Rivers are the flowing soul of our country. Over 9,700 miles of Arkansas streams and rivers wind their way through the Natural State. It’s no secret that many waterways are transportation conduits. However few realize these bodies of water yield economic returns by providing recreational and educational experiences.
Arkansas rivers and the lakes they feed are some of the nation’s best fishing venues. A world-record German brown trout (1992-2009) was caught on the Little Red River. The White, North Fork and Spring rivers also yield brown, rainbow and cutthroat trout. Within the Arkansas boarders, the entire stretch of the Arkansas River is popular among anglers seeking largemouth bass. Several big-time tournaments are held annually on Lake Dardanelle and other reservoirs formed by the river. Meanwhile, scenic streams in the Ouachita and Ozark Mountains offer anglers excellent river fishing for smallmouth bass.
Arkansas is home to one of the great Ozark Mountain float streams and the first national river, the Buffalo National River. I visited with Chris Madson, of Wildfowl Magazine about his Arkansas river experiences. Chris remembered his weekend floating trips down the National River. “The Buffalo is beautifully clear and intensely fertile. There was just something about waking up to the whippoorwills on the far bank and the whisper of the current,” said Madson. Reflecting on his experiences he told me that you can tell a lot about the quality of land by the quality of the water. So, where someone would go that wanted to find out more about Arkansas streams?
Many people enjoy Arkansas rivers and appreciate their beauty and recreational offerings. However, not as many understand the history, science and educational aspects of the waterways. In the past, there simply wasn’t one place to acquire this information.
After listening to the desires of Arkansas citizens, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission realized the need for a gathering place that would blend entertainment and educational experiences. Through the passage of the 1/8th cent Conservation Sales Tax, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission constructed nature centers across the state. Located in Pine Bluff, Jonesboro, Fort Smith and Little Rock, these educational facilities play host to thousands of Arkansas residents along with people from all 50 states and over 30 foreign countries. Part classroom, part museum and part playground, these centers provide hands-on experiential education. Each focuses on the natural elements and ecosystems found in its region of the state.
The Governor Mike Huckabee Delta Rivers Nature Center, located in Pine Bluff, Arkansas was the first to open. The exhibits reveal the natural history of the Arkansas Delta region. Exhibits include a 20,000-gallon oxbow lake aquarium containing native fish, reptiles and plant species. And as you leave the building to tour the grounds, watch out, there’s a very large alligator living right outside the door! Other exhibits describe how these waterways have changed the land and why swamps are incredibly valuable ecosystems.
The Forrest L. Wood Crowley’s Ridge Nature Center, located in Jonesboro, Arkansas features a three-story education, exhibit and meeting facility on 160 acres. The nature center grounds include a 5.5-acre prairie, 2.5-acre pond and approximately 100 acres in woodlands. The Crow’s Nest offers an interesting view from an elevated position above the center’s diverse landscape ranging from the ridge to Delta south of the site.
The Janet Huckabee Arkansas River Valley Nature Center can be found in Fort Smith, Arkansas. Sitting on 170 acres, the building overlooks Wells Lake, a popular local fishing and picnicking destination. The location of this center draws as many people as the interesting animal and birding exhibits inside. Visitors can enjoy hiking trails, native plants, canoeing and fishing as well.
The Witt Stephens Jr. Central Arkansas Nature Center is found in a very unique location—downtown Little Rock, Arkansas along the bank of the Arkansas River. Tucked behind President Clinton Avenue between the Arkansas Museum of Discovery and Clinton Foundation Store, this center offers a one-stop shop showcasing the agency’s wildlife conservation efforts and other educational programs.
Located in St. Charles, Arkansas, another educational center sits in the White River National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge lies in the floodplain of the White River near the mighty Mississippi River. It is one of the largest remaining bottomland hardwood forests in the Mississippi River Valley. The fertile forests and three hundred lakes are interlaced with streams, sloughs, and bayous and is the perfect place for an interpretive facility. The White River National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center is operated by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. It consists of an auditorium, environmental education classroom and an exhibit hall. The displays explain the human and ecological histories of the area, the hydrology of the White River, and the bottomland hardwood forest ecosystem.
With enjoyment comes responsibility, and Arkansas is doing a great job in providing educational foundations to teach waterway history and preservation. Through education another level of appreciation for our majestic waters is reached. These centers plant seeds for future conservation and recreation efforts for Arkansas rivers.
Images courtesy Dena Woerner