Arkansas Game and Fish Commission will open the 32,000-square-foot J.B. and Johnelle Hunt Family Ozark Highlands Nature Center on Friday (Dec. 11) after raising more than $14 million in private funding, land donations and federal grants to build the facility on nearly 62 acres in western Springdale.
The nature center at 3400 N. 40th Street is east of Interstate 49 and south of Wagon Wheel Road. Arkansas Game and Fish Commission on Thursday (Dec. 10) hosted a ribbon-cutting for the center that included remarks from multiple commission officials, Gov. Asa Hutchinson and the Hunt family.
Hutchinson talked about his time growing up on a 280-acre farm near Gravette and finding a Jesse James hideout there.
“We roamed those hills, and we loved it,” he said. “But we didn’t really take it to the next step that we hope the next generation can more quickly than I did.”
He recalled going to an area church for Daisy BB gun competitions and that the new center will include a BB gun and archery center. He also recalled shooting squirrels and chasing bad dogs away from the cattle on the farm. When he was older, he said he appreciated the breadth of what the state has to offer regarding outdoor sports.
“I learned later in life about the beauty of the Delta and the sunrise and what it looks like whenever you’re up for a great duck hunt,” he said. “And that’s something I want people of Northwest Arkansas to be bridged with eastern Arkansas, and it can start with this nature center.
“To me, today is about the quality of life of Arkansas,” he added. “It’s about what we appreciate in nature and what God has given to us and our responsibility for conservation and stewardship.”
He also highlighted the aspects of how the center will impact education and the economy. He said the state of 3 million has 36 million visitors each year and has a $1.7 billion economic impact on Northwest Arkansas. Among those visitors, 700,000 are anglers and hunters who spend $3.8 million per day.
Johnelle Hunt, philanthropist and co-founder of Lowell-based carrier J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc., joined the event virtually and spoke about her family’s decision to support the center. In 2015, Hunt announced a $5 million matching pledge toward the project.
Hunt described growing up in Heber Springs and hiking in the woods, swimming in streams and rivers, and being outdoors.
“We were outdoors from morning to night,” Hunt said. “That’s one thing that’s always bothered me in later years is that our children today do not get that opportunity to know nature the way that we did.
“We have so many things in Northwest Arkansas to be thankful for,” she added. “And I am so thankful that this is another one that we can add to it. It’s not going to be only known in Northwest Arkansas, but I do know that it’s going to be known across the country as one of the most beautiful and special places for families.”
Chris Colclasure, deputy director of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, said the center relied much more on partnerships with private individuals and organization than most of the commission’s other projects.
“Infrastructure and habitat management to benefit the fish and wildlife resources of Arkansas remain the priority for the agency,” Colclasure said. “But we must continue to make investments in the education and engagement of current and future hunters, anglers and other outdoors enthusiasts who must pick up the torch of conservation. We needed to have a greater presence in Northwest Arkansas and the community really responded and helped us. With increasing demands on conservation funding, the commission and the Arkansas Game and Fish Foundation had to rely on a new network of partners to make the center a reality.”
Hunt’s $5 million matching pledge was answered by many organizations working through the Arkansas Game and Fish Foundation including the city of Springdale, Walton Family Foundation, The Schmieding Foundation, Walmart Northwest Arkansas Giving, Pat and Willard Walker Family, J.B. Hunt and Arkansas Federal Credit Union. The project also listed 28 supporters on the commission’s website.
The land on which the nature center was built had belonged to the Springdale water and sewer district. It was deeded to the city of Springdale and donated to the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission on condition the land would be used for conservation and education.
Along with a main exhibit hall, the nature center has three indoor classrooms, an indoor archery and BB gun marksmanship center, staff offices and a maintenance facility. The land includes two outdoor pavilions for classroom spaces and an outdoor 3D archery range with a variety of shot angles along the center’s 25-acre restored prairie. The land also has a trail system that will connect with the Razorback Regional Greenway in 2021.
Springdale Mayor Doug Sprouse said the city will soon open bids for the trail connection and plans to improve 40th Street to the center. The plan includes adding a 12-foot-wide trail on the street for better access to the center from surrounding neighborhoods and schools, he said.
“I can’t wait for the day when we’re finished with these, and there are school buses out here every day not only from Springdale but from all around the region and beyond,” Sprouse said. “Those kids…they’ll bring their families back and can enjoy what this facility has to offer.”
Admission to the nature center is free because of Amendment 75 and the 1/8th-cent Conservation Fund, but tickets are required to visit amid the COVID-19 pandemic to manage attendance and meet social-distancing guidelines. Link here to reserve tickets.
Andrew Parker, chairman of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, said the money from the sales tax that voters approved in 1996 has allowed for nature centers such as this one. Parker was appointed to the commission in 2014 and said he soon afterward started work on the project to build the center. The new nature center “is the fifth and undoubtedly the most incredible nature center across the state to provide visitors and students of all ages an outdoor experience which for many may be their first,” he said.
The center will be open from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday and 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays.
“This is the only nature center that will have the tickets process or the longer hours,” said Tabbi Kinion, chief of education for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. “All other nature centers are open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday only.”
The new nature center will offer limited small group experiences as teachers and educators start to plan for possible field trips and outings, according to a news release. Steven Dunlap, program coordinator, will oversee programming at the center and manage the educational opportunities from the center through teleconferencing applications and site visits within social-distancing guidelines.
“Northwest Arkansas is not just part of the conversation, we are now a leader in outdoor conservation,” said Bobby Martin, commissioner of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. “And I think all of us as residents can be proud… that this now becomes a new community hub of conservation. It’s also home for me in Northwest Arkansas, but now it is an Arkansas Game and Fish Commission home.”