Friday, November 20, 2009

My Rural Travelogue (Part XI): Elkotourism flourishes

It was well over a decade ago when my mother first mentioned ecotourism as a path to jobs and economic growth for our home county, Newton County, Arkansas, population 8,608. Though I don't recall exactly when we had this conversation (I would guess the early-to-mid 1990s when I was living in Europe--which probably made Newton County seem even less attractive and interesting), I do recall my response: skepticism. Who, I wondered, would want to visit Newton County, other than those who already came to float the Buffalo National River? What could the county do to encourage visitors from near and far? I knew the natural landscapes across the county were attractive, but there were few places for people to dine, and even fewer salubrious places for people to lodge. Jasper, the county seat, had three little strip motels, but I didn't think they were very attractive. As for food, there was the Dairy Diner, the Ozark Cafe and a few more slightly upmarket places, including one several miles south of town overlooking "Arkansas's Grand Canyon."

While the population of neither Jasper (now 498) nor the county has grown much in the past few decades, the economic base of the county has, in fact, been altered by ecotourism. (I wrote an earlier post here about how ecotourism was developed in the county, including the use of federal grant money). Ecotourism has also re-made Newton County's social landscape, with many "newcomers" moving in to run tourism related businesses, and some oldtimers starting or enhancing businesses of their own. These include numerous cabins, the very salubrious Horseshoe Canyon Ranch, Arkansas House Inn and Restaurant, and the ever-popular, Ozark Cafe (photo above).

On a visit to Newton County a few weeks ago, I was struck more than ever by the success of Newton County's ecotourism efforts--which might also be referred to as elkotourism. About a decade ago, Jasper claimed the title "Elk Capital of Arkansas." That happened several years after a number of elk from the Rocky Mountains were transplanted to Newton County's Boxley Valley (between 1981 and 1985), replacing those that had become extinct over a century earlier. Read more about this re-introduction and the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission's Elk Education Center here (photo below).
I visited the Elk Education Center in Ponca (not a census designated place, but with a post office), on my recent visit to Newton County. During my hour or so there on a Monday morning in November, a couple of dozen people came and went. I checked the guest book to see where they were from --mostly Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma. The interpretive exhibits were really fantastic, with lots of hands-on items for kids: animal pelts of various types, a live preying mantis, animal scat (in jars, so not quite "hands on," thankfully), inter-active computer programs about animal habitats, and much more. My 5-year-old has been practicing his elk bugling ever since.

Later that day I visited the Jasper Chamber of Commerce, located in one of the historic stone buildings on the Newton County Courthouse square. There you can make reservations for a cabin or other lodging--or buy any of a wide array of locally made crafts, strictly from Newton County, in fact. I picked up several hand made wooden toys--a steal at between $3 and $25--some goats milk herb soap, soy candles, and nifty tie-dyed T-shirts. A tie-dyed bag by the same artist said "Elkstasy," and featured the silhouette of one of these marvelous animals.

We wrapped up the day with a meal at the updated Ozark Cafe--updated in the sense that it is owned my a newcomer, but he's been there long enough now to be considered "local." The extensive menu is printed on newsprint, a faux newspaper look. The place wasn't quite full during our early dinner, but it was hopping with both out-of-towners and residents (see photo of the latter below). Remarkably, the salad bar there is the only restaurant in northwest Arkansas or northeast Oklahoma (including restaurants in much, much larger cities) on this trip where I was served lovely dark, leafy lettuce in addition to the standard iceberg.
But it isn't just seeing the enhanced tourism infrastructure and out-of-towners (and out-of-staters) enjoying Newton County that lets me know it has arrived as a regional tourism destination. It's the fact that so many of my friends from around Arkansas now talk about their frequent visits to Newton County and all that's on offer there. In short, it's a far cry from the 1980s when I was in college in Fayetteville, just 80 miles away. Back then, Newton County was a place of intrigue because of its hillbilly associations, but it wasn't a place one visited except, perhaps, occasionally to float the Buffalo. Now, however, it's become an interesting and desirable week-end destination. Yep, elko/ecotourism is thriving, and it's bringing a tiny measure of prosperity to the county, even as the place retains much of its historic, rustic charm. That, after all, is surely its biggest attraction--an attraction that has grown stronger as we become more sentimental for our rural past, which is surely slipping away ... .

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