By Angela Forsyth | Photos courtesy of the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission
The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission (AGFC) has gradually increased its reach to new areas of the state while also expanding its mission to conserve and enhance wildlife. Education is a huge part of that mission. To that end, AGFC is introducing an outdoor skills mastery program this year, and will undergo a major construction development for a 61-acre nature center in Northwest Arkansas. These notable projects are in addition to the many ongoing educational programs and nature centers run by AGFC.
AGFC operates the most extensive youth shooting program in the nation, made up of mainly junior high and high school students, and manages shooting ranges near Little Rock. Education Division Chief Tabbi Kinion stresses the importance of this program.
“Teaching people to use firearms safely is one of the most important things we do,” she notes. “If people are going to have firearms, we want them to use them safely and be safe in the field. A lot of accidents happen while hunting. Our hunter education [programs] work on that. It’s a required class for anyone who wants to hunt in the field.”
Shooting, archery, aquatics, boating, classroom programs, nature centers and educational centers are some of the critical programs spearheaded by AGFC that serve thousands of students and families throughout the state. The archery program served more than 57,000 students in 2018, and the shooting program served more than 6,000. Hunter and boater education saw 20,000 students, while the centers saw nearly 200,000 visitors, and 5,000 education programs reaching more than a quarter-million participants. Many of the programs bring AGFC staff members into schools to teach kids first-hand while other programs, such as Project WILD, train teachers on wildlife and conservation standards-based curriculum teachers can teach their students.
Many of the educational services are free to schools. AGFC awards numerous grants to schools and other organizations for classes, field trips and supplies. Schools can apply to receive archery equipment for P.E., rifles and ammunition for student programs or art supplies for an art class to enter the annual AGFC art contest. One of the education division’s most popular offerings are the two mobile aquariums available free of charge for display at schools and qualifying community events.
Recently launched in January 2019, AGFC’s newest offering in education is a well-organized program that leads individuals through a series of levels to master a variety of outdoor skills. Similar to the Boy Scouts organization, the Outdoor Skills Program involves earning patches and moving up the levels from beginner to expert and finally to mentor status. Patches can be earned in several outdoor categories including archery, conservation leadership, fishing and wildlife-watching. Courses are offered year-round at AGFC nature centers and education centers. “We wanted families to have a structured program they could do together,” Marketing Director Spencer Griffith says. “We took a bunch of the best programs out there and put them together into one cohesive skills program.”
Coming in July of 2020 is the Northwest Arkansas Nature and Education Center. It will be the 10th nature center built by AGFC. The 22,000 square-foot museum on a 61-acre-lot will be free to the public and will provide more than 150 lesson plans to schools at no cost. With a population of approximately 100,000 students living within a one-hour-drive, the colossal center will be a hub for field trips and family outings.
The real-life experience begins in the main room where visitors will be guided through Arkansas seasons. Monitors will display images ranging from snow flurries and migrating geese to sunny summer days. Exhibits will include a simulated cave big enough for kids and adults to explore and imagine what it’s like to be a hibernating bear. Kids will have a chance to interact with a digital, interactive stream that will run along the floor, complete with schools of fish that react to movement. The digital stream will reach a 1,200-gallon aquarium with live versions of the fish seen in the digital stream. Also indoors, visitors will be able to navigate a human-size quail maze with 6-foot blades of grass that simulate the world through a quail’s viewpoint. The Northern Bobwhite quail once thrived in Arkansas, and AGFC is working on restoring the population.
Outside, visitors will have 25 acres of restored natural habitat to explore and perhaps see a few living quail along the way. The Razorback Greenway – a popular biking and running trail that runs from Fayetteville to Bella Vista – will be just north of the nature center. There will also be an outdoor archery course that will snake around a 15-acre circuit like a golf course as well as an indoor archery and BB gun range for all ages. This safe indoor shooting venue will be the first of its kind in the state.
Ground broke on the new nature center site in December of 2018. It will be located in Springdale along Spring Creek, near the intersection of Interstate 49 and Wagon Wheel Road. “I’m so excited to see this nature center come to life because there is so much opportunity in this part of the state to connect people to what makes Arkansas the place we all want it to be,” Kinion affirms.
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