Wetlands management education received a boost Wednesday with the announcement of a new graduate level certificate program at the University of Arkansas at Monticello.
A partnership with Pine Bluff native George Dunklin -- a former Game and Fish commissioner, philanthropist, avid duck hunter and owner of the Five Oaks Duck Lodge -- will provide a 5,000-acre field laboratory for the new program as the Five Oaks Ag Research and Education Center.
After remarks Wednesday from Dunklin and officials from UAM and the University of Arkansas System, an agreement was signed formalizing the partnership between UAM, the UA System Division of Agriculture, and the Five Oaks Ag Research and Education Center. Ceremony attendees then were given tours of the property.
Dunklin told the Pine Bluff Commercial that $600,000 will be provided over three years by the George H. Dunklin Jr. Family Foundation to provide tuition assistance and stipends for students enrolled in the new Wetland and Waterfowl Habitat Management Graduate Certificate Program. He said the idea behind the partnership was to ensure the long-term viability of wetlands and waterfowl habitats through proper management of the resources.
"In our bottomland hardwoods we are concerned about the natural regeneration that is not occurring and we want to make sure that 100 years from now we've got a good stand of red oak timber because those mallards come in and eat those acorns. And we want to make sure that all the habitats for all birds are good," Dunklin said. "We need the science that these folks at UAM are doing and the great work they are doing. We're able to provide some funding for that and our properties as kind of an outdoor lab that they can use."
Dunklin said he and Jody Pagan, general manager and chief biologist of Five Oaks Wildlife Services, wanted to provide the site to take the work that the two of them have been doing in conservation to a higher level.
"We've done a lot of work out here, but we just don't document it," he said. "We're not in the science community, but we want these kids to be able to come in and get this graduate certificate, this is something they can have and use in their next jobs, but they'll get a lot of applied knowledge working on the farm with us."
UA System President Donald Bobbitt called the partnership an innovation in higher education as funding trends over the past several years demanded that education professionals rethink how education is delivered to students.
"We've got to find innovative way to expand our resources while still meeting our mission of service to the state and our constituents," Bobbitt said.
"As the state's premier university system I think it is our duty to think creatively and collectively, pool available resources, and not to pool them from within the system but to pool them with our community partners amongst us who share similar goals and to do that because we have a vision for the greater good for all, and we are charged with serving and meeting that mission for the greater good," Bobbitt said.
Bobbitt called the agreement an example of a creative public/private partnership to provide solutions for the land and the people of the state that will provide long-term economic benefits to the state.
"Timber management and harvesting, and recreational hunting and fishing generate millions of dollars to the Arkansas economy each year," he said. "Timber contributed almost $500 million to the state's [gross domestic product] last year while the state currently is comprised of about 57% forested land. We see this particular partnership as a way to maintain a precious natural resource while enhancing employment opportunities for Arkansans."
Dunklin said that since he purchased the property from Memphis Furniture Co. in 1983, Five Oaks Duck Lodge and duck hunting have been his passion.
"Some of the most memorable days of my life have been spent enjoying the beauty of ducks in flight with many wonderful people from around the country," he said. "What makes duck hunting so special and different from other forms of hunting is that we get to share a bond and make memories with friends and loved ones and those memories last a lifetime. ... At the end of the day it's all about memories."
Dunklin, who is an avid conservationist, said his concern over the future of the woodlands that provide the habitat for his beloved mallards was what fueled his desire to partner with UAM to provide a real world teaching laboratory for future generations of biologists and wetland management professionals.
"I really worry about the future of our sport and about the natural resources here in Arkansas," he said. "There are more mallards that winter in Arkansas than in any other state by far, and we're so blessed to have these natural resources here. We're doing great work here in Arkansas, but I worry about our forestlands, our bottomland timber management where 100 years from now is there going to be a red oak home that those mallards need."
Dunklin said he had learned that the most important element for ducks or any wildlife is habitat and that changes in habitat can have a devastating effect on the native wildlife.
"Look at the quail," he said. "When I was growing up my father and friends there in Pine Bluff had quail dogs, and they'd go out and shoot quail in the afternoon. They don't do that anymore. It wasn't the gun that took the quail out, it was the change in the landscape that took their habitat."
Douglas Osborne, associate professor of wildlife management at UAM, will serve as the program coordinator for the Wetland and Waterfowl Habitat Management Graduate Certificate Program. Osborne said much of the curriculum would be centered on wetland ecology.
"The foundation of this stuff is wetlands and understanding the soils and the plants and all that," he said "A lot of those labs and the hands-on work is going to be taught right here on-site, so there'll be lectures and stuff on campus, and then they'll be up here."
Osborne said there will also be a course taught on scientific decision-making, which will provide information on how managers of wetlands use science and data to make decisions in management of wetland areas.
"These students don't need to take statistics and they don't need to learn how to do experimental design, but they need to understand how to use the information we learn out here to make good, science-based decisions with management," he said.
"Two other courses will be out here that will be hands-on, you know, running diesel pumps, changing hydraulic hoses on diesel engines at pump sites, just understanding the mechanism of managing the wetlands here. You know, putting water on, when to put it on, what plant communities are going to respond if you put it on two weeks earlier or two weeks later. Because that's what we're going to be managing, the plants, and the birds are going to respond to that," he said.
Osborne said students in the program will already have an educational foundation in biology and wildlife management.
"We've just got to take it to the next level," he said. "These students will be able to monitor the management they do."
University officials said the Wetland and Waterfowl Habitat Management Graduate Certificate Program is expected to enroll its first students in the fall 2021 semester at UAM.