Save the River Parks Campaign

aka: Audubon Society of Central Arkansas v. Dailey

“Save the River Parks” was a slogan adopted by environmental and neighborhood groups in Little Rock (Pulaski County) in a four-year political and legal campaign that ultimately, in 1992, halted construction of a highway along the southern bank of the Arkansas River connecting the city’s downtown district to interstate highways and residential and business districts on the city’s western side. After a citywide vote and losing battles in state and federal courts, the city government, the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers abandoned the road construction. The subsequent construction of bicycle and pedestrian bridges over the Arkansas River and a tributary, as well as a trail system linking some twenty parks along the river in central Arkansas, could be traced to the environmentalists’ victories in that campaign. The federal court decision, which was upheld by the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, became an important precedent often cited in environmental cases across the country.

The effort began in February 1988 when Nancy Clark, a bicyclist and environmentalist who lived on a bluff overlooking the river, saw tiny red flags fluttering along the roadside when she was walking her beagle along Rebsamen Park Road near the Murray Lock and Dam. She went into the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers office at the dam and asked what the flags were for. An agent said they marked the contours of a new highway that was going to be built along the river connecting Rebsamen Park Road to Interstate 430 on the west and downtown commercial areas on the east. She alerted neighbors along the bluff, as well as environmental and civic groups to which she belonged, and the campaign against the road began. The groups feared the road would be heavily traveled and that the noise and exhaust from all the vehicles would be a nuisance and destroy the beauty, solitude, and recreational offerings of the parks along both sides of the river.

A drive to build an east-west parkway along the river had begun in 1975. The state Highway Department planned to build a bridge over tiny Jimerson Creek, which fed into the river where Murray Dam was built, and extend Rebsamen Park Road two miles farther west to Interstate 430, the western bypass around the metropolitan area. The state got a permit from the Corps of Engineers to build the little bridge. The Highway Department was short of money, however, and the permit expired before the state and the city got around to building the bridge and the road extension. In the years afterward, major commercial and residential development farther to the east, principally the construction of the Alltel Corporation business campus, revived business interests in building the thoroughfare connecting downtown and the western precincts.

The thoroughfare was reincarnated in a $39 million bond issue proposed to the voters by the City of Little Rock in 1987, although the river road attracted little attention. People cast votes on twelve separate bond proposals, including a catchall proposal to fund a variety of street and traffic projects. Rebsamen Park Road was not identified as one of the projects in that bond issue. Although it had not appeared on the ballot, it had been listed by the city as among many improvements that might be made from the proceeds of that bond issue. The voters approved all twelve bond issues, but no one in the surrounding neighborhood took notice that the extended road was in the package, or at least that the city and the state had chosen to fund it, until Nancy Clark noticed the flags.

Residents of the neighborhoods and a number of groups—the Audubon Society, League of Women Voters, Ozark Society, Sierra Club, Arkansas Canoe Club, and several running and bicycle clubs—joined an organization they called the Coalition of Friends to Save the Parks. Among the leaders were Clark, Barry Haas of the Audubon Society, advertising executive Ben Combs, and neighborhood activists and sports enthusiasts David Gruenewald, Alice Andrews, and Bob McKinney. Scott Trotter and lawyers Webb Hubbell and Brian Rosenthal of the Rose Law Firm joined the effort.

City officials insisted that the project had to go forward because voters had approved the bond proposal that included the Rebsamen Park Road project, although the project itself was not listed on the ballot. The Corps of Engineers agreed to hold a public hearing on the project because it had to issue a permit for the Jimerson Creek bridge stating that the bridge and the road would not jeopardize the dam or river traffic in any way. After the hearing, the Corps issued the permit, although it would later be revealed in court that there were objections in the Corps to the project.

The opposing group filed a lawsuit in federal district court challenging the permit from the Corps and the construction of the bridge and road without an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) appeared to require. The Highway Department, city, and Corps engineers insisted that the comprehensive study required for an EIS was not justified by the road project. The case was assigned to U.S. District Judge George E. Howard Jr., who conducted a trial and once adjourned court to visit the site himself. Hubbell, the plaintiffs’ chief lawyer, noted that Howard spotted an old man fishing in Jimerson Creek and went over and spent some time talking to him. Judge Howard held that the project would adversely affect people in the neighborhood.

Howard was frustrated in the trial with the witnesses for the Corps, who could not explain why an EIS was not needed when the law seemed to require it; he was also dissatisfied by their inability to explain the discrepancies between their own traffic study and earlier findings and their conclusion that the project would have no discernible environmental impact. The decision was appealed to the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which unanimously upheld Howard’s ruling in Audubon Society of Central Arkansas v. Dailey (1992). It would be revealed in 2018 that Don Tyson of Springdale (Washington and Benton counties), the poultry magnate who had a weekend home on the ridge above the road, had financed the litigation on the condition that his involvement remain a secret.

Simultaneous with the lawsuit, the group collected signatures on a petition calling for a referendum on the project and presented the petition to the city clerk. The city attorney instructed the clerk not to count the signatures because the petition was “pointless.” He said a referendum could not overturn the legal requirement that the project be built because it had been approved by the voters and city officials were obliged by law to implement the bond ordinance. A lawsuit was filed in Pulaski County Circuit Court, and the judge ruled that the clerk had to count the signatures, and that if the petition was valid the referendum had to be held. The signatures were sufficient, and the project was placed on the ballot. The vote was 23,418 to 19,358 to scrap the road project.

City officials said it was merely a plebiscite, not a referendum, and the vote was not binding. They planned to proceed with the EIS and the legal appeal and simply delay the work for a year or so. But when the city Board of Directors decided to take a formal vote, it resulted in a tie. Mayor Jim Dailey, a defendant in the federal suit, broke the tie and voted to halt the project. The people have spoken, he said, and it was time to move on.

Thereafter, City Director Floyd G. “Buddy” Villines, considered a father of the proposed parkway and all the other municipal improvements in the bond issues, became Pulaski County judge and developed plans and obtained funds for the construction of the Big Dam Bridge, the pedestrian and bicycle bridge over the Arkansas River, and other park developments along the route of the abandoned river road. These projects would not have been possible if the bridge and river road had been built.

For additional information:
Dumas, Ernest. “The Legacy of the 1992 ‘Save the River Parks’ Campaign.” Arkansas Times, October 18, 2018. Online at https://arktimes.com/news/cover-stories/2018/10/18/the-legacy-of-the-1992-save-the-river-parks-campaign-2 (accessed February 25, 2021).

Ernie Dumas
Little Rock, Arkansas

Last Updated: 02/25/2021