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story.lead_photo.caption An Arkansas Parks and Tourism press photo shows bikers riding along a roadway.

A long uncompleted bike trail in southeast Arkansas has now received a huge influx of funds to finish the project.

Announced Thursday at a ceremony in West Helena attended by Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, the Walton Family Foundation will issue a $20 million matching grant complete the 84.5-mile biking and pedestrian trail in southeast Arkansas set to stretch from Lexa to Arkansas City. The

The 50-50 matching grant will allow Arkansas State Parks to complete the construction of the Delta Heritage Trail over the next five years. The State is applying for federal grants to offset the match. This will create a $40 million investment in the Arkansas Delta, according to an Arkansas Parks and Tourism press statement.

“The Delta Heritage Trail will connect the region’s expansive natural beauty and create new ways to experience its unique cultural offerings,” said Jim Walton, Walton Family Foundation. “This joint effort is a dream nearly 30 years in the making, a bold idea now being realized in a community that, with continued support, can reach its enormous, untapped potential.”

At left, a map of the planned Delta Heritage Trail. At right, the Arkansas River bridge at Yancopin that it will cross. (Courtesy Arkansas State Parks)
At left, a map of the planned Delta Heritage Trail. At right, the Arkansas River bridge at Yancopin that it will cross. (Courtesy Arkansas State Parks)

There are currently 44.4 completed miles in The Delta Heritage Trail State Park. That includes a 20.6-mile compacted crush gravel section between Lexa and Elaine, a 14.4-mile shared-use roadway on the Mississippi River levee between Rohwer and Arkansas City, and another 9.4-mile compacted crush gravel section between Rohwer and Watson. Portions of this project are former railroad lines that are converted to bike/pedestrian routes.

The compacted, crushed rock trail leads visitors through a variety of natural settings. From the shaded canopy of native hardwoods to the vast open skies alongside agricultural fields, guests can enjoy the diverse robust beauty of the Arkansas Delta. Ultimately, this trail will be 84.5 miles when completed and will be one of the longest dedicated pedestrian and bicycle routes in Arkansas.

“The original Delta Heritage Trail Master Plan was approved in 1997 and in 2020, it’s still not complete,” said Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism Secretary Stacy Hurst. “Because of this generous matching gift, we’ll be able to complete the Delta Heritage Trail in five years providing an enhanced recreational opportunity for residents, bringing more visitors to the area, and increased economic growth to local communities. The completed trail will provide users a unique glimpse into the rich history and natural beauty of the Arkansas Delta.”

The grant includes funding to support a plan for public recognition of the life and professional accomplishments of John Harold Johnson (1918-2005). Mr. Johnson was born in Arkansas City and rose above abject poverty and racial discrimination to build a publishing empire that helped forever change the perception of African Americans in the United States. Johnson Publishing Company became the largest African American owned and operated publishing company in the world and launched Ebony and Jet, two very successful magazines that gave a voice to millions of Americans.

Work has already started and will continue until all sections of the trail are connected.

“Delta Heritage Trail State Park provides a one-of-a-kind experience for visitors,” said Arkansas State Parks Director Grady Spann. “When completed, not only will it cross two major rivers – the White and Arkansas – it also traverses through the Dale Bumpers National Wildlife Refuge that has enormous old-growth cypress trees that will give the visitor a sense of being in a “Jurassic Park” environment. In this area of the refuge, sections of Delta Heritage Trail State Park are elevated, providing an exceptional view of the scenery. Guests will be able to have extraordinary birding and wildlife watching opportunities and may even catch a glimpse of one of the many black bears, which is considered the best genetic representative of the historic bear population that existed in the Lower Mississippi Valley of Arkansas.”

Hutchinson also praised the gift from the Walton Foundation.

“This is great news for cyclists and hikers, who have waited more than 20 years for the completion of this rails-to-trails project. The matching grant we announced today, combined with Arkansas Parks and Tourism funds, means that the wait is almost over," Gov. Asa Hutchinson said. "The $7 million in tourism that the 85-mile trail will attract, along with the 600 jobs it will create, will infuse renewed energy into southeast Arkansas along the trail. Hikers and bikers will see bottomland hardwood forests and views from the levee that we don’t see from our cars. This is a great project for Arkansas."

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