The 2020 wish list
by Rex Nelson
I've never been a fan of New Year's resolutions. And I'm certainly not a fan of the New Year's resolution newspaper column, which always seems contrived. But as another year of traveling Arkansas comes to a close, I do have a list of things I would like see happen in our state in 2020.
• I would like to see Arkansans focus more on keeping the state's streams clean. We're blessed with beautiful rivers, creeks and bayous. In a place that markets itself as the Natural State, however, we've too often been guilty of, at best, ignoring our natural treasures. At worst, we've polluted and channelized them.
The biggest policy story in Arkansas in 2019 came when Gov. Asa Hutchinson took the courageous stand of having the state enter into a $6.2 million buyout agreement with C&H Hog Farms, which operated in the Buffalo National River watershed. I use the term "courageous" because the governor bucked powerful special interests in order to protect the first stream in the United States to be designated as a national river.
Want an example of how bitter these special interests still are about his decision? Try this on for size: I was fired from my gig of emceeing the annual Arkansas Agriculture Hall of Fame banquet for having supported the governor's position.
The large-scale hog farm and its manure ponds were on Big Creek, 6.6 miles from where it flows into the Buffalo. My hope is that the media attention on the fight to protect the Buffalo will encourage groups and individuals across the state to adopt other streams. The Arkansas Game & Fish Commission has a program called Stream Teams that can facilitate those efforts. If we're truly the Natural State, that program should be the strongest of its type in the country.
• While we're at it, it would be nice to see additional affiliates of the Keep Arkansas Beautiful program formed across the state. God gave us a gorgeous place to live, but we do an effective job of trashing it. There should be dozens of new Keep Arkansas Beautiful chapters with thousands of volunteers picking up trash, planting wildflowers and doing other things to improve the quality of life for residents of Arkansas. Outside of the state's natural beauty, the things that strike me most as I travel Arkansas on a weekly basis are the junk in yards and the trash along the highways. Some days I want to cry. It's high time that we clean up our act.
• I would like to see the governor and the 135 members of the Legislature finally come to the realization that there's far more to education than K-12. We've starved higher education in this state for years, and it's starting to bite us. Henderson State University, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and the University of Arkansas at Monticello all changed presidents or chancellors this year in the wake of severe financial problems. In the knowledge-based economy of the 21st century, we must have more people with either an associate's degree from one of the state's 22 two-year schools or a bachelor's degree, a master's degree or a doctorate from one of its four-year colleges or universities. Here's the bottom line: We're not going to make a serious move in increasing per capita income in Arkansas until that happens. For the life of me, I can't figure out why our legislators don't get it.
• I would like to see those who are already positioning themselves to run for governor in 2022 realize that Arkansas' turnaround the past 50 years has been due in part to a string of moderate, pragmatic governors. From 1940-60, Arkansas lost a higher percentage of its population than any other state. We've been gaining population since the late 1960s. What happened? Since the election of Winthrop Rockefeller as governor in 1966, we've been fortunate to have a series of pragmatists in the governor's office. Five of those governors have been Democrats. Four have been Republicans. None governed from the far right or far left. The last thing Arkansas needs at this point in its history is an ideologue in the governor's mansion. Arkansas voters need to pay close attention to how potential candidates present themselves.
• I would like to see business and civic leaders quit viewing economic development as landing manufacturing plants (you've been stuck in that mode since the 1950s and it's no longer working) and instead focus on the things that attract talented people to a state: revitalized downtowns, improved parks, hiking and biking trails, restaurants and craft breweries, historic preservation. Economic development has changed but there unfortunately are still plenty of chamber of commerce types out there who haven't gotten the message.
• I would like to see the remaining small daily newspapers and weekly newspapers across this state thrive along with the handful of radio stations that have the courage to focus on local news and information. Democracy in Arkansas will suffer without media watchdogs in all 75 counties. These are the people who keep an eye on school boards, city councils and county quorum courts. We here at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette can't cover it all.
It has been a sad period for newspapers in Arkansas. In one fell swoop, for example, that evil media empire known as Gatehouse left my entire home area (Arkadelphia, Gurdon, Prescott and Hope) without local newspapers. This is dangerous. It's time for Arkansans to support newspapers with their subscriptions and Arkansas businesses to support newspapers and those radio stations that cover local events with their advertising dollars. Believe me, you'll miss local media when it's gone.
• I would like to see landowners become partners in the quail restoration efforts being undertaken by Quail Forever and the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission. These efforts not only will result in the return of the bobwhite (quail hunting was once an integral part of the rural culture of Arkansas) but also aid songbirds and pollinators. Once again it comes down to either being the Natural State or just claiming to be in ads.
• I would like to see the tens of thousands of acres of marginal farmland in the Arkansas Delta that were cleared for crop production back when soybean prices were high returned to bottomland hardwoods. The Walton Family Foundation has been involved in this effort. With all due respect to the quality-of-life projects the foundation has undertaken in northwest Arkansas, there's nothing this well-funded organization could do that would have more of a positive long-term effect on Arkansas than hardwood restoration.
• There are three major things that can still unite people in all 75 counties of what's otherwise a highly disparate state. They are a pragmatic, smart, charismatic governor who understands all parts of Arkansas; a strong statewide newspaper; and the athletic program at the University of Arkansas.
Along those lines, I selfishly hope that Arkansans will get subscriptions to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, which is going digital-only six days a week in 63 of the 75 counties. We're about the last man standing when it comes to statewide newspapers that try to cover news, business and sports in every county of a state.
I would also like to see Hunter Yurachek, the UA athletic director, come to the realization that the Razorback football team needs to play in Little Rock every season, not every other season. In his years as athletic director, Jeff Long destroyed the statewide support it had taken Frank Broyles four decades to build. Annual Little Rock games are key to rebuilding that support. It's about far more than sports. It's about uniting a state. I trust that Yurachek is smart enough to realize that. At least he's trying to understand this unique place called Arkansas, something Long never did.
Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Editorial on 12/29/2019