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OPINION | REX NELSON: The nature centers

by Rex Nelson | August 27, 2022 at 3:51 a.m.


"I could stay here for days," I think to myself as I sink into one of the chairs in the lodge at Potlatch Cook's Lake Nature Center. The lowlands facility in Arkansas County is surrounded by the Dale Bumpers White River National Wildlife Refuge.

I look at the furniture and paneling cut from local hardwood trees. I admire the fireplace and mantel. I want to read the old hunting and fishing books on the shelves.

The hunting lodge was built by Lion Oil Co. in 1955 to replace one built in 1947 that had burned. Lion, whose products were sold in more than 2,000 service stations across the South at the time, entertained business executives and celebrities from across the country here.

Since its dedication in April 2000, it has served as the centerpiece of an education center operated by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and Arkansas Game and Fish Foundation.

The commission's five urban nature centers--Witt Stephens Jr. Central Arkansas Nature Center in downtown Little Rock, Gov. Mike Huckabee Delta Rivers Nature Center in Pine Bluff, Forrest Wood Crowley's Ridge Nature Center in Jonesboro, J.B. and Johnelle Hunt Ozark Highlands Nature Center in Springdale and Janet Huckabee Arkansas River Valley Nature Center in Fort Smith--receive most of the attention.

In November 1996, Arkansas voters did one of the smartest things they've ever done. They passed an amendment to the Arkansas Constitution adding one-eighth of a cent to the sales tax for conservation purposes. That dedicated funding stream from Amendment 75 has, among other things, allowed Arkansas to develop the finest state parks system in the country.

It also allowed AGFC, which gets 45 percent of the proceeds, to build the urban nature centers to teach young people about the outdoors. Each center is part classroom, part museum and part playground.

Not getting as much attention--but just as important in a state where outdoor recreational attributes will play a key role in attracting and retaining talented people in the years ahead--are four centers in rural areas. Here at Cook's Lake, the Spradlin family of Fort Smith gave money for construction of the Spradlin Education Building in 2001. Workshops are held for teachers, and student events are common.

The staff at Cook's Lake has become famous through the years for banding hummingbirds. These days, Cook's Lake is receiving attention for facility manager Wil Hafner's wild game recipes. His cooking classes are becoming increasingly popular.

Those participating in events at the center have access to the 1,850 acres that make up the Cook's Lake Unit of the White River National Wildlife Refuge. The two-mile-long oxbow lake from which the facility takes its name is popular for youth fishing outings.

Two of the other three rural centers--Fred Berry Crooked Creek and Ponca--are in the Ozarks. Meanwhile, Rick Evans Grandview Prairie preserves a blackland prairie in southwest Arkansas.

The Crooked Creek center covers 421 acres in a bend of perhaps the best smallmouth bass fishing stream in the country. The former dairy farm's transformation was made possible by donations from Yellville-Summit teacher and counselor Fred Berry. There's an education building, pavilion and trails. The center was dedicated in June 2005.

An indoor classroom can accommodate up to 40 students, and the pavilion can handle almost 100. There are exhibits on Ozark wildlife, an Ozark native plant garden and wildlife viewing areas. The trails cover six miles. Just as is the case at Cook's Lake, there are regular professional development workshops for teachers. Many of those teachers later schedule field trips to the center for their students.

A visit to the center at Ponca allows students and tourists to learn about the effort from 1981-85 to reintroduce elk to Arkansas. Thousands of people now come to the Boxley Valley to see elk along Arkansas 43 and 21, and some of them make a stop at Ponca. The center has displays about the animals' biology and history.

The gift shop at Ponca sells books, videos, shirts and even hunting and fishing licenses. Rustic log rockers on the wraparound deck are a popular place for visitors to watch Ponca Creek flow. There's a trail along the creek, picnic tables and a covered pavilion.

Grandview Prairie was purchased by the state in May 1997 and was the commission's first major land acquisition using money from Amendment 75. The commission acquired 4,885 acres near Columbus in Hempstead County. Decades ago, the property became known as the Grandview Plantation and earned a reputation for producing valuable crops and livestock.

According to the AGFC: "In more recent times, the area was managed as a cattle farm and private hunting and fishing business. In conjunction with cattle farming, the introduction of non-native vegetation and overgrazing were common. The primary focus of the hunting and fishing business was on deer, trophy bass and pen-reared native and non-native upland game birds.

"At the time of purchase, Grandview Prairie had an excellent deer herd, a small flock of wild turkeys, a remnant bobwhite quail population and other common game species."

An ecological assessment was done in coordination with the Nature Conservancy and Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission. A pond in front of the offices was enlarged to accommodate youth fishing derbies. There are two lodges for overnight groups, an education building with classroom space, a shotgun range, an archery range, a covered fishing pier and several miles of hiking trails.


Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.


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