Bill filed to reopen Arkansas campground where flood killed 20 campers

A backpacker takes in the view of Winding Stairs, a picturesque spot on the Little Missouri River near the Albert Pike Recreation Area. While the trails remain open to hikers, overnight camping at Albert Pike has been closed since a flood in 2010 left 20 campers dead. | Shutterstock

By JOEL PHELPS | The Arkadelphian

More than a dozen years have passed since a catastrophic flood swept through the Albert Pike Recreation Area, claiming the lives of 20 sleeping campers and sending numerous tents, campers, vehicles, watercraft and makeshift cabins down the Little Missouri River.

Three of the dead were from Southwest Arkansas, nine were from Louisiana and eight were from Texas.

In the flood’s aftermath and outcry from the victims’ surviving relatives, the U.S. Forest Service closed off the area to overnight camping. However, U.S. Congressman Bruce Westerman (R-Arkansas) says it’s time for campers and Albert Pike’s frequent visitors to get back to the outdoors.

“You can’t foolproof the outdoors, but you can use some common sense, and that’s why the bill stipulates that the campground be built above the floodplain.”

— U.S. Congressman Bruce Westerman

Westerman this week introduced legislation to reopen the overnight sites at Albert Pike. The Ouachita National Forest Overnight Camping Act will first head to the Natural Resources Committee, which Westerman chairs, before it’s considered for a vote by the House of Representatives.

Westerman told The Arkadelphian in a telephone interview that he had talked to many people who wanted to see overnight camping allowed at Albert Pike. Westerman said that although he’s never camped at Albert Pike himself, he has visited the Montgomery County campground on numerous occasions.

“I got a lot of input from people who want to see it open,” said Westerman. “I did some town hall meetings and had people reach out to our office about Albert Pike. I know there’s a desire from a lot of people who want to see it open for overnight use.”

On the night of June 10, 2010, and into the next morning, torrential rains caused the Little Missouri and Caddo rivers to rise at a rate of up to 8 feet per hour. The former river peaked higher than 23 feet — its ordinary level is 3 feet — near Langley. While flood warnings were issued ahead of the rainfall, they likely fell on deaf ears because of the remoteness of the area. A flood of that magnitude hadn’t happened in the area since records began in the late ‘80s, and one local resident recounted there had been only one flood of that impact, in 1968, before Albert Pike became a popular camping spot.

Westerman’s bill would require the campground to be moved above the 100-year floodplain. Given the steep elevation of the mountainous area, Westerman said there’s “no question” a new campground could be developed. The bill, which he expects will pass without controversy, would give Forest Service engineers six months to identify an area to build a campground; the USFS would have two years to develop the new campground. The bill stipulates that the USFS will restore at least 54 overnight camp sites — the same number that was available prior to the campground being shut.

“We want to make sure the campgrounds are as safe as possible,” Westerman said. “There is an inherent risk when you use the outdoors. You can’t foolproof the outdoors, but you can use some common sense, and that’s why the bill stipulates that the campground be built above the floodplain.”

A portion of the funding, Westerman said, would come from the Great American Outdoors Act and the Infrastructure and Jobs Act. The USFS also has a budget to develop and maintain recreation areas. The congressman did not have an estimate on what the cost would be to redevelop the site but said it wouldn’t be “a huge cost” to taxpayers.

Ed: Joel Phelps and Sean Ruggles earned a First Place award from the Arkansas Press Association for their coverage of the Albert Pike flood while working for the Daily Siftings Herald in Arkadelphia.

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  1. A real tragedy! It was a beautiful campground, in as pretty of an area as our state has! So unfortunate that it was built below the flood plain, especially the ingress/egress drive into the park.

    In these times of growing RV usage, there is an even greater need to reopen this area to camping, in a controlled way.

    I’d heard that some Boy Scouts had gone around warning campers after dark, that the river was rising at an alarming rate. I wonder where they were from; and how many campers took them seriously, and left with their possessions and lives???