When a group pushing to save the abandoned U.S. 79 bridge over the White River in Clarendon announced this week a state deal to support the effort, it crossed a bridge too far — criticizing Republican U.S. Sen. John Boozman. State Republican officials aren’t happy about it.
As I reported Wednesday, the Friends of the Historic White River Bridge announced that the state Parks and Tourism Department and the Department of Arkansas Heritage, both headed by Gov. Asa Hutchinson appointees, had agreed to provide perpetual maintenance financing for the bridge. That had been a concern for the city of Clarendon, should it oversee the old bridge’s use for hiking and biking. It’s been -replaced by a new structure.
But …. the release from Jeremiah Moore, leader of the Friends, went on to depict Sen. John Boozman as unhelpful. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in approving the new bridge, had an ironclad contract to remove the old bridge to restore the natural water flow blocked by the old structure in the scenic White-Cache basin. Said the letter:
The unwillingness of DOI/USFWS to return to the negotiating table despite such an extraordinary change of circumstances – a change which addresses the entire portion of their concerns around the indefinite viability of the structure – may in part be explained by the recalcitrance of Arkansas’s senior senator, John Boozman. As chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Fisheries, Water, and Wildlife – the committee which oversees USFWS – Senator Boozman is perhaps the best-positioned, most powerful man in Congress on this matter.
His resounding “neutral” position on a seemingly positive project in his home state with substantial grassroots and public support may be sending a powerful message to the leadership at DOI/USFWS not to engage.
I asked Kane Webb, parks and tourism director, and Stacy Hurst, Heritage director, if they’d signed off on the news release. Webb said the first time he’d seen it was on the Arkansas Blog. Hurst had seen it. Her spokesman, Melissa Whitfield responded to my questions:
Stacy has been very supportive of the effort to save the bridge. Jeremiah Moore sent a draft of the release to Stacy and asked for a quote from her, which she declined. Jeremiah was in the building earlier this week for an Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission meeting, and we suggested that his release might serve better as an Op-Ed piece. I gave him Brenda Looper’s contact info [at Democrat-Gazette], but he said he wanted to do it as a release.
Whitfield emphasized later it was the Friends’ release, not Stacy’s. Both Whitfield and Webb confirmed they DO support a state role in maintenance. Said Webb:
Max, yes, we worked with DAH on an agreement to help maintain the bridge should it be saved and eventually renovated. As you may know, our Lower White River Museum is not far from Clarendon. I did think it was BS that Senator Boozman was disparaged in that letter. Sen. Boozman and his staff have not interfered in efforts concerning the bridge. That’s out of left field.
From Gov. Asa Hutchinson, through
“My directors of the Department of Arkansas Heritage and Parks and Tourism have laid out a contingency plan to maintain the bridge should the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decide to change course. There’s no indication they will do so at this time.
“Senator Boozman and his staff have always been great partners to the Governor’s Office. John is a friend, and the disparaging remarks towards him in the release were both unnecessary and inappropriate.”
Finally, this from Moore, who stepped in the political hornet’s nest:
There is a letter on public record written to the Secretary of the Interior signed by the directors of the Arkansas Parks and Tourism, and Department of Arkansas Heritage containing the agreement.
I provided the release to DAH for review. DAH expressed discomfort with the negative comments about Boozman, and declined to join in the release. I was mistakenly under the impression that it had been passed along to Parks and Tourism for review as well. I’ve learned only today that I was mistaken. After speaking with Kane Webb, I’ve learned that he was displeased about the comments regarding Boozman.
Just so there is no misunderstanding: the Friends of the Historic White River Bridge are an independent group of concerned private citizens. The facts stated in the release are factual, but any judgements expressed in the release are those of the Friends and no other interested parties.
By the way, about state costs: Webb explained that there’s no firm figure. The plan would envision capturing $5 million set for bridge destruction for front-end fixup as needed. Here’s what Webb said on costs:
It’s a bit of a guessing game based on what costs have been to maintain the bridge as a highway and then costs for other pedestrian bridges like the Clinton Library bridge and Junction Bridge. It runs from next to nothing (I think Clinton bridge showed no costs one year) to six figures if it happens to be a year when there’s a deep dive inspection. Just going off memory, I think the average over last couple decades for Clarendon was under $20k.
Thinking was that, should the bridge get the $5million reno treatment, annual maintenance would not be bad. possibility of private help, too.