Judge Stacey Avey has been serving on the bench for 17 years in Arkansas’ rural Stone County, located in the Ozarks a little south of the Arkansas-Missouri state line. There are 13,000 people there, and a lot of unpaved dirt and gravel roads.

Thanks to a new multi-partner project called the Arkansas Unpaved Roads Program, some of those roads are now in much better shape, which benefits both the residents and the wildlife, including some endangered and at-risk species, that live there. “I hear a lot of people say that the fish count for fishermen in the Little Red River is better,” Judge Avey said. “It’s been a win-win for us. We’ve got better roads and less sediment, in areas that would not have gotten much attention cause they are very, very rural.”

Unpaved Roads is one of those success stories where everything is connected: Gravel and dirt roads are upgraded, cleaner water flows more freely, less sediment enters the watershed, better fishing leads to tourism and economic development, and habitat conditions improve for endangered species like the Arkansas fatmucket and the speckled pocketbook (mollusks listed as threatened and endangered, respectively), and at-risk fish species like the Ozark chub and Ozark shiner.

The program, which has raised about $1 million so far from multiple partners, including funding from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, trains local road crews and awards funds to reduce erosion and the flow of sediment from roads into the water system, which is one of the biggest stressors for aquatic species. Crews also stabilize ditches and culverts so water flows more freely, and all the work provides a more durable driving service. It is administered through the Arkansas Economic Development Commission Division of Rural Services.

“There are almost 69,000 miles of unpaved dirt and gravel roads in Arkansas,” said Chris Davidson, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s deputy field supervisor in Conway, Arkansas, who drives on many of them in his job. “That’s mind-boggling. You think about all the little streams these roads intersect and every one is a potential conduit to transport sediment into rivers.” Sand, dust and gravel can clog fish’s gills, as well as clouding their habitat.

The program does not add extra substances, such as tar, to the roads. The main approach is re-grading the existing dirt and gravel.

Reducing runoff in Arkansas rivers and streams

The Nature Conservancy in Arkansas, a nonprofit organization, is one of the driving partners of the program, and recently released a video showing the clean, sparkling waters of Arkansas rivers and streams.

“In the Stone County project, we reduced sediment by 93 percent,” said Clayton Knighten of The Nature Conservancy in Arkansas. “We’ve seen anywhere from 70 percent to the low 90s in sediment reduction.”

Other partners include the University of Arkansas and the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission.

In June, Calhoun County Judge Floyd Nutt wrote a letter of thanks to the project partners for the improvements to a local road, which had flooded repeatedly in recent years with more than $150,000 in damages. The road elevation, he wrote, “will save counties, states, and federal funding in the future instead of watching our money go down our streams and rivers.” (In Arkansas, county judges oversee road maintenance.)

Arkansas Unpaved Roads Program is modeled after an older, highly successful program in Pennsylvania. The Arkansas program started in 2016 and is still ramping up, but is already showing successes in its sophomore year.

“The Arkansas Unpaved Roads Program has proven to be a tremendous benefit to our counties, and to the state as a whole,” said Chris Villines, executive director of the Association of Arkansas Counties, one of the partners in the project. “A better unpaved roads system preserves the public’s access to recreational and tourist activities, and in turn preserves our state’s economy, which relies heavily on tourism."

Phil Kloer is a public affairs specialist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The benefit of dirt roads
In Arkansas, attention to thousands of miles of unpaved roads has helped clean up streams, ease the threat to endangered species and benefited everyone.