Magazine November 2019 Sports/Outdoors

Keeping It Natural: Conservation Partners Work To Boost Arkansas’ Wild Spaces, Economy


by Arkansas Money & Politics Staff


Elk, bear, deer, alligators, buffalo and hundreds of other species of wildlife and fish were abundant in the early years of Arkansas’ statehood. The natural resources found throughout the six diverse natural divisions in the state were as unique as they were bountiful. From the Ozark Plateau to the Mississippi Alluvial Plain, the landscape across the Natural State provided settlers and wildlife a bounty of habitat to thrive.

By the early 1900s, Americans spreading west began replacing vast forests with cities, cropland and pastures. Machines and factories replaced hand labor and small shops. Travel by foot, paddle and horse gave way to vehicles and vessels. Wildlife had changed too. Elk, bison, swans, prairie chickens and passenger pigeons were gone from the state. Duck, quail, black bears and fish were much harder to come by. Something had to be done. 

In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt hosted the Governor’s Conference on the Conservation of Natural Resources. These leaders faced major conservation challenges due to decades of waste and exhaustion of the country’s natural resources. But they recognized that  “the prosperity of our country rests upon the abundant resources…of our nation.”

The conference set new conservation priorities into motion that have led to many of the conservation management practices and organizations we recognize today. And it cemented Roosevelt’s legacy as the architect of modern conservation.

Snorkeling at Electric Island nature preserve on Lake Hamilton. Photo by TNC

 The momentum generated through Roosevelt’s emphasis on conservation led to the creation of state conservation agencies like the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission as well as strategies on how to fund conservation. The 1937 Pittman-Robertson Act provided dedicated funding to states for conservation and habitat restoration. The act designates an excise tax on firearms, ammunition and archery equipment that is distributed to states for the selection, restoration and improvement of wildlife habitat. In 1950, the Dingell-Johnson Act provided similar federal funding for states’ conservation programs related to fish.

Both laws include a funding formula determined by a state’s size and its number of licensed hunters and anglers, and they serve as the primary funding source for state conservation efforts. Throughout most of the 20th century, this “user pay, public benefit” model placed most of the burden on hunters, anglers and associated industries while benefits were spread throughout the landscape for other outdoor recreation.

 But as we ushered in the 21st century, many states were forced to find alternative ways to extend funding for conservation. The funding model established in the first half of the 20th century was no longer sustaining the financial need to support all forms of outdoor recreation and the conservation programs that benefit it. 

In Arkansas, a 1996 constitutional amendment raised the general sales tax by 1/8th of one cent with revenue dedicated to conservation and parks. This measure extended conservation funding in Arkansas beyond hunters, anglers and private donations to non-governmental conservation organizations, so that everyone was investing in conservation. The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism both receive 45 percent each.  The Department of Arkansas Heritage and Keep Arkansas Beautiful receive 9 percent and 1 percent, respectively. Other state conservation funding is provided through a real-estate transfer tax that benefits the Natural and Cultural Resources Council, established by the Arkansas legislature in 1987 to manage and supervise a grant program for the acquisition, management and stewardship of state-owned properties. 

AGFC is not eligible for funding from the council and depends solely on federal revenues, license sales and its share of the conservation tax to manage the states fish and wildlife, educate the public and maintain it’s infrastructure for public recreation.  


Conservation matters to the Arkansas economy

“Conservation matters,” says AGFC Commissioner Bobby Martin of Rogers, among the state’s most prominent and vocal conservation proponents. “It matters to our economy, to our quality of life, to tourism. It matters to our personal enjoyment of nature and the relevance of having ourselves connected to it. When people think of Arkansas, they think of the outdoors. And it takes a network of partners to make it work.” 

Martin explains, “We live in a state that is one of the most rich and diverse in natural resources than anywhere in our country. I don’t know an Arkansan that doesn’t light up when they tell others about life here in the natural state. From the unique beauty of the Grand Prairie region in east Arkansas to the incredible vistas that overlook the Boston Mountain range in Northwest Arkansas, we enjoy some of the best there is in the outdoors. 

“Whether you are a sportsman or woman who is reveling in our world class hunting and fishing or vast opportunities for outdoor recreation in it, I think we all have that sense of pride and ownership in one of nature’s best places on earth. It has always been hard for me to not feel a sense of responsibility to it, to protect and do what I can to enhance it. I like to believe we all encounter that feeling each time we retreat into nature. We are truly blessed here in Arkansas.”

In Arkansas, outdoor recreation accounts for roughly 96,000 direct jobs, $9.7 billion in consumer spending, $2.5 billion in wages and salaries and $698 million in state and local tax revenue. Anglers alone spent $818 million in Arkansas in 2016, providing an economic impact of $1.2 billion. According to the Outdoor Industry Association, an estimated 63 percent of Arkansas residents participate each year in outdoor recreation.

Outdoor recreation significantly influences quality of life. Manufacturers and corporations rely on it as a primary draw when recruiting potential employees to relocate — consider the growth in Northwest Arkansas over the past few decades. Conservation leads to improved quality of life, which leads to better economies.

 Visitors to the state delivered a $7.37 billion financial impact last year, making tourism the state’s second-largest industry, and outdoor recreation is a major component to it. 

The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission remains on the front lines of Arkansas conservation, determining best practices, planning for the future and finding ways to stretch funding. It works with other state agencies and private organizations to ensure that natural resources remain in place for future generations. The players tasked with this stewardship recognize the significance of their charge, both from a sustainability standpoint and a financial one.

Arkansas is the Natural State, after all, and connection to the land and water is ingrained into its culture. Outdoor recreation fueled by conservation is a catalyst for enjoyment, economic growth and prosperity across the state. Gov. Asa Hutchinson recognizes that this growth presents conservation challenges. “Arkansas has something unique that’s hard to duplicate,” he says. “We need to educate, conserve and preserve what we have so that everyone can enjoy it in the future.”

Martin understands the economics involved with conserving natural resources. He believes everyone can be a conservationist and help carry the conservation torch. Well known in Arkansas business circles, Martin currently is an operating partner with the Stephens Group. He served as president and CEO of Walmart International until retiring in 1999 and previously led Walmart’s technology advances during his 15-year career there. He also is a former executive at Dillard’s and past chair of the AGFC Foundation, the commission’s fundraising auxiliary. Conservation is one of Martin’s greatest passions. He sees his work to conserve the state’s natural resources as his way to give back to something that has meant so much to him, as evidenced through his advocacy of the national Recruitment, Retention and Reactivation program which aims to preserve participation in hunting and fishing. 

Martin says it’s easy to take conservation for granted, especially when you’re not called upon to contribute. For many, the term “conservation” can be intimidating or even off-putting. “But we have to look at it in a different way. People may not resonate with ‘conservation,’ but they can resonate with clean water, abundant wildlife, quality habitat and access to their version of outdoor recreation.”

Though AGFC was established more than 100 years ago and has been funded by hunters, anglers and most recently by the Conservation Sales Fund, conservation work in Arkansas is bigger than one agency, group or organization, Martin insists. It requires teamwork. Together, the state’s conservation partners balance a global vision while staying attuned to the diverse needs across the local landscape.


Partnerships play a crucial role

The public “faces” of conservation in Arkansas represent a wide range of public, private and nonprofit groups whose members are united in their shared mission to illuminate Arkansans about the importance of conservation. 

The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission manages 600,000 acres of lakes and 100,000 miles of rivers and streams, conserves 400,000 acres of wildlife management areas, cooperatively maintain 3.2 million acres of public land, owns five fish hatcheries and operates nine conservation education facilities. “Game and Fish couldn’t come close to doing this without all of our partners,” Martin says. “Partnerships are critical to us in all that we do and for implementing a diverse range of other conservation initiatives we aren’t able to address.”

Modern conservation organizations in Arkansas are focused on four pillars of conservation: Education, Habitat, Species and Water Quality. 


The Faces of conservation in Arkansas include:

 • Arkansas Department of Agriculture

• Arkansas Forestry Commission

• Arkansas Forestry Association

• AEDC Division of Rural Services

• Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission

• Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism

• Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council

• Central Arkansas Water

• Beaver Watershed Alliance

• Audubon Arkansas

• Illinois River Watershed Partnership

• NRA Youth Hunter Education Challenge

• Northwest Arkansas Land Trust

• Arkansas Master Naturalists

• Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission

• The Nature Conservancy

• University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service

• U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

• U.S. Forest Service

• USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service

• Watershed Conservation Resource Center

• Ozark Natural Science Center

• Walton Family Foundation

• Benton County Quail

• Delta Waterfowl

• National Wild Turkey Federation

• Ducks Unlimited

• Quail Forever


Arkansas Conservation Partner Profiles


Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission:
Conserving Places and Creatures with No Voice

An important “face” of conservation in the state is the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission, a division of the Department of Arkansas Heritage. One of the state’s more knowledgeable  conservation partners, it provides information to the public and partners about  the state’s native species, wild places and natural history

ANHC maintains a system of public nature preserves, the state’s System of Natural Areas, and runs the Arkansas Natural Heritage Program, through which scientists gather and process data on the state’s rarest and most at-risk plants, animals and natural communities or habitats. The data collected helps the state’s network of conservation partners make strategic planning decisions, according to Theo Witsell, ANHC ecologist and chief of research. 

The commission’s 75 natural areas, covering more than 69,000 acres across the state, serve as the state’s public nature preserves on which commission staff assesses the health of native species and habitats.

Flanagan Prairie Natural Area near Charleston. Photo by ANHC

“The goal is to protect high quality, viable examples of all of the state’s different natural communities, especially those that are not well represented in the state’s current network of public conservation lands,” Witsell says.  

These natural areas are popular with people into hiking, canoeing, nature study, birding and other wildlife viewing, and many of these areas are included in AGFC’s system of wildlife management areas, Witsell notes. Plus, ANHC just opened its first mountain bike trail at Rattlesnake Ridge Natural Area just west of Little Rock.

“We welcome the opportunity to reach out to all of these user groups,” Witsell says. “We actively practice habitat restoration and management activities at many natural areas and many of these are increasingly being used as demonstration areas to educate private landowners and other conservation professionals about ecological restoration activities on their own property. In the last few years, we have also engaged with a variety of volunteers who are helping to collect seed from native plants on our natural areas for use in propagating plants for ecological restoration.”

Witsell notes examples of unique places protected as ANHC natural areas:

• Miller County Sandhills Natural Area (274 acres in Miller County). This area supports unique desert-like sand barrens which supports more than 40 rare plant species, several of which are found nowhere else in the state, and two of which were described as new to science in the last few years.

 • Warren Prairie Natural Area (5,552 acres in Bradley and Drew counties). This mosaic of rare saline grasslands, pine savanna, marshes and woodlands supports thriving populations of wildlife including the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker, which was reintroduced to the site by the ANHC and its conservation partners.

 • Roth Prairie Natural Area (41 acres in Arkansas County) and Railroad Prairie Natural Area (251 acres in Lonoke and Prairie counties). These areas represent some of the last remnants of ancient grasslands in the Grand Prairie region of eastern Arkansas, a habitat that has declined by 99.9 percent since the 1830s. 

The Nature Conservancy works to maintain unpaved roads and keep streams clear of sediment and debris.

Nature Conservancy in Arkansas: Giving a face to critical places

The Nature Conservancy’s Arkansas chapter has contributed to the conservation of more than 325,000 acres of land statewide, including its own 35,000 acres that the group opens to the public.

“Partnerships are critical for positive conservation in Arkansas,” says Scott Simon, executive director of the Nature Conservancy’s Arkansas chapter. “Arkansas has abundant natural resources and we are a small state, so it requires everyone to work in tandem to conserve those resources in a positive and informed way. Our spirit of collaboration as a state is unique and one of Arkansas’ strengths, and we are fortunate to have so many good partners working together. Cooperation comes with good, positive projects that benefit both people and nature.”

In addition to Game and Fish, TNC works with other state agencies including the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission, the Department of Arkansas Heritage and Arkansas State Parks to promote the importance of conservation and water quality.

“Pragmatic conservation solutions happen in our state because people work together to keep our water clean,” says Simon.

Habitat restoration and protection of drinking water were at the top of Arkansans’ conservation priorities in polling conducted last year by the Nature Conservancy. Simon believes all conservation work including habitat restoration circles back around to water.

 Keeping Arkansas’ streams, lakes and rivers clean is the goal, which is accomplished by keeping sediment, including dirt and gravel, out of the water, he says.

 TNC encourages three specific practices for Arkansans living on or near water:  

•Reforesting previously cleared floodplains and not building in floodplains

• Installing best management practices on unpaved roads

•  Restoring eroding stream banks using natural channel design techniques.

“On-the-ground” conservation solutions like Arkansas Unpaved Roads Program and Arkansas Stream Heritage Partnership play a big role in keeping Arkansas’ water clean. The Unpaved Roads Program works to prevent the clogging of water sources by eroding unpaved roads. The Stream Heritage Partnership focuses on removing obsolete dams and other barriers in rivers and streams to restore ecological and biological functions such as sediment transport and fish passage.

 “Both programs seek to implement best management practices that engage private landowners, municipalities, businesses, public agencies and other organizations as partners,” Simon says.


Local groups play a big role

Benton County Quail may be small and local, but its impact is big and far reaching. And its members are resilient; the group launched in 1990 as a local chapter of Quail Unlimited but filed to become its own nonprofit when the national organization dissolved.

Known for voracious fundraising, promotion of hunter safety and help with habitat restoration, members were recognized earlier this year with a Conservation Partner award from Game and Fish. The club has been a sponsor and supporter of the commission’s work to restore northern bobwhite quail habitat at Pea Ridge National Military Park, a major focus. And its shooting and archery ranges are made available to local students and 4H members.

Local water utilities and watershed alliances play a significant role in the  big picture of water conservation.  Central Arkansas Water and Beaver Water District work tirelessly to ensure that their communities have quality drinking water.  Watershed groups like the Illinois River Watershed Partnership in Cave Springs works directly to improve water quality for many uses within their specific watershed.  This is accomplished in part through collaboration with stakeholders and educating the public. 

Lake Conway. Photo by AGFC

 The nonprofit Watershed Conservation Resource Center uses its technical skillset to minimize man’s impact on free-flowing streams through stream and river restoration and watershed-level planning. This work earned the group its own recognition from Game and Fish in April of 2019..

“Our stream resources are being impacted every day as people continue to move into formerly rural areas,” says Darrell Bowman, AGFC assistant chief of fisheries management. “Restoring that damage and bringing these systems back to their natural state requires a lot of knowledge and experience. These people are absolute experts at using modern engineering techniques and refining them on Ozark streams.” 

Wild turkey. Photo by AGFC

Protecting habitat for Arkansas’ species

“An animal like the red-cockaded woodpecker, existing far outside the public eye, may seem insignificant to the big picture. But like all living things, it has a role to play. It’s part of the cycle,” says Chris Colclasure, AGFC deputy director. “When you do something good for woodpeckers, changing the habitat to something more like what south Arkansas used to look like in the 1800s, you’re not only benefiting them but also turkeys, songbirds and all these other species that’ll have a positive response.”

Conservation practices tend to cluster around those places where they’re needed most. Witsell says there’s a reason why public conservation lands are concentrated in certain places.

As is the case everywhere, landscapes that are the most rugged, have the poorest soils, or are flooded for long periods have a relatively large amount of intact and healthy habitats left,” he says. “These areas are generally less suitable for intensive human uses, which is why large blocks of public conservation lands are concentrated in these kinds of places. Think the Ozark National Forest in the rugged Boston Mountains or the White River National Wildlife Refuge in the bottomlands of eastern Arkansas.

“In contrast, our more accessible and fertile landscapes have been more heavily altered for human uses and species and habitats that are found only in these areas are not faring as well.  It’s these landscapes which often contain the most urgent conservation priorities and where we focus much of our efforts at the ANHC.”

 Witsell says recent declines in insect, bird and other wildlife abundance and diversity are complex and present challenges, “But there are also some good opportunities to work to reverse them, especially in the areas of protecting, restoring, and managing good habitat.”

One of the more geographically diverse states in the central U.S., Arkansas is home to species found nowhere else, such as the yellowcheek darter and the Mount Magazine middle-toothed snail. But it also sits at a habitat crossroads.

“In Arkansas, we see the fringes of eastern species habitat coming together with western species,” says Colclasure.

The state’s biosphere indeed is diverse. Arkansas is home to more than 400 species of birds, more than 150 species of butterflies, roughly 230 species of fish and almost 3,000 native and naturalized plants, for example. Their footprints stretch far to the east and west.

Bobby Martin and Deke. Photo by AGFC

You’ll find in Arkansas western flora and fauna such as the western diamondback rattlesnake, Texas brown tarantula and prickly pear cactus, and eastern species such as the American alligator, tulip tree and black maple.

“We’re on the very fringe, and we have a really diverse range of habitats,” Colclasure says. “Arkansans should be really proud of this diversity. We’ve been blessed with all these natural resources.”

That very diversity poses challenges to conservation. Microhabitats such as those that serve as home to the state’s endemic species require very specific conditions to thrive. In major habitats shared by multiple species, changes can have wide ranging, lasting effects. The Ouachita Mountains are home to the Mount Magazine snail, which thrives on the tall, moist peaks of the range while the endangered yellowcheek darter is a 2-inch long fish found only in the upper Little Red River drainage above Greers Ferry Lake.

“Some areas are easier than others to manage but they all contribute, especially for mobile species,” Colclasure says.

Yellowcheek darter. Photo by AGFC

Much of the commission’s conservation work related to habitat is focused on returning the land to the way it used to look. When Spanish explorer Hernando DeSoto crossed the Mississippi River in 1541 with an expeditionary force on the hunt for Aztec-like gold, he found maize instead of treasure. And the land these disrupters found — the first recorded Europeans to visit what is now Arkansas — didn’t resemble the Natural State we know today.

Crossing the big river, the Spanish found a wild land filled with hardwood bottomland and prairies. What we now know as the Arkansas Delta didn’t take shape until white settlers cleared vast swaths of oaks and hickories to make room for European-style farming. And farming has been good for Arkansas.

But even in the past 100 years, it has altered the landscape. State records note the introduction of rice farming to Arkansas as taking place in 1902 in Lonoke County, although anecdotal evidence suggests it may have been practiced some before the Civil War.

These days, roughly 1.5 million acres of rice are planted each year in Arkansas, and the state produces about half of the total U.S. production. Arkansas also is a top 10 producer of cotton, soybeans and peanuts. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, farmland covers 36 percent of the state.

Witsell cites Arkansas’ native grasslands as an example of a high priority ecosystem that is mostly gone.

“Arkansas had more than a million acres of treeless prairies, surrounded by much larger areas of associated open savannas and woodlands, at the time of Euro-American settlement,” he says. “These grasslands supported a rich assemblage of species, many of which are not found in any other habitat type. But their richness also lured early settlers and they were plowed for agriculture, converted to non-native pasture grasses, or lost to development early on, making the rare remaining examples among our highest conservation priorities.”

Red-cockaded woodpecker. Photo by ANHC

This landscape conversion has had consequences. One impacted native species is the red-cockaded woodpecker which requires old growth pine forests like the ones that used to cover eastern Arkansas. These trees house a specific fungus enabling the endangered birds to excavate cavities inside their trunks for shelter.

Unlike many species that are habitat “generalists” and can adapt and survive in many environments, the red-cockaded woodpecker is picky.

“Its requirements are so specific, it won’t thrive without them,” Colclasure says. “It requires frequently burned, open pine forest which is what the Arkansas coastal plain used to look like. It needs old-growth trees. No old-growth trees, and it’s very hard for this bird to survive.”

With exceptions for such specific examples, much of the state’s conservation work focuses on what’s best and most appropriate for an area. Ongoing habitat rehabilitation in Arkansas for quail and turkey benefit multiple plant and animal species.

“A lot of the work we do benefits a wide range of species,” Colclasure says. “We’re never gonna get all our native habitat back to the way it was, but there have been substantial gains. We’ve restored a lot of bottomland hardwood forest, not to the scale it once was but there have been improvements.”

Many of the state’s conservation partners have introduced prescribed fire as a means to rehabilitate habitats. They include Game and Fish, the Nature Conservancy, ANHC and even local governments. Witsell ties a decline in some species numbers to incompatible management or its absence including the lack of fire in the landscape.

“Most of Arkansas’s upland ecosystems have a long history of regular fire, which maintained healthy grasslands and open woodlands,” he says. “These habitats historically had hundreds of species of native wildflowers and grasses covering the ground. Wildflowers bloomed from the last frost in the spring to the first freeze of the fall providing a nectar resource for a diverse insect community. This combination of flowers, fruits, seeds and insects were literally groceries on the ground for native wildlife but have largely been replaced by low-diversity, shade-suppressed ground covers which offer wildlife little in the way of food or cover.” 

Fire is part of the natural “disturbance” process; nature’s spring cleaning. And controlled burns are one of AGFC’s main conservation tools. Colclasure says the state needs more natural disturbance.

Take mountain cedar, for example. Though native to northern Arkansas, it can overwhelm an overgrazed area because its dense canopy, shallow roots and multiple trunks outcompete other plants for water and sunlight. And unhealthy thickets can result when areas are clear cut and left alone for several years. Before modern man altered the landscape — replacing big trees and open, grassy forest floors with thickets of smaller trees — fires triggered by lightning strikes provided a natural purge that served as an environmental booster shot.

Fires reinvigorate native plants consumed by wildlife, return nutrients to the soil and remove plant litter from the forest floor, providing better water filtration and thus improving the overall ecosystem. Native wildlife needs those open, grassy floors that result for food and cover.

Native oaks and hickories play a part in this natural process of rebirth. Their leaves curl when they fall, making themselves more available as fuel. Other trees are stubborn. Maple leaves, for example, remain flat when they fall in an attempt to protect themselves from fire, Colclasure notes.

In Arkansas, roughly 300,000 acres are burned annually in prescribed fires. According to Game and Fish data, the Ozarks are home to about 150 trees and 1,000 young stems per acre, which is twice the density per acre that existed when Europeans arrived. In 2018, the Nature Conservancy alone conducted 59 prescribed fires on 11,831 acres of land owned by it and state partners.

“Go into an area choked with cedar and introduce prescribed fire,” Colclasure says. “You’ll see a tremendous response from native plants and you’ll see new animals arrive. You see this response from animals when you improve habitat. They respond favorably.

“Open up a choked thicket and burn it … next thing you know, you’ll see all these different plant species.”

Witsell says the formula is simple: management that reduces the abundance and diversity of native plants in the landscape is bad for wildlife, and management that increases this diversity is generally good. 

Prescribed fire burn at Grandview Prairie near Columbus. Photo by Mike Wintroath

“Restoring formerly open woodlands, which we have lots of, by thinning trees and reintroducing fire pays some of the biggest dividends,” he says. “Other examples of best practices for wildlife include mowing or burning fields and rights-of-way once a year, preferably at the end of the growing season so that plants can flower and set seed and avoiding the indiscriminate use of herbicides.” 

Native species of plants and animals aren’t the state’s only consideration. Colclasure stresses the importance of maintaining healthy habitat to support the millions of migrating waterfowl that visit Arkansas each year. And healthy habitats provide numerous benefits, not the least of which is ecotourism.

“The more diverse you are, the more you’ll attract it,” he says. “We’re very fortunate to have such diversity, and it’s incumbent on us to manage it the right way. That’s where our partnerships really come into play. No one agency or organization can do it on its own. It takes us all working together.”


Conservation education: Not all classrooms have four walls

All the state’s conservation partners provide various facets of public outdoor education. Martin believes it’s critical that Game and Fish and its partners make experiences in nature available to kids. 

“If we have children that have never even climbed a tree or walked in the forest, how can you ever get to understand or be curious about nature,” he says. “Most of today’s parents likely grew up closer to nature, enjoyed unstructured play … played in the rain, chased lightning bugs, and know the simple and healthy joy of this play that in turn shaped how they see the world.

“We’re losing a generation,” he continues. “We’ve got to bring them back and get them reconnected. They need to know what it means to be connected to nature. It is critical for the future of conservation that we must not let that happen.”

Game and Fish has made significant investments in making everyone feel comfortable in the Arkansas outdoors through education. The agency is a national leader in the conservation education field. Just last year, staff reached more than 57,000 students through archery programs; 20,000 through hunter and boater education classes, and 6,000 through trap shooting in 2018. And of course, the commission’s nine nature and education centers welcomed more than 200,000 visitors last year and offered 5,000 education programs reaching more than 225,000 people. 

Bentonville High School students earn a semester of PE credit while learning about conservation through outdoor class activities.

The newest nature center, the J.B. and Johnelle Hunt Family Ozark Highlands Nature Center, is under construction on 61-acres in Springdale and will offer high-tech exhibits that feature interactive exhibits and live animals, indoor and outdoor archery ranges, multiple classroom spaces, multiple outdoor pavilions and a ¾ mile trail winding through restored habitat. The center will open in the fall of 2020. 

Game and Fish also offers hunter and boater education classes, master angler and family fishing programs, outdoors skills courses, aquatic resources education, youth archery and shooting programs and the popular “Becoming an Outdoors Woman” class that tailers outdoor skills education and experiences to young women who are the fastest growing segment in outdoor recreation. Throughout these programs, participants are able to earn patches through the Outdoor Skills Patch Program. The agency even distributes educational grants and awards conservation scholarships. 

The conservation scholarship program offers as much as $2,000 per semester to graduating high-school seniors and full-time college and graduate-school students entering or enrolled in conservation-related academic fields. Once selected as a scholarship recipient, students are able to renew their award for up to four years as long as they continue to pursue a career in conservation and maintain good academic standing.

 Through the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, money collected by Game and Fish from fines for wildlife violations is redirected to local schools for conservation education. During the 2018-2019 school year, the Wildlife Education Grants program awarded grants totaling more than $530,000 to promote wildlife and conservation education at 253 state schools and conservation districts in 71 counties.

AEDC Executive Director Mike Preston says conservation education leads to enhanced quality of life, which plays an increasingly important role when residents and newcomers to Arkansas are deciding where to raise their families and look for jobs. “This is a great opportunity for our state,” he says. “This grant program improves educational opportunities … which lead to stronger communities.”

Game and Fish isn’t the only conservation education entity in the state. Working with partner organizations and schools, students are learning about and experiencing the outdoors across Arkansas. 

Bentonville High School, recognized earlier this year by the AGFC commission, may be setting the bar. Through its physical education program, the school created an outdoor-education template that officials hope one day will be adopted across the state. For the past 10 years, BHS students have been able to earn a semester of PE credit while learning about conservation through class activities such as fly fishing, sport fishing, canoeing, kayaking, rock climbing, trap shooting, hiking, hunter education, boater education and archery.

The program not only introduces students to these activities, it lets students experience them. The annual field trip to float the King’s River, where students put their new found skills to the test, is icing on the cake. Program administrator Holly Treat says the program was launched with about 30 students. “Since then it has grown and is a widely popular class serving about 250 students each year,” she says.

Game and Fish is one of many government agencies teaching people about the outdoors. Arkansas State Parks builds a sense of place and the outdoors in 52 locations around the state, and the Arkansas Natural Heritage Program visits schools and groups around the state teaching about native plants and wildlife. The United States Forest Service and National Park Service, along with the Army Corps of Engineers, also provide opportunities to explore, learn and enjoy the Natural State.

Angler enjoying a day on the White River below Bull Shoals.
Photo by Dustin Jones

As the number of outdoor enthusiasts grows and diversifies, non-profit groups are investing more in education. The Ozark Natural Science Center outside Huntsville also provides educational programs that reach about 3,000 students each year. Its hands-on programming provides experimental field-science opportunities. Its campus includes three lodges, faculty and guest housing, an education building, outdoor classroom, observation deck and almost eight miles of maintained hiking trails.

In Central Arkansas, Audubon Arkansas was established in 2000 as the nation’s 25th state office of the National Audubon Society. Though it may be known for birds, this organization makes conservation a priority. Its mission statement stresses the conservation and restoration of natural ecosystems, as healthy ecosystems benefit birds, wildlife and people. 

Education is a major component of Audubon Arkansas’ conservation work. The 400-acre Little Rock Audubon Center serves as a field trip site and outdoor learning lab for K-12 students throughout Central Arkansas, and its numerous programs provide education opportunities for families and adults as well about natural habitats and ecosystems that impact the state’s native birds.

Beyond these examples, partners like the Arkansas Forestry Association offer multiple programs and activities related to forestry management and its role in conservation for educators and students; the National Rifle Association’s Youth Hunter Education Challenge program teaches the responsible use of firearms and the role of hunters in maintaining a healthy ecosystem; and the Greenwings program from Ducks Unlimited aspires to build a new generation of conservationists by teaching youth hunters the importance of wetlands and their connection to waterfowl. Local groups like the Illinois River Watershed Partnership and Northwest Arkansas Land Trust teach people about local resources. 

Together, Game and Fish and its partners are committed to passing on knowledge of the state’s outdoor heritage and outdoor skills to future generations. 


Call to action

Modern conservation efforts continue to be built on the four pillars of education, habitat, species and water quality. Educating outdoor-recreation participants about their consumptive impact to the resource and their ability to invest in the resource — for their benefit and that of future generations — is critical. 

Throughout most of the 20th-century, hunters and anglers funded the conservation of outdoor resources for everyone through an excise tax tied to the purchase of licenses, equipment and accessories. A strong base of hunters and anglers still exists nationally, but as participation continues to decline so too do the main funding sources for conservation and in Arkansas. However, outdoor recreation growth is happening through other users including cyclists, hikers, trail runners, campers and boaters. 

Martin believes these cultural shifts, as seen in the decline of hunting and angling participation, are leading to a conservation “awakening” related to funding.

“While most likely hunters will remain among our highest contributors to conservation initiatives, it is time for all of us to stand up and do our part,” he says. “Keeping our wild places wild and abundant is important to all outdoor recreationists. It is in the DNA of this state. A source of pride and a path to even greater economic prosperity. But in order for Arkansas conservation partners to continue to make a significant impact, a more diverse user group will need to rise up and stand in the funding gap.”

Conservation partners say Arkansans themselves are the true “faces” of conservation and even have a road map for continued conservation emphasis in the Natural State.


The Future for Conservation in Arkansas requires:

• Emphasis on enhanced habitat for wildlife and fisheries resources

• Maintenance of the existing infrastructure of conserved lands and waterways

• Recruitment, retention and reactivation of hunters and anglers

• Exploration of diversifying usage for new outdoor recreation activities

• Continued integration of conservation organizations across the state.


What Can You Do to Support Conservation:

• Buy a Hunting or Fishing License

• Join a Conservation Organization

• Volunteering on a Local Project  

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