LITTLE ROCK -- A not-for-profit land conservation group is in negotiations with an unnamed Arkansas state agency to sell a 1,500-acre island in the Mississippi River for use as a camping, hiking, fishing, recreation and bird-watching spot, a group official said Friday.
American Land Conservancy, based in San Francisco, has been trying for three years to find a public home for Buck Island, which it bought at auction from a private businessman in 2005. The conservation group purchased the island as part of its mission to save wildlife habitat, parks and open spaces throughout the country.
The group also envisioned the island becoming part of a "river trail" made up of islands on the Lower Mississippi River that could be incorporated into an ecotourism program.
"It's very sensitive," said Tim Richardson, the group's director of government affairs. "Lawmakers are talking to a state agency, and they're making progress. We're mildly optimistic."
Originally purchased for $1.2 million, the island price was lowered to $950,000.
Richardson said Phillips County has expressed interest in owning the island near Helena-West Helena, the county seat. County administrator Don Gentry was on vacation Friday and unavailable for comment, his assistant said.
The conservation group bought Buck Island at the urging of the Lower Mississippi River Conservation Committee, a state and federal organization that works to restore the ecology of the Mississippi River. The government group suggested a river trail as a way to serve both environmental and economic interests.
As envisioned, Richardson said, the trail would amount to 106 miles of river from Buck Island to the Choctaw Island Wildlife Management Area at Arkansas City, and would also feature the Great River Road State Park in Rosedale, Miss., and the confluence of the Mississippi with the White and Arkansas rivers.
The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission manages the state's Choctaw Island wildlife area and owns a boat dock at Helena. A commission official did not immediately return a call for comment Friday.
Besides fishing and boating along the river, a strong draw for outdoor enthusiasts would be the island itself, rich in flora and fauna. Buck Island features white sand beaches and five miles of hiking trails among forests of sycamore, oak, hackberry and willow. It is an important nesting ground for the least tern.
And when the mile-wide river is low, the island connects with the river shore.
"You can walk to it," Richardson said.
Lately, the island has become a stopping spot for canoeists, renting boats from the new Quapaw Canoe Company in Helena-West Helena.