In northwest Arkansas, 62 acres of land are being transformed into a high tech gateway to the outdoors.
The J.B. and Johnelle Hunt Family Ozark Highlands Nature Center is entering the late stages of construction on the property in Springdale. When completed in December, it will stand as the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission’s flagship to the northwest, reflecting local, natural beauty and geographical features while offering a wealth of knowledge and learning through state-of-the-art technology.
AGFC Education Manager Tabbi Kinion said the project is a collaborative effort whose uses will benefit anyone who walks through the door, from curious children to experienced scientists, outdoor enthusiasts and conservationists.
“There is so much opportunity and the space will not only be used by Game and Fish,” she said. “All of our conservation partners will be able to use it.”
The 32,000-SF center will include an exhibit hall, three classrooms, offices, a maintenance facility and an indoor archery and BB gun marksmanship center.
Visitors will see live animals while virtual fish swim at their feet; they will experience examples of local cave structures and native Osage prairie habitat; they will enjoy outdoor pavilions and trails and, according to the AGFC’s educational mission, they will learn about the vital role nature plays in the lives of Arkansans through interactive exhibits and hands-on experiences.
The inside experiences are designed to educate people about their natural surroundings and encourage them to get outside, Kinion said.
“It is really nice to see people get out there,” she said. “That’s what my career has been, is getting people outdoors.”
With land and construction costs valued at $20,138,198, the project is funded by donations, private gifts, grants and AGFC programs and funds. Chief among the donations was $5 million from the J.B. and Johnelle Hunt family to the Arkansas Game and Fish Foundation and the 62 acres donated by Springdale and valued at $3.2 million.
“The City of Springdale and the northwest Arkansas community have partnered with us from the beginning to make this a reality,” Kinion said. In the past, centers have been solely funded by AGFC, but the vision for the J.B. and Johnelle Hunt Center required a new model.
Close to $3 million came from federal grants, more than $5.5 million came from the AGFC’s general fund and conservation license plate program. Private funding totaled $8,580,000.
Deke Whitbeck, head of the Arkansas Game and Fish Foundation, led the fundraising effort. He and other officials have agreed the center wouldn’t have come about without the partnership between the AGFC, the foundation and the community.
The center will be the most visible AGFC investment in northwest Arkansas. The center is located near Interstate I-49 and will connect with the area’s Greenway Trail system for hiking and biking.
“We’ve done all the trail easements and planning with the city,” Kinion said. “The spur that goes off toward the center won’t be complete when we open in December but construction will be underway in the coming months.”
The Greenway connection was an important feature of the agreements and partnerships that are bringing the nature center to life. The trail tie-in is almost symbolic of the connections the AGFC has made with the local community.
Kinion noted that the more than 400 Northwest Arkansas Master Naturalists will be able to use the center as a hub and they will serve as volunteers supporting the center’s permanent staff of seven. It’s just one of the relationships the AGFC is forging with Springdale and the surrounding area.
“One of the things that we started even before construction kicked off was to meet with the other conservation organizations in northwest Arkansas in order to form really strong partnerships in that community,” Kinion said. “Because this community is really doing a lot for conservation and we’ll all be stronger together.”
Local schools — many who have archery programs, Kinion noted — will be able to take advantage of the new archery range facilities.
“This will be one of those facilities where we can bring in kids and do special events with them,” Kinion said.
But the educational opportunities won’t just be for the kids. Kinion said landowners, for example, can learn about controlled burns or how to maintain their land as wildlife habitat.
The COVID-19 pandemic led to a few construction delays and has affected plans for a large ribbon cutting ceremony, though an official event with the governor present is still in the works. Yet, while the series of ribbon cutting events will be smaller and many will attend remotely, the nature center will be opening at a time when people are turning to the outdoors as never before in search of safe and fun activities that get them out of the house.
Kayaks, camping gear and fishing poles are flying off the shelves, Kinion said, and the nature center will be ready to encourage and educate outdoor enthusiasts for decades to come.
“We’re hoping that people who have turned to the outdoors will learn the skills that will keep them out there long past the pandemic,” she said.