SPRINGDALE – The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission unveiled its fifth and largest nature center to date in the heart of Northwest Arkansas in front of a small in-person gathering and for countless others attending via Facebook. The J.B. and Johnelle Hunt Family Ozark Highlands Nature Center stands as the crown jewel in the AGFC’s network of education facilities throughout the state, and will begin to welcome guests into its exhibit area beginning tomorrow morning by scheduled appointment.
The in-person ribbon-cutting ceremony was an invitation only event because of social-distancing requirements, but the entire event was live-streamed at the center’s Facebook page and a special web page.
Commission Chairman Andrew Parker spoke of his experience touring the facility with the Hunt family before the grand opening and the enthusiasm he saw in one of the younger members of the group.
“I encourage you to find a child when you walk through the doors of this building and watch the reaction he or she has when they look around the building,” Parker said. “There is not enough Halloween candy he could have collected that would match the level of enthusiasm and excitement he had to see the fish in the tanks, the animals scattered throughout the building and all of the things he could put his hands on.”
The center has been a much-needed component of the AGFC’s efforts to recruit, retain and reactivate hunters, anglers and outdoors enthusiasts in the northwest portion of the state for many years. Thanks to a generous matching donation of $5 million from the Hunt family and a 61-acre land donation from the City of Springdale in 2015, the roots of the new center took hold and began to grow.
Johnelle Hunt, who planted those seeds alongside former Arkansas Game and Fish Foundation President Chuck Dicus, said the center was a way to keep alive the spirit of the outdoors she once enjoyed as a child.
“I thought of my years growing up in Heber Springs in Cleburne County, hiking in the woods, swimming in the little streams and river and being outdoors from morning until night,” Hunt said. “It is one of the things that has bothered me is that our children do not get that opportunity to know nature the way we did. We have so many things in Northwest Arkansas to be thankful for. I am so thankful that this is another one of those things we will be able to add to it.”
Gov. Asa Hutchinson thanked the Hunt family, the city of Springdale and the many other partners that made the center possible.
“To me, today is about the quality of life in Arkansas,” Hutchinson said. It’s about what we appreciate in nature and what God has given to us, our responsibility for conservation and stewardship.”
Deke Whitbeck, current AGFF president who enthusiastically took up the fundraising reigns after superseding Dicus, said it was a privilege to be a part of making the center a reality.
“It’s hard to believe, but it was only three years ago last month that we held a ceremony breaking ground on this center,” said Deke Whitbeck, president of the Arkansas Game and Fish Foundation, a fundraising organization for the AGFC and the primary catalyst for the millions of dollars in donations helping fund the center’s construction. “What a ride and what a journey it’s been watching this come out of the ground.”
After the ceremony, all in attendance were invited to enjoy a tour of the main building and interactive exhibits, archery in the AGFF Marksmanship Center and a ride to the open-air classroom pavilions overlooking a native prairie restoration project.
Because of social-distancing requirements, all visits to the center through Jan. 10 will be by advance reservation. Tickets are free and up to 10 may be reserved per 30-minute time slot.
Visit www.agfc.com/ozarkhighlands to learn more about the center, see the experiences available for visitors and book your free reservation.