by Chris Price
AGFC’s Fred Berry Conservation Education Center provides hiking, fishing, paddling, and wildlife viewing opportunities on 421 acres of pristine land
Dubbed “The Natural State,” Arkansas is renowned for its amazing ecological and biological wonders. Connecting Arkansans with the state’s varied flora and fauna is a major goal of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and Arkansas Game and Fish Foundation. Both have worked to establish four education centers around the state to ensure citizens and visitors can learn about, better understand and commune with the natural wonders around them.
Up in the north-central part of the state, close to Yellville, the Fred Berry Conservation Education Center (FBCEC) sits on 421 acres in the Ozark Mountains in a 2.75-mile bend in Crooked Creek, a free-flowing tributary of the White River.
“It’s almost a peninsula,” says FBCEC director Marilyn Doran. “The creek surrounds us on the west, north, and east side.”
The center, opened and dedicated in 2005, was a former dairy farm generously donated by Fred Berry, a retired Yellville-Summit school teacher and counselor, and others, without using any taxpayer money. A designated Arkansas Watchable Wildlife site, it now provides habitat for a diverse range of aquatic, avian and terrestrial species.
With nearly six miles of interconnected trails, including a paved, handicapped accessible trail, visitors have ample opportunity to encounter a wide variety of Ozark wildlife, such as white-tailed deer, coyotes, mink, butterflies, as many as 112 species of birds, including bald eagles, eastern wild turkeys, great blue herons, northern bobwhite quail and painted buntings, as well as butterflies, turtles and sunfish. All of the plants and animals at the center are protected, so visitors are encouraged to bring binoculars and cameras and not interact with them.
“We see something interesting every day,” Doran says. “We had a gentleman this spring who saw a bobcat, and it had no idea he was there. She was with her cubs, and they were just playing around on the trail. He was able to take some amazing photos.”
The public may access the FBCEC’s hiking trails seven days a week, sunrise to sunset, even when the center is closed. Pets are allowed but must be on a 6-foot leash and under control at all times.
“Yellville has to be one of my family’s favorite places to go in Arkansas,” AY Publisher Heather Baker says. “For years, we have made the trek up the Buffalo River to float and camp at Buffalo Point. We have spent countless hours playing in the river and spending the evening sitting up on Skull Rock watching the sunset and the last stragglers coming down the river before dark. We enjoy spending a night out there under the stars feeling totally disconnected from the rest of the world. The next morning, it’s rise and shine early and head into town to have breakfast at the Front Porch Café.”
The Creek Bottom Trail, a two-mile loop on the floodplain, provides easy access to the creek for fishing or wildlife watching. The Woodland Edge Trail, a one-mile loop, is wheelchair accessible. The Creek Bluff Trail overlooks Crooked Creek for 0.9 miles, where it joins the Woodland Stream Trail. The stream trail courses 0.6 miles of Ozark forest along a picturesque Crooked Creek tributary.
“We get a lot of people out here that are just here to exercise and enjoy doing it in a more natural setting,” she says. “They can track their mileage easily that way, too.”
Crooked Creek is internationally known for exceptional smallmouth bass fishing. It, along with the Buffalo National River, is Arkansas’ only blue-ribbon streams, designated by the United States government for its extremely high-quality recreational fisheries. The creek is canoe and kayak floatable almost year-round, Doran says, but it can get a bit low in the summertime when it gets hot and dry, and the creek runs underground.
A key goal of the FBCEC is to provide interpretive educational opportunities to students, teachers, landowners and the general public. The center offers plenty of indoor and outdoor learning areas to accomplish its mission and encourages visits from schools, scouts, and clubs. Its education building has a classroom that can accommodate up to 40 students, although larger numbers can be seated. It features a wet laboratory, exhibits and wildlife native to the area, as well as an outdoor Ozark native plant garden and wildlife viewing area. The center offers an educators’ handbook with lesson plans from six different learning tracks to help teachers develop a curriculum in advance of a field trip to the center. The pavilion, which overlooks Crooked Creek and its floodplain, can seat approximately 100 and offers an ideal setting for overnight stays.
As the school year winds down, the center hosts family nights and summer programs at no cost for youth under age 16 from mid-June through July, featuring conservation and outdoor recreation instruction, including fishing in a stocked pond, archery and learning GPS tracking. All kids have to be accompanied by an adult.
Additionally, the center features a 3-D archery range and a 0.3-mile upland trail that challenges the skills of beginning and advanced archers alike. The range features 12 lanes set with a variety of game animal targets. The course is open Tuesday through Saturday by appointment. Stop by the center for range rules and scorecards.
Doran says spending time outdoors – be it a quick stroll or on a camping trip – is good for the psyche, especially in today’s hyper-connected environment.
“If you’ve ever done it, you understand what it does,” she says. “Getting away and being out there, sometimes you’re often the only one around. You can hear the birds, feel the breeze in your face, see animals. It leaves you with a wonderful feeling.”
“It’s really great to see the new places like the Fred Berry center coming into that area and all the work Arkansas Game and Fish is putting into developing places like this that provide training on conservation of the wildlife in that area as well as providing unique experiences there to make memories with your family,” Baker adds. “This area is just one of those places in Arkansas we feel like we truly connect with and can’t wait to get back to.”
For more information regarding the Fred Berry Conservation Education Center on Crooked Creek or to schedule a class or group field trip, please log on to agfc.com or call (870) 449-3484.