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story.lead_photo.caption New Arkansas Game and Fish Commission commissioner John David Neeley of Camden speaks Monday during a news conference in Little Rock after Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s appointment. - Photo by Staton Breidenthal

Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Monday appointed John David Neeley of Camden to a seven-year term on the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, succeeding outgoing chairman Steve Cook of Malvern.

Neeley is the first commissioner appointed from southern Arkansas since former Gov. Mike Beebe appointed Emon Mahony of El Dorado, who served from 2009-2016.

"John David has always been an outdoorsman, probably second to none, but he's also been a conservationist," said Hutchinson, noting Neeley's membership in the Arkansas Game and Fish Foundation, Quality Deer Management Association, Ducks Unlimited and National Wild Turkey Federation. "If this does not speak to his love, passion, interest and priority in conservation, then nothing does."

Neeley, president of Neeley Forestry Service and principal broker for United Country Neeley Forestry, is a sixth-generation Arkansan and a descendent of families who homesteaded Ouachita County in the 1840s and 1850s. His family still owns and farms the original homesteads, he said.

"The heritage of being able to own the land that my forefathers homesteaded is a blessing," Neeley said. "My papaw was a big outdoorsman. He loved to hunt and fish, but he did it out of necessity in the Great Depression.

"My earliest hunting was learning to squirrel hunt and quail hunt with my dad, which we don't have anymore, but hopefully through quail restoration efforts, maybe we can get them back."

Neeley, 54, graduated from Camden High School in 1981 and earned a degree in forestry from the University of Arkansas at Monticello in 1985. As principal broker in Neeley Forestry Service he helps manage 220,000 acres in southern Arkansas, including about 50,000 acres of hardwoods. His company also administers about 300 hunting leases on the property it owns and manages.

Wildlife management is an integral part of the management strategies for all of those properties, Neeley said.

"Forestry is defined as the art and science of managing the forest," Neeley said. "Wildlife is one of the considerations we're trained in. You have to know forest productivity, wildlife, aesthetics and water protection. All that factors into forest management plans for particular landowners."

Quail restoration, Neeley said, goes hand in hand with managing for deer, wild turkey and other wildlife.

"In quail management, you want less basal area, which is basically the amount of space that a tree occupies," Neeley said. "You want more sunlight hitting the ground. To accomplish that, you do more to control underbrush. If you manage for quail, you're going to greatly benefit turkey and deer."

In a well-managed tree plantation, an aggressive manager can increase natural deer forage from 100 pounds per acre to to 800 pounds per acre, Neeley said.

"You want to eradicate sweeetgums and other things that get into understory, so you'll have more forbs that are good for turkey, deer and quail," Neeley said.

Feral hogs are the most important concern for hunters and landowners in southern Arkansas, Neeley said.

"We lease over 150,000 acres to over 300 clubs," Neeley said. "I get a lot of feedback from deer and turkey hunters, and hands down the number one problem is feral hogs and the issues they bring to us as managers.

"They're a threat, number one, to our wildlife, and a threat to our timber and to some of the fragile ecosystems that we have in the bottoms. Those dudes will eat every acorn that hits the ground, and you can't have oak reproduction without squirrels burying acorns in the ground."

Hogs eat exposed acorns, but they also uproot oak sprouts, Neeley said.

"Just as the quail problem is hard to conquer as a national effort, so is the hog problem on a small scale," Neeley said. "We've caught over 200 the last two years on the Neeley homestead, but they're like fire ants. You can bump them off these acres, but if you're not doing something on the borders, they're back having babies and destroying habitat the moment you turn your back."

Though well versed in terrestrial management, Neeley said he has a lot to learn about fisheries management. He said he loves fishing, and while he appreciates the importance of bass and trout to anglers, his tastes are simple.

"When I go fishing, it's typically with a cork," Neeley said. "I'm not sophisticated. I have as much fun catching a bream as anything."

Bream and catfish are widely available and accessible to people in urban and suburban environments. Neeley said they are important to providing opportunities for new anglers in those areas. Small game hunting is also essential, he said, for recruiting new hunters.

"If kids are going to follow in our footsteps, they have to see our footsteps," Neeley said. "I'm anxious to learn more about the new mentoring program the Game and Fish Commission has started. I've taken kids out on fishing trips in our church. One of the most fun things I've done is teaching kids to fish. A lot of kids aren't getting outside, and it's going take a lot of effort through communicating, mentoring and partnering."

Neeley said his most memorable hunting experience was killing his first buck at age 10 in the 1970s. He killed it with a shotgun and buckshot while sitting in a chair on the ground. Neeley said his grandfather smeared a streak of the buck's blood on young Neeley's face and pronounced him a deer hunter.

"You have to understand it was a spike buck. It wasn't any 10-point or anything like that," Neeley said. "It was a moment, not quite up there with having my first-born son, but I'm going to rank it pretty high."

Sports on 07/03/2018

Print Headline: Camden forester picked for AGFC

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