All Natural

All Natural

Northwest Arkansas is one of the last corners of the state without an Arkansas Game and Fish Commission Nature Center. That’s about to change.

Ground was broken Thursday on a $18 million center at 3300 N. 40th St. in Springdale, just south of Wagon Wheel Road and east of I-49. The 61-acre site will have indoor and outdoor archery ranges, walking trails, an outdoor amphitheater and an enclosed exhibit center, says commission spokesman Randy Zellers.

“It’s part museum, part education center,” Zellers says.

Plans include 36,000 square feet of improved space, such as the amphitheater and covered pavilions, indoor and outdoor classrooms, wildlife habitat areas, a boardwalk and overlook on Spring Creek, native plant gardens, wildlife-viewing blinds and other amenities.

The Arkansas Game and Fish Foundation, a private fundraising organization, must raise an estimated $8 million to pay for all the amenities. The center is a joint project of the commission and the foundation. The foundation will pay to build the center and the commission, an independent state agency, will staff it, Zellers says.

The process of completing the center could take three years or more, says Keith Stephens, communications director for the commission. Work immediately following the groundbreaking will mainly be site preparation with winter approaching, Stephens says.

Mayor Doug Sprouse says the city and Springdale Water Utilities donated the land. Plans are to connect the center to the city’s walking trail system, he says.

“I know residents of all ages are anticipating its opening and, additionally, we are working to include trail access from this location,” Sprouse says. “The Game and Fish Commission has been a great partner, and we look forward to continuing this partnership to highlight the importance of conservation and education in our beautiful state and community.”

The center will be named after the J.B. and Johnelle Hunt family because of a $5 million pledge from Johnelle Hunt, the foundation confirmed. In addition, the commission pledged $4 million, and the foundation pledged $1 million, according to the foundation.

The trails and the education center can be built for about $10 million, according to a foundation announcement. The rest of the project will cost an additional $8 million that is expected to come from private donations. The foundation will continue to raise money for the project, Stephens says.

“That is a fluid number and our best estimate at this time,” Stephens says.

Kelly Mulvihill is director of the Janet Huckabee Arkansas River Valley Nature Center in Fort Smith. She says her center receives 70,000 visitors a year who are counted, plus a conservative estimate of 10,000 more who are not counted but use the grounds.

“People started coming right away,” she says. “That kind of surprised me, but we started having that many people as soon as we opened in 2006.”

Most of the visitors are school-age children, and the busiest time of the year is spring break.

“We will get a 1,000 people a day in that week,” she says.

Hikes are the most popular activity, Mulvihill says, and the 12-acre lake at the Fort Smith center is also popular for canoeing, kayaking and fishing.

The commission also operates nature centers in Pine Bluff, Jonesboro and Little Rock. The commission runs smaller education centers in Ponca in Newton County, Yellville in north Arkansas, Columbus in southwest Arkansas, and Casscoe in east Arkansas.

Admission to all the centers is free.

Categories: In The News