Westerman to introduce bill for new campground near site of fatal flood in Ouachita National Forest


Arkansas Congressman Bruce Westerman said he’ll introduce legislation to create a campground in or near the Albert Pike Recreation Area, where 20 people died in a flash flood in 2010.

The U.S. Forest Service announced on Dec. 16 that overnight camping won’t resume at Albert Pike, which is located on the Little Missouri River in a remote and rugged section of the Ouachita National Forest, about 50 miles west of Hot Springs.

The recreation area will remain open for day use only.

Westerman said he was disappointed with the decision.

“While I understand the overly cautious nature of federal agencies, and I’m pleased USFS at least plans to implement the easiest and most risk-averse option which is day use, I’m very disappointed in their decision to announce permanent closure of the Albert Pike Recreation Area for overnight camping,” Westerman said in a text message.

“The tragic events due to the flash flooding in 2010 were horrific, and we empathize with those who lost loved ones,” he said. “However, I have heard an overwhelming response from constituents who want to redevelop the site in a way that allows safe overnight camping well above the highest flood plain levels, which is certainly possible with the topography in the area.”

Westerman said he “voiced these desires” to Forest Service representatives and visited the recreation area with them to discuss the issues.

“I plan to introduce legislation to provide congressional authorization and to remove obstacles within USFS for a new outdoor recreation facility with overnight camping above the flood plain at Albert Pike,” he said.

Westerman said the new campground could be funded through the Great American Outdoors Act, the Land and Water Conservation Fund, other agency funds or congressional appropriations.

Westerman said he envisions a new campground with amenities like utility hookups for recreational vehicles. Whether such a campground can be built within the current boundaries of the Albert Pike Recreation Area has yet to be determined, he said. The congressman has his staff researching the issue.

The Albert Pike Recreation Area is in Arkansas’ Fourth Congressional District, which Westerman represents.

CLOSING CAMPSITES

Since the tragic flood along the Little Missouri River on June 11, 2010, the Forest Service has decommissioned about 25% of the developed campsites in the Ouachita National Forest — all of the campsites that were below the 100-year flood plain, said Tracy Farley, public affairs officer for the Ouachita National Forest.

The 100-year flood plain designation means there’s a 1% chance of flooding in any given year.

According to an environmental assessment, all four campground loops in the Albert Pike Recreation Area are below the 100-year flood elevation, with Loop B close to the 25-year flood elevation, and Loops C and D located at or below the 10-year flood elevation (meaning there’s a 10% chance of flooding in any given year).

“The elevations of the Loop B, C, and D Campgrounds averaged 1 to 7 feet below the computed 100-year flood high-water elevations,” according to a study by the Forest Service’s Southern Research Station in Asheville, N.C.

Since 2010, camping hasn’t been allowed at the Albert Pike Recreation Area.

And the Forest Service wants it to stay that way.

“The developed campsites at APRA are subject to floods of the magnitude that occurred on June 11, 2010, and for these reasons, camping below the 100-year flood elevation was not considered,” according to the final decision notice signed by Lori Bell, acting forest supervisor.

One of the alternatives considered would have allowed overnight tent camping above the 100-year flood elevation near Loop C, but that option was rejected.

“Motorized emergency evacuation routes from the potential locations of the new tent campground would be located within the 100-year flood zone and could become flooded, entrapping overnight campers,” according to the environmental assessment.

HISTORY

The Albert Pike Recreation Area was developed by the U.S. Forest Service in 1934, beginning with the purchase of two parcels of lumber company land, according to the environmental assessment.

Located 6 miles north of Langley in the southwestern corner of Montgomery County, the recreation area has been a popular site for visitors from Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas.

“This area was popular for generations of families, both local and out of area, who returned to the area year after year to camp, picnic and enjoy the waters of the Little Missouri River corridor,” according to the environmental assessment. “A natural pool in the Little Missouri River allows visitors to swim, wade, and utilize non-motorized boats during seasons with low river flow.”

This river-side recreation area became the subject of intense national, regional and local attention when the Little Missouri River overtopped its banks in the very early morning hours of June 11, 2010, generating a flash flood that killed 20 people, according to a Forest Service scoping letter dated Nov. 15, 2020.

“The surviving family members and many others who were camping in the developed recreation area on June 10-11 also lost vehicles and other personal property in the flood,” according to the letter. “An asphalt parking lot and connecting lanes, campsites, and bathhouses were heavily damaged, particularly in Loop D but also to some extent in Loop C, which was being reconstructed at the time.”

Many people “camp” in recreational vehicles. Loop D in the Albert Pike Recreation Area was the only one with RV hookups. Seventeen of the 20 people who died in the 2010 flood were camped in Loop D.

Final decision

For the last decade, the Albert Pike Recreation Area has been in limbo. A 2011 lawsuit and subsequent 2013 court order temporarily halted all modifications or alterations of facilities in the Recreation Area until the lawsuit was settled on July 20, 2018.

Then, the Forest Service considered its options. Public meetings were held. Comments were solicited. The environmental analysis was drafted.

After all the public comments, meetings and further analysis, Bell made her decision.

“The decision provides a safe, well-maintained facility with year-round sustainable day-use recreation opportunities including swimming, picnicking and fishing,” Caddo-Womble District Ranger, Amanda Gee, said in a news release.

Infrastructure will be decommissioned in some areas and allowed to return to natural conditions, according to the release. Other changes that will be implemented include the adaptive reuse of Loop D to provide day-use parking facilities.

According to the Forest Service, Loops A and B will be open year-round to day use (instead of being open seasonally as they had been), and the storage buildings in Loop A will be decommissioned.

A Sweet-Smelling Technology vault toilet will be installed in Loop B, with the loop’s bathhouse remaining open seasonally until it is no longer maintainable, according to final decision.

“At the point that the bathhouse is no longer maintainable, the bathhouse and its well system will be decommissioned,” according to the decision. “All Loop C facilities and infrastructure will be decommissioned, including the dump station, and allowed to return to natural conditions. Finally, all Loop D facilities and infrastructure will be decommissioned and allowed to return to natural conditions with three exceptions: (1) the large-group picnic pavilion, which will remain intact; (2) the Loop D parking lots, which will be converted to day use parking with natural surfacing; and (3) the construction of an information kiosk near the Loop D parking lots.”

‘COMMON SENSE’

Janice McRae, who lives nearby, said she was happy with the decision.

“I am very pleased and optimistic about the plan,” she said. “I believe it will have a positive impact for all who desire to enjoy the area — be it hiking, swimming, camping, or just needing to find the peace of the natural beauty of the area. The plan includes many common sense updates and approaches that will allow for a year-round opportunity. …

“We know this will not all happen overnight but after being in limbo for 11½ years about the fate of the area, I am so thankful to have a plan, a plan that enables folks to use the swimming area and access the trails without undue danger of loss of life. There are many adequate camping opportunities elsewhere rather than in this convergence of creeks, river and narrow valley passageways.”

McRae said she appreciates the “very understanding, common sense folks in the USFS” who made the final decision.

“That being said, if you come to this area, remember to always have a family plan in place in case of flood and another in case of forest fire,” said McRae. “This is a beautiful, remote, wild, natural area. Its beauty can also be its danger. Stay safe and know you are loved.”

ALTERNATIVES

Farley said there are locations in Albert Pike’s Loops A and B that are above the 100-year flood elevation, but those areas are too small to utilize as camping spots.

In the event of a flood, “those areas would be inaccessible and would have potential to cause the need for a swift water rescue,” she said in an email.

Farley said the Forest Service didn’t consider developing another campsite near but outside the Albert Pike Recreation Area because that wasn’t part of its most recent analysis.

“During the most recent environmental assessment of the Albert Pike recreation area, the scope was focused within the recreation area itself in order to meet standards and objectives identified in the Revised Land and Resource Management Plan for the Ouachita NF,” she said in an email.

For those looking for a more primitive camping experience, dispersed camping remains available and popular near the Albert Pike Recreation Area, said Farley. Dispersed camping means camping in areas outside a developed campground, usually in a tent.

“But the freedom afforded by camping in these areas is not without risk,” said Farley. These areas do not (unlike developed campgrounds) receive periodic safety inspections. They lack amenities and are not patrolled as regularly. This freedom to choose comes with it the responsibility for the visitor to be much more responsible for their safety and decision making, as well as being situationally aware of potential natural hazards and the consequences of those hazards.”

    Campers and RVs were scattered in the Albert Pike Recreation Area along the Little Missouri River after a flash flood in 2010 that drowned 20 people. The area is now limited to day use only, but U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman wants it designated for campground use again. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette file photo)
 
 



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