become a cemetery. She said that she would like to see Albert Pike cleaned up and a monument, bathrooms and a play area built.
She suggested a new campground be built nearby on higher ground and Albert Pike Recreation Area be opened to public use again.
Janie McRae offered what could be construed as an opposing position. She lived along the river when the flood happened. She shared stories of how she fought to save people and how she found friends who had perished in the flood.
She stated that she was not against the campgrounds being reopened. However, she was opposed to them being opened as they were. She stated that there isn’t enough law enforcement in the area and when the flood happened there weren’t enough camp hosts on site.
She disputed the claim that the flood was a 500 year event. She cited floods in 1968 and 1986 which produced similar flooding conditions. It was also pointed out that a recent storm system that passed through the area July 16 of this year produced flood waters within five feet of the levels experienced in 2010.
It was asked what the forest service needed from the local taxpayer to open the campgrounds again. Waggoner stated that forest service campgrounds are different than other campgrounds. While the U.S. Corps of Engineers, or the state parks might have electric hoop ups and running water, the forest service sites are primitive. He continued by saying how proud he is of the local forest service employees and how they manage their resources. He added that the need depends on the solution.
Congressman Westerman stated that available funds for projects like Albert Pike are heavily affected by forest fires in other parts of the country.
After an hour or so the meeting was brought to a close.
The environmental analysis is scheduled to begin late autumn 2019. For more information on the Ouachita National Forest, visit https://www.fs.usda.gov/ouachita.
The environmental analysis will allow feedback from the public and other stakeholders, along with a thorough understanding of public safety and liability risks. The U.S. Forest Service believes this will help them make the best decision for the future use of Albert Pike.
The Montgomery County News will provide information regarding the environmental analysis as soon as it is launched.