What does it take to be called an Arkansas outdoor legend? Vision, hard work and a love of Arkansas that never quits. On the following pages, we recognize six individuals—Joe David Rice, Gary Gibbs, Tim Scott, Kim Ward, Debbie Doss and Cowper Chadbourn—who have all dedicated their lives to increasing the profile of Arkansas through their stewardship, entrepreneurship and plain grit and determination.

Arkansas Tourism Director Joe David Rice gets some fresh air on his bike at Two Rivers Park in Little Rock.

Arkansas Tourism Director Joe David Rice gets some fresh air on his bike at Two Rivers Park in Little Rock.

Joe David Rice

Joe David Rice has served as Arkansas’ Tourism Director since 1987, but when he starts talking about the Natural State, it’s clear his excitement has only grown over the years. Promoting Arkansas is more than a job for him—it’s a way of life. 

“This was one of my dream jobs before I even went to college,” he says. He studied outdoor recreation planning at the University of Illinois, and took his first job with the city of Hot Springs. His experiences in one of Arkansas’ premier resort destinations helped shape his view of exactly how important promoting the state’s tourism is to Arkansas’ economy. Over the years, he has overseen ever-increasing successes, including a seven percent increase in tourism in 2015 over 2014—with 2016 looking to top that.

“We’re in the economic development business,” he says. “The more people we get to come in from out of state to visit Arkansas, the more money everyone makes.” He thinks many people are surprised by the things that Arkansas has to offer, although that perception is changing. “People are finding out what we have.”

Ever one to distribute credit around, Joe David points to the Arkansas Wilderness Act of 1983, introduced by Senator Dale Bumpers, as a great leap forward for the state. “Getting lands designated as part of the National Wilderness Preservation System was important,” he says. Further aid came in 1989, when the state passed a tourism tax which resulted in more money for growth and development. Along the way, his department changed the way it talked about the state.

“We once just promoted hunting, fishing and hiking—and that was it,” he says. “Now we tell people to first have a quality urban experience with our brewpubs and restaurants, and then go duck hunting. Our product has diversified.” He credits the beginning of this new state of affairs in Arkansas to the election of Bill Clinton in 1992. “No matter what your political leanings, it’s clear that Clinton’s election put a spotlight on the state, and the Clinton library did a lot to expand tourism.”

Nearly three decades into his career, Joe David is still looking forward. He points to two areas of recent growth—cycling and the Arkansas craft brewery boom—as positive signs for the future of Arkansas tourism. “There are so many great places for craft beer now. And places like Crystal Bridges have just given people more opportunities for a diversified experience in the state.”

Along with these new tourist attractions, Joe David also cites the changing media landscape as an instrument of Arkansas’ growth. “It’s amazing what we can do with the internet and social media,” he says. The Arkansas State Parks page on Facebook alone boasts nearly 85,000 followers, and the state’s webpage hosts a wealth of information about not only parks and attractions, but other things to do in various areas of the state.

“We’ve got the best state parks in the country,” Joe David says. “We’re also blessed with our Corps of Engineers reservoirs.” But despite this assertion, he still sees plenty of room for growth. “I’d like to see us build more IMBA Epic trails,” he says, referring to Arkansas’ current status of being tied for second place with Colorado for the number of trails rated Epic by the International Mountain Bicycling Association. Cycling is estimated to have added $230 million of economic benefit to the state—a number that Joe David, a cyclist himself, thinks can grow. But it’s not all bicycles. “We’ve also got some of the most incredible watchable wildlife opportunities anywhere. And, of course, Arkansas is a primary destination for motorcyclists.”

With so many areas of responsibility, it would be easy to be overwhelmed. Fortunately, Joe David says that Arkansas is possessed of a wealth of talent when it comes to promoting the state. “I’ve been surrounded by great people,” he says. “The Department of Arkansas Heritage. The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. Many of the federal agencies. Not to mention all our wonderful welcome centers built by the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department.”

Tourism isn’t only about getting people from outside Arkansas to experience the Natural State. For Joe David Rice, part of building Arkansas’ reputation is getting Arkansans to better appreciate everything we have in our state. “There are new things happening all the time,” he says. He cites the “rails to trails” Delta Heritage Trail project as something he’s particularly excited about. “There’s never been a better time to visit Arkansas,” he says, and if he has his way, that will be true for years to come.

Photo by Rett Peek
For more information about Arkansas tourism, visit arkansas.com.

Delta Resort and Spa founder Gary Gibbs looks for ducks near one of his world-class duck blinds.

Delta Resort and Spa founder Gary Gibbs looks for ducks near one of his world-class duck blinds.

Gary Gibbs

"We started with nothing but a mudhole,” says Delta Resort owner and visionary Gary Gibbs of the nearly 2,000 acres of southeast Arkansas land in Desha County he’s hunted since 1979. Back then, Gary (along with his father and children) hunted ducks out of a small trailer tucked into a patch of green timber. “The land here belonged to a man named Lester Banfield,” he says. “This was a special place for my father and all of us.”

Gary hunted the area until 1988, when Lester Banfield was forced to sell his land. “I said at the time that if I could ever have a dream come true, I’d buy the south end of that property and build a lodge.” He got his chance in 2006, and construction began in 2007. In the decade since, Gary’s idea for a hunting lodge grew into something quite different: a full resort featuring two hotels (totaling 130 rooms), the 43 Grill & Bar restaurant (named for local landmark Canal 43), a full menu of spa services, dozens of duck blinds and deer stands—and a world-class shotgun shooting complex that has hosted both major clay tournaments and Olympic-qualifying trials.

At Delta Resort, though, the luxurious amenities and facilities are just the beginning—Gary Gibbs is, quite literally, reshaping the earth itself. “We are creating new wetlands every day,” says Gary. “We want to make the best habitat for ducks, of course, but we also see ourselves as stewards of the land itself.” To that end, Gary and his team brought in Jody Pagan, a habitat management specialist and avid hunter, in order to develop habitats that would work with the natural tendencies of the land—and draw in the ducks that make the resort such a hotspot for hunters.

“We used to hunt a spot with George Dunklin [of Five Oaks Wildlife Services] and we’d just tear them up,” says Gary. “So we went to that spot and mapped every tree—and noted every species. Then we got with Jody and had him redesign that spot here at Delta Resort.” As he says this, he points out to a stand of trees located right where two sloughs cross. It looks like just another stand of timber, but it isn’t: Gary’s team has relocated trees fifty feet tall and taller here to this prime spot in order to bring in the ducks. It’s a testament to Gary’s passion—and his inability to think any other way other than “huge.”

It’s something that is proven over and over again all across the Delta Resort grounds. Stands of green timber are crisscrossed with raised roads that not only allow for easy access, they also serve as levees. “We have the ability to flood different parcels of timber,” says Gary. “That way, we can let one parcel a year rest. That keeps the trees healthier.” Outside the timber, open fields have been planted with corn and smartweed, something Gary calls “duck cocaine.” The abundance of food and preferable land is not only good for ducks, though—everything from deer to beavers make their homes in the lush wetlands around Delta Resort.

Beyond developing and preserving the land he’s loved for nearly four decades, Gary sees his resort as part of a new way of life for a region of the state that has traditionally been economically depressed. “We’re bringing in Olympic shotgun athletes,” he says. “And once we finish our 1,000 yard rifle range and our pistol range, we’ll have one of the only facilities in the country where Olympic trials can be held.” That sort of prestige is a massive shot in the arm for the area.

The resort’s facilities for corporate retreats—including facility-wide wifi, flat screen televisions and a conference hall that will accommodate up to 150 people—is another way Delta Resort sees itself as boosting the economy of the area. “You sit in McGehee for years and hope somebody will open a Toyota plant or something,” says Cindy Smith, a public relations agent for the resort. “Then Gary comes along and shows us another way of doing things.” It’s clear that the Delta Resort team sees themselves not as a stand-offish group of elites who operate outside the community—they view themselves as some of the biggest promoters of the land and region they call home.

For Gary Gibbs, Delta Resort is a way to express his entrepreneurial spirit, but it’s also a way to give back to a region that has given him so much joy over the years. He lives in a lodge on the property where the walls are hung with photos of his father and that old trailer, and his sons’ first duck kills are mounted up right on the wall. The resort is adding on new features all the time, solidifying its place as one of Arkansas’ true outdoor treasures.

Photo by Rett Peek
For more information about Delta Resort and Spa, visit deltaconferencecenter.com.

Devil’s Den assistant superintendent Tim Scott stands at the trailhead of the Fossil Flats Trail, one of the first mountain biking trails in the state.

Devil’s Den assistant superintendent Tim Scott stands at the trailhead of the Fossil Flats Trail, one of the first mountain biking trails in the state.

Tim Scott

To many, the quiet trees and majestic Ozark bluffs that form the landscape of Devil’s Den State Park outside West Fork are the epitome of permanence. Even many of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) structures in the park give off the vibe of being solid and unchanging.  At first glance, the park isn’t a place that one might think of as a catalyst for change. But thanks to the progressive vision of Assistant Superintendent Tim Scott and others at the park, Devil’s Den is known as the birthplace of one of the most exciting, dynamic sports in Arkansas: mountain biking.

With some of the best mountain biking trails in the country, it may seem like the sport has always been part of the northwest Arkansas landscape—but in the mid-1980s, the sport was only just becoming popular. “Folks were riding on gravel roads and forest service roads,” says Tim. “We didn’t have the trails like we do now.”

Tim is a northwest Arkansas native son who attended high school in Rogers and the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. After briefly working for the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program in the late 1970s, he took a job as a park interpreter at Toltec Mounds State Park in England in 1980. By 1984, he was back on his home turf as an interpreter at Devil’s Den, and became assistant superintendent in 1989. It was during this time that he had his mountain biking epiphany.

“Around 1986, our then-superintendent, Wally Scherrey, and I started talking about getting into mountain biking,” Tim says. “At that time it was all new. With the terrain of Devil’s Den, we believed it could be an opportunity—and we wanted to be proactive to address the needs of the community.” Tim and Wally purchased bikes—Tim’s was a Schwinn Sierra—and started learning the ins and outs of riding.

“We were extremely lucky to work for an agency with a progressive vision,” Tim says of the response from the Department of Parks and Tourism to suggestions that mountain biking should become a part of Devil’s Den’s trail system. “Many places weren’t allowing bikes on their trails at all. The sport then had the reputation of being filled with people who didn’t respect trails. We studied it and found that bikes had less impact on trails than horses—and only slightly more than foot traffic.”

Tim and Wally continued their research in 1989 by heading up to Crested Butte, Colorado, for the Fat Tire Festival, then in its 13th year. “The state sent us to Crested Butte to see how they ran their race,” he says. “I came back and brought the festival to Devil’s Den.” That first race was “something of a gravel grinder,” Tim says with a laugh—but by the second race in 1990, “we had trails ready to ride.” The event still draws hundreds of riders to the park every year.

“We held the first race in April, during a time when park attendance was traditionally low,” Tim says. “Back then, parks were very much on their own for revenue, so we were always trying to find ways to increase our visitor count.” For the second race, the park moved it to another lull period—post-Labor Day in September. “We then devoted the whole month of April to fun riding activities.”

Given the massive—and growing—number of mountain bikers in the area today, it’s clear that the stars aligned in just the right way when Tim Scott bought his first bike. “We kind of fell into this deal of mountain biking by luck,” he says. “Because we started when we did, mountain biking at the park has sort of grown up right along with the sport. I feel very lucky to be involved with that.”

These days, there are plenty of places to ride in northwest Arkansas—but people still flock to Devil’s Den. “Lots of people use the park as a base camp. They’ll come here and stay, ride our trails, then drive up to Bentonville to ride Slaughter Pen or other trails.” Tim says. Trail use has become more spread out, but the ever-increasing number of mountain bikers in the region have kept the crowds coming.

There’s more to Tim Scott’s job than mountain biking, though. “I still do interpretive programs,” he says. “I just like doing them.” Other than the programs, he says “any day could mean anything. Sometimes that means paperwork, and sometimes we’re out at night trying to locate a lost hiker or mountain biker. You just never know.” For more than three decades, Tim’s been rolling with the changes—and implementing changes of his own. What he calls luck is the result of hard work and a vision that continues to impact the state of Arkansas to the present day.

Photo by Novo Studio
For more information about Devil’s Den State Park, visit arkansasstateparks.com/devilsden.

Kim Ward poses with one of the War Eagle boats that bear the mark of his innovations in the aluminum boat industry.

Kim Ward poses with one of the War Eagle boats that bear the mark of his innovations in the aluminum boat industry.

Kim Ward

Born in 1936, Kim Ward grew up in a boat. After all, his father and uncle, Bill and Chick Ward, were inventors of the flat-bottom, all-welded seam aluminum boat. Original ideas and ways to make them a reality were his birthright. 

It was while working for his father’s company, Dura Craft, that Kim learned every aspect of boat manufacturing, parlaying it into a great success as an aluminum boat producer. He started as a welder and soon made his way through each of the company’s other fabrication departments. Leaving the manufacturing side of the business, he tried his hand at sales and again found success. In 1962, he would move into management, implementing a diversification program of all Dura Craft products. 

While Dura Craft had long built flat-bottom aluminum jon boats, Kim expanded the company’s offerings by introducing a stylish family runabout. The runabout became the hottest item in aluminum boating until fiberglass came onto the market. With aluminum runabout sales declining, Kim went to Washington, D.C., to learn a new business: government contracts.

Kim Ward began building all-welded aluminum boats for the United States Coast Guard and the Air Force, as well as boats for civilians using the same all-welded method. This method allowed construction without rivets, resulting in aluminum boats that were stronger and more reliable than ever before. His confidence grew and so did his contracts. 

Many know Kim Ward as an outstanding marine innovator; however, few are aware of his skills as a promoter. He is passionate about the marine industry, and his sincerity allows him to be a great spokesperson. In 1968, Kim originated and coordinated a national outdoors writers’ event that drew over 50 writers from leading national outdoor publications to Arkansas. The event would bring together 30 different aluminum boat manufacturers and was a tremendous boost for the aluminum boat industry. In addition, the event announced the Arkansas River as a navigable waterway. The publicity drew many industries and tourists to the state.

A few years later, he would use his strong voice again to persuade the National Marine Manufacturer’s Association to recertify stick steering. What may seem like a small step is actually a giant leap for stick steering, the effects of which are still present in the industry today. Kim Ward arranged a meeting of all the NMMA head engineers along with engineers from several leading motor companies in Florida. There he gave a powerful demonstration that convinced the NMMA to change their regulations towardstick steering.

In 1978, Kim Ward became the nations’ largest producer of aluminum bass boats. This impressive feat was accomplished with the help of Ray Scott, founder of the B.A.S.S. organization and professional tournaments. Kim and Ray developed a relationship which led to a series of B.A.S.S. tournaments where popular professional fishermen, such as Bill Dance and Roland Martin, fished from aluminum Dura Craft Bass Champ boats. Ray, the father of professional bass fishing, says of his relationship with Kim: “He was the most important [person] in putting metal bass boats on the water. I have nothing but fond memories of his cooperation and expert help.”

 Photo by Novo Studio
For more information about War Eagle Boats, visit wareagleboats.com.

Cowper Chadbourn & Debbie Doss

"The first river we ever paddled together was the Mulberry,” says Cowper Chadbourn of his wife, Debbie Doss. “It was something we did before, but we paddled a lot more after we met.” That was back in the 1970s, and since then, the two have become Arkansas’ first couple of paddlesports. 

“Cowper’s been an evangelist for the sport and the Arkansas Canoe Club (ACC) for decades,” says ACC member Gordon Kumpuris. “He has a depth of knowledge, especially about Arkansas streams, that is unrivaled.” How unrivaled? Gordon says that his daughter once gave Cowper the nickname “the wave whisperer” on a float trip in Idaho.

Debbie Doss is no slouch when it comes to the waterways of Arkansas, either. She recently retired as the ACC’s conservation chairperson after 16 years, and during that time worked with—and sometimes in opposition to—state and local leaders on issues concerning water quality and ways to protect the state’s water resources. She points to one three-year battle over a dam across Lee Creek near Fort Smith as something she’s particularly proud of.  For Debbie, protecting places like Lee Creek mean more than just preserving it for paddlers: it’s about keeping the wilderness clean and accessible for the wildlife that make these areas their homes—and to any and all people who want to enjoy the outdoors.

The couple’s commitment to conservation extends well beyond letter writing and legal wrangling, however. “There’s no way to exaggerate the sheer tonnage of trash they’ve single-handedly removed from our waterways,” says Gordon. Indeed, a single year’s report to the ACC shows Cowper having organized, led or participated in cleanups at Poke Bayou near Batesville, the Lower Saline River, the Caddo River near Arkadelphia, Wattensaw Bayou and more. And lest you think “cleanup” means simply picking up trash along the banks, the pictures of Cowper posing with abandoned boats, huge tires and other large detritus shows the huge scale of his efforts.

Urban dwellers also have much to thank Cowper and Debbie for—Little Rock residents in particular. Seeing the copious amount of trash that were winding up in Fourche Creek and the 1,800 acres of bottomland hardwood surrounding it, the two were part of an effort to place trash booms in the creek to collect garbage—including bottles, sports balls, televisions and even full-size porta-potties. In the years since that effort, paddlers have begun promoting Fourche Creek as a great opportunity for urban floating.

Even though both Cowper and Debbie are now retired, they are still “very generous with their time” according to Gordon Kumpuris. Both are adamant about passing down their love of the water to a new generation of paddlers—and to teaching newbies to the sport how to respect and conserve Arkansas’ streams and waterways. This extends to rescue missions, too, such as the 2010 flash flood on the Little Missouri River that killed 19 people at the Albert Pike Campground. Cowper Chadbourn was right there, using his whitewater skills to help with search and recovery efforts.

So where do Cowper and Debbie like to paddle most? Both of them cite the diversity of opportunities at Pinnacle Mountain State Park as an asset to city-dwellers who want to get out on the water. “It’s just so close,” says Debbie. “It’s easy to get out, and there are different types of paddling you can do right there.” Cowper mentions the Cossatot River as one of his favorite spots for whitewater—although he admits that the river known to the native Caddo Indians as “the skull crusher” might not be for everyone. 

“One of my favorite places to paddle is actually flatwater,” says Debbie. “I really love Bayou DeView, which is part of the Arkansas Water Trails System.” Debbie has been part of the expansion efforts of Arkansas’ trails, including adding camping and other amenities. Such programs not only help preserve the wide variety of waterways in the state, they also serve as a magnet for tourists looking to float, fish or enjoy some of the Natural State’s unique watchable wildlife opportunities.

Without the hard work and dedication of Cowper Chadbourn and Debbie Doss, our lakes, streams, rivers and bayous wouldn’t be of nearly the quality they are today. The two have explored rivers all across the country, but it’s their love of Arkansas—from the South Fork of the Little Red River to the Little Maumelle (with numerous small, steep creeks and flatwater expanses in between) that make them both such valuable assets to our state. “They show no sign of slowing down,” says Gordon. May we continue to be blessed with people like them who dedicate their lives to Arkansas’ waterways. 

Photo by Rett Peek
For more information about the Arkansas Canoe Club, visit arkansascanoeclub.com.