Arkansas Congressman Bruce Westerman filed a bill Thursday to reopen camping in the Albert Pike Recreation Area, where 20 people died in a flash flood in 2010.
The US Forest Service announced Dec. 16 that overnight camping wouldn’t resume at Albert Pike, which is on the Little Missouri River in a remote and rugged section of the Ouachita National Forest in Montgomery County, about 50 miles west of Hot Springs.
Westerman’s bill calls for reopening campsites above what is known as the 100-year flood plain and developing at least 54 new campsites above the flood plain within two years.
The 100-year designation means there is a 1% chance of flooding in any given year.
“After the Forest Service’s decision to permanently suspend all overnight camping at Albert Pike, I have heard from countless constituents who expressed their disappointment and frustration at the decision,” Westerman said in a news release Thursday. Albert Pike has been enjoyed by families from Arkansas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Texas for generations.
“We must ensure Albert Pike is safely refitted to ensure the 2010 tragedy never occurs again, but it would be a disservice to the community to permanently ban overnight camping and deprive folks who return to Albert Pike year after year to share the experiences they had as children with their families. I look forward to working with the US Forest Service to allow for safe and responsible usage for years to come.”
According to an environmental assessment dated September 2021, 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 is 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, NC
Reached late Thursday,Westerman said, “If there are any individual campsites that are above the 100-year flood plain it would likely only be a few, but we wanted to make sure if there are any of those sites or if any are determined in future surveys that they would be made available for use as soon as possible.”
“There’s certainly high ground around there that would be well out of the flood plain,” he said.
Westerman said he’s been working with the Forest Service on his proposal to reopen the recreation area to overnight camping.
“It’s not like we came up with this on our own,” he said. “We engaged with the Forest Service. I would love to see that campground developed and opened back up. We’ve got some real treasures on the Ouachita [National Forest]. I would like to see more recreational opportunities all across the forest.”
Westerman said he’s in line to be chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources, so he could help usher the bill through that committee. But it would probably be next year before the bill could work its way through the full House of Representatives, he said. Then it would go to the Senate.
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, Tracy Farley , public affairs officer for the Ouachita National Forest, said in December.
Since 2010, camping hasn’t been allowed at the Albert Pike Recreation Area.
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.
In December, 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 campsites.
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 at the time.
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 .
The short title of Westerman’s bill is the ”Ouachita National Forest Overnight Camping Act.”
According to the bill, within six months of its enactment, the secretary of agriculture shall identify areas within the Albert Pike Recreation Area that may be suitable for overnight camping.
Within two years of the law’s enactment, the secretary of agriculture is to review each of those areas, then “select and establish campsites and related facilities within Albert Pike Recreation Area for public use.”
The secretary shall ensure that at least 54 new campsites are available and that at least eight of them have electric and water hookups, according to Westerman’s bill.
Also, the secretary must ensure that each campsite and related facility is “located outside of the 1 percent annual exceedance probability flood elevation,” otherwise known as the 100-year flood plain.
Also, according to Westerman’s bill, “Not later than 30 days after the date of the enactment of this Act, the Secretary shall open each campsite within Albert Pike Recreation Area that — (1) exists on the date of the enactment of this Act ; and (2) is located outside of the 1 percent annual exceedance probability flood elevation.”
The Albert Pike Recreation Area was developed by the US 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 southwest corner of Montgomery County, the recreation area has been a popular site for visitors from Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas.
This riverside 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.
For a decade, the Albert Pike Recreation Area was 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 hero. 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 December news release.
The recreation area will continue to be day-use only, with no overnight camping permitted, according to the news release. Infrastructure will be decommissioned in some areas and allowed to return to natural conditions.