My An Arkie's Faith column from the May 10, 2023, issue of The Polk County Pulse.
Even though I have lived in Mena, Arkansas, for over forty years, I am still amazed by the area's natural beauty. I love to travel and see America's wonderfully varied landscapes, but when I come home to the Ouachitas, I realize that I live in one of the most beautiful places in the U.S.
I recently discovered a bit of history about this area that surprised me. I learned that in the 1920s, Congress introduced legislation that would have created a national park in this area. The proposed Ouachita National Park would have been 35 miles long and 12 miles wide, stretching through the central Ouachita Mountains of Polk and Montgomery counties.
The original proposal for a national park in the Ouachitas came in the early 1920s from business leaders in Mena, Arkansas. Their initial proposal for establishing Mena National Park focused on Rich Mountain, including the area now designated as Queen Wilhelmina State Park. But as the idea for a national park grew, they focused on a much larger area southeast of Mena.
Prominent politicians, businessmen from Arkansas, Oklahoma and Louisiana, and local leaders from Mena worked hard to promote the idea. They organized The Ouachita National Park Foundation Society to promote the need for a national park in the South. The society published a promotional booklet that extolled the area's scenic beauty. It described the wide variety of vistas found in the proposed park. "There are steep, timber-covered peaks rising to 2,500 feet, long ridges of mountains, with peaks separated only by narrow green valleys with streams of pure, cold, spring water in abundance."
Society members wrote many articles praising the beauty of the Ouachitas and the proposed national park. In November 1926, K. E. Merren published an article titled "Ouachita National Park Will Be a Dixie Paradise." In the article, he wrote, "Few countries can surpass Arkansas in the beauties of its mountain landscape. The hills are wooded with evergreens and broadleafs, the pines appearing as bands of deeper green. Along some of the streams are mighty cliffs with tousled cedars and straggly pines clinging to their unfriendly sides. Everywhere are springs, the purity of whose waters are unsurpassed. In the valleys are streams, broken by rapids and falls."
But not everyone was in favor of a national park in the area. Roger W. Toll, the superintendent of the Rocky Mountain National Park, inspected the proposed park and asserted that the region did not meet the national park standards. He explained that the "Ouachita mountains are beautiful, attractive, luxuriant, verdant, friendly, and peaceful. They are not grand, spectacular, unique, nor superlative." He concluded by saying, "The Ouachita area does not contain features nor scenery on a scale equal to, or even approaching, the majority of the national parks that have been established by Congress. The area would not add any new feature of importance to the national park system that is not already represented, in a higher degree, in the existing parks. In my opinion, the National Park Service cannot consistently recommend consideration of this area for a proposed national park."
On December 5, 1927, Congressman Wingo introduced legislation in the House of Representatives to create the Ouachita National Park, with a similar bill being introduced in the Senate by Senator Robinson. Despite the reservation of the National Park Service administrators, the prospects for passage looked good. On February 17, 1929, the U.S. Senate passed the bill without a dissenting vote. A few days later, the House passed the bill by a vote of 164 to 71. It looked like there would be a new National Park, with Mena being the main town near the park.
The supporters of the Ouachita National Park were excited when their hard work was rewarded by Congress passing the bill, but then were devastated when President Calvin Coolidge, at the last moment of his presidency, pocket-vetoed the legislation by refusing to sign the bill. Senator Robinson declared, "The failure of the bill is a distinct disappointment. The measure will be reintroduced in the senate when Congress convenes again."
Congressman Wingo appealed to supporters of the Ouachita National Park, "Do not get discouraged, forget the disappointment caused by the pocket veto of the bill, and keep in the fight until victory is won." He finished his appeal by stating, "I have greater faith now that the Ouachita National Park will be established than I ever had before."