“Investing in conservation education is a vital role of our mission, but we also have to carefully balance that with the investment in managing fish and wildlife and providing recreational opportunities for the public.” — Bobby Martin, Arkansas Game and Fish Commissioner.
The J.B. and Johnelle Hunt Family Ozark Highlands Nature Center, which officially opened with a ribbon-cutting on Dec. 9 in Springdale, is a major endeavor of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission (AGFC) that will serve as a launching point for people in Northwest Arkansas to experience the natural world, learn about conservation and enjoy outdoor recreation.
The 32,000-square-foot facility, located on about 61 acres at 3400 N. 40th St., is home to many family-friendly activities. Visitors can see live displays of wildlife; interact with high-tech exhibits; participate in a variety of educational activities; practice skills at an indoor archery range, at the BB gun marksmanship center or the extensive outdoor 3D archery range; relax and mingle at the facility’s outdoor pavilions, which will also serve as classrooms; and take a walk on the center’s nature trail.
The center’s construction was made possible through a public and private partnership that helped cover the $20.1 million total cost. With increasing demands in financing its many conservation projects, the AGFC worked on an idea of a Northwest Arkansas nature center with the Arkansas Game and Fish Foundation, which brought in new partners to bring the project to life over the past five years. A $5 million pledge from the J.B. and Johnelle Hunt family of Rogers encouraged donations from many organizations working through the Foundation.
The land for the center, valued at $3.2 million, originally belonged to the Springdale Water and Sewer District and was donated to the City of Springdale, which in turn offered it to the AGFC on the condition it be used for conservation and education.
More than $14 million in private funding, land donations and federal grants were secured.
“Having a nature center in Northwest Arkansas has been one of those agency goals that has been on the table for a long time,” AGFC commissioner Bobby Martin says. “Investing in conservation education is a vital role of our conservation, but we also have to carefully balance that with the investment in managing fish and wildlife and providing recreational opportunities for the public.”
Martin compared the J.B. and Johnelle Hunt Family Ozark Highlands Nature Center with the four other AGFC nature centers and five conservation centers around The Natural State: “More than half a million people travel through the AGFC nature centers annually. These facilities offer a valuable and crucial conservation education interactive experience. The J.B. and Johnelle Hunt Family Ozark Highlands Nature Center is modeled after the very best of all the other centers. We have used decades of experience running these facilities to design a state-of-the-art facility that is a gateway to the outdoors.”
In addition to the indoor shooting and archery ranges and outdoor trails, the new nature center has a 2,000-gallon aquarium, classrooms and office space, while outside the walls there is a 25-acre prairie restoration area, native plant gardens, the 3D archery range, frontage along Spring Creek and the Razorback Regional Greenway, which soon will run right by the center’s back door.
“These expansions allow us to host more outdoor skills and conservation training courses onsite,” Martin says. “We hope that it becomes a hub for the conservation community.”
The center charges no admission fee, but the AGFC has instituted a number of safety protocols that will remain in place for the foreseeable future. Restricted free ticketed entrance for visitors will ensure that capacity requirements are met to allow for proper social distancing. All exhibits have sanitation stations and are regularly cleaned by staff, and the facility has a rigorous daily cleaning protocol. These precautions will not limit a visitor’s experience.
Conservation of the state’s resources and educating the citizens to practice better conservation practices are the main mission of the AGFC, and the creation of nature centers such as Springdale’s new facility plays a vital role in that effort. For more than 100 years, the agency has overseen the protection, conservation and preservation of fish and wildlife in Arkansas. An essential part of ensuring healthy wildlife populations involves people. Agency programs geared toward the public generate awareness of ethical and sound management principles. The goal of the nature center is to connect Arkansans to conservation through exhibits and interactive programming.
Exhibits like the one that highlights Walmart’s Acres for America program bring awareness to conservation leadership and efforts happening right in our backyards. Walmart’s Acres for America program stands as the leading public-private land conservation partnership in the country.
“Healthy societies, resilient economies and thriving businesses rely on nature to provide food, products and services,” Hunter Hart, vice president, realty, of Walmart U.S. says. “Over the past 16 years, Walmart’s Acres for America program has helped conserve more than 1.6 million acres, protecting critical wildlife habitat and offering local communities Walmart serves every day increased public access to enjoy the outdoors.”
The exhibit dedicated to this achievement involving the Bentonville-based world retailer is one of the crown jewels at the new nature center. After learning about the program, visitors can walk just a few feet away and discover how they can visit some of these conserved lands or how they can volunteer with other conservation programs.
The ribbon has been cut and the doors are open to a facility several years in the making, one that should provide decades of connection to the outdoors not only for the residents of Northwest Arkansas, but visitors who come from around the nation to the region. For more information on the J.B. and Johnelle Hunt Family Ozark Highlands Nature Center and how to schedule a visit, go to www.agfc.com.