BY MICHAEL DOUGHERTY | County Lines
Making up about 1,000 of the county’s 1,300 miles of road, they are essential to transportation. They also provide the path to a number of recreational sites for residents and thousands of visitors who come to the western Arkansas county for recreation.
That’s why Polk County Judge Brandon Ellison is among the county officials participating in the Arkansas Unpaved Roads Program, an association of a number of governmental and private groups working to prevent damage and erosion to the roads, surrounding lands, and rivers and creeks where the sediment sometimes settles.
Program partners include the Association of Arkansas Counties; County Judges Association of Arkansas; U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service; The Nature Conservancy; Farm Bureau of Arkansas; and nine other public and private groups.
Ellison and Stone County Judge Stacey Avey are co-chairmen of the organization. Members chose as the group’s pilot project the replacement of a center-tier bridge where Polk County Road 61 crosses Macks Creek, a tributary just off Board Camp Creek, about three miles south of state Highway 8, southeast of Mena, the county seat. Board Camp Creek flows into the Ouachita River, which is the home of the Arkansas fatmucket mussel. It is on a federal list of threatened species.
Ellison said the gravel road is a key part of the Wolf Pen Gap system of trails in the county. That trail system in the Ouachita National Forest was ordered closed to off-highway vehicles and all-terrain vehicles 32 weeks of the year by the U.S. Forestry Service to prevent damage to the environment.
“As hard as it is to believe,” Ellison said, “we have 35 to 40 couples who regularly visit our county just to use the trails for off-road vehicles and all-terrain vehicles. Those people and other visitors to Polk County that make up our tourism industry represent a substantial part of our economy.”
A 2010 economic impact study by UALR’s Institute for Economic Advancement estimated the potential loss of tourism to be $58.6 million annually.
“We’re waiting on those foundations to cure,” he said, “and the pre-fabricated bridge will arrive October 17. We will close the road that day for about four or five hours to use a giant crane to install the bridge. Once that’s set, we’ll need to do some dirt work to the road.”
November 14 is the estimated date for finishing that phase of the project. It will include raising the road level, relocating some springs away from the road and replacing some rock that will help water run away from the road rather than stand on its surface. Ellison said soil stabilizer can be added to the road after that.
When the project is complete, county crews should not have to grade the road for a year. Ellison said that stretch of CR 61 before improvements might have needed grading three to four times in the same period.
He noted that the new road-improvement methods being taught as a part of the Unpaved Roads Program eventually will mean a substantial savings in funds to Polk County. Those economic savings, he said, are one reason why he believes that the program will be successful — as more county officials see what the training for better methods to road and construction crews mean to them economically, more counties will sign on.
Scott Simon, state director of The Nature Conservancy, said his group has been pleased with the prospects of working with other members of the group, especially in connection with its pilot project.
“We are all excited about the latest pilot project … in Polk County,” he said. “Judge Ellison and the county staff are just great to work with.”
Jim Boggs, field supervisor of the Arkansas Ecological Office for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, based in Conway, said the Wolf Pen Gap bridge project was an excellent choice for a pilot program for the Arkansas Unpaved Roads Program.
“It shows what this group can do by working together,” he said. “Judge Ellison and his crew are showing what can be done to address the problem of sedimentation in a way that helps his county stretch its maintenance funds, helps the U.S. Forest Service and The Nature Conservancy protect the national forest there and helps us protect a species before it is placed on the endangered list.”
Ellison noted that by building a short bypass around the old bridge, the Polk County crews have been able to keep CR 61 open during the bridge replacement project. The only time the road was scheduled to be closed is the four- to five-hour window on the day the pre-fab bridge is set on its foundation. The large crane must be located on the bypass as it moves the bridge into place.