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Thursday, May 24, 2018, 3:21 a.m.

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Time to visit the state’s wildlife management areas

By Keith Sutton

This article was published May 13, 2018 at 12:00 a.m.

Backpacking, hiking and camping are among the many outdoor recreation activities enjoyed by wildlife-management-area visitors like Zach Sutton of Alexander.

The acres number 2,917,025. That’s the size of Arkansas’ wildlife-management-area system.

Surprised? Many people have no idea that these lands and waters encompass such a large portion of the state. The system includes 128 WMAs in 67 counties. No other public lands provide Arkansans such widespread access to outdoor recreation opportunities, everything from hunting and fishing to photography, canoeing, backpacking, camping, wildlife watching and sightseeing.

Uncut Gems

If state and national parks are Arkansas’ crown jewels, then the wildlife management areas are her uncut gems. From the spectacular vistas of the Ozarks and Ouachitas to the river-bottom swamps along our great rivers, from the open skies of the blackland prairies to the lush green mystery of the Piney Woods, WMAs represent a spectacular diversity of Arkansas habitats.

The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission works closely with other government agencies and private corporations, as well as nonprofit conservation organizations, to acquire and manage these lands to benefit people and wildlife. In addition to providing recreation, our WMAs safeguard water supplies, preserve open spaces and provide habitat for endangered, as well as common, animals and plants.

Arkansas’ wildlife management areas provide habitat for a rich assortment of wildlife.

Almost 3 Million Acres

Of the almost 3 million acres in the system, 382,600 acres in 61 WMAs are owned entirely by the AGFC and/or other state agencies. These lands, purchased primarily with funds from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses and with funds generated by the state’s conservation sales tax, are the most intensively managed for wildlife because the commission has full control over most of them.

Our 57 “cooperative” WMAs are owned by or with other agencies and corporations: the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Army, the University of Arkansas, the Arkansas Forestry Commission, the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission, the National Park Service, the Arkansas Army National Guard, Central Arkansas Water, the city of Conway and the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism. The AGFC can manage wildlife fairly intensely on these 2,250,562 acres but has less authority over the habitat management.

The third type of wildlife management areas are leased lands. Included are 10 WMAs — Big Timber, Casey Jones, Cherokee, Gum Flats, Howard County, Jack Mountain, Jim Kress, Lafayette County, Lake Greeson and Provo — covering 283,863 acres. The commission leases these lands from corporate timber companies to provide additional hunting areas for the state’s sportsmen at an affordable cost.

Yesterday and Today: Habitat is the Heart

Arkansas’ WMA system had its beginnings in 1948, when the Game and Fish Commission made the first land purchases for what would eventually become the George Dunlin Bayou Meto Wildlife Management Area, a 33,832-acre tract of bottomland hardwoods now world-renowned as a mallard-hunting hot spot. Many of the state’s other management areas — Rex Hancock Black Swamp, Dave Donaldson/Black River, Sheffield Nelson Dagmar, Big Lake, Bell Slough, Earl Buss Bayou de View and Seven Devils, to name just a few — were also established primarily to conserve internationally important habitat for wintering waterfowl. Habitat protection is and always will be the heart of the WMA program.

The most recent addition to the system was the 989-acre Stone Prairie WMA bordering the Camp Robinson Special Use Area in Faulkner County. Purchased from the Nature Conservancy in 2017, this area will have a special emphasis on bobwhite quail restoration.

Hunting

For many people, hunting first comes to mind when WMAs are mentioned. These lands, ranging in size from the 41-acre Roth Prairie Natural Area WMA in Arkansas County to the 361,994-acre White Rock WMA in Crawford, Franklin, Johnson, Madison, Newton and Washington counties, provide unexcelled opportunities for hunting deer, squirrels, rabbits, ducks, turkeys, quail and other game.

Almost 90 percent of the lands in Arkansas are privately owned. Were it not for our WMAs, many people would have nowhere to savor the rich experiences that hunting affords.

Fishing

The allure of fishing also draws many folks to the state’s WMAs. In fact, on some management areas such as Henry Gray Hurricane Lake near Bald Knob, fishing attracts more visitors than any other type of outdoor recreation. You can catch bluegills and crappie in river-bottom oxbow lakes, catfish in big Delta rivers, smallmouth bass and trout in cool mountain streams and creeks, and largemouth bass in man-made impoundments. No matter what type of fishing most tickles your fancy, you can find it somewhere on a wildlife management area.

Nature

Activities other than hunting and fishing can also be pursued on Arkansas’ wildlife management areas.

Birders can visit habitats from wetlands to mountain ridges to seek out species for their life lists. Nature photographers and wildlife watchers also enjoy the diversity of creatures and landscapes found in the state’s management areas.

Backpackers and day hikers will find many WMA trails to explore. The best times for these pleasures are spring and summer, when most hunting seasons are closed, unless, of course, you’re hiking in to hunt.

Primitive campsites are available on most WMAs at no cost to the visitor. And it’s hard to think of a more pleasant way to spend a weekend or a week-long vacation than camping out with the grandeur of nature spread all around you.

Wildlife management areas are also valuable educationally as outdoor classrooms, settings for nature-interpretation activities, and places for individual nature study and appreciation. The simple beauty can provide pleasure and inspiration.

Escape

Hunting, fishing, birding, hiking, camping and more: These and other diversions provide good reason to visit Arkansas’ wildlife management areas. But no matter what we come to do, we all arrive with one main thought in mind: to escape.

When the complexities of day-to-day life in the modern world begin to weigh on us, we need a place where we can leave our worries behind, a place where we can recharge our batteries, so to speak, away from cities and crowds. Most of us could not maintain our sanity without these escapes, so we run away for a few hours or a few days and try to re-establish our connection with nature, even if only for a brief time. In our wildlife management areas, those connections are easily found.

One of our great naturalists and conservation writers, Joseph Wood Krutch, penned these words in 1954:

“To live healthily and successfully on the land, we must also live with it. We must be part not only of the human community, but of the whole community; we must acknowledge some sort of oneness, not only with our neighbors, our countrymen and our civilization, but also with nature. … It is not a sentimental but a grimly literal fact that unless we share this terrestrial globe with creatures other than ourselves, we shall not be able to live on it for long.”

That, in a nutshell, is the reason we have wildlife management areas. On these tracts of land, we can protect and nourish the habitat our wildlife needs to thrive, and thereby acknowledge our oneness with nature.

Visit our wildlife management areas soon. You will find there many wonderful things to enrich your life.

To learn more about Arkansas’ wildlife management areas, log on to the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission’s website, www.agfc.com.

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