SPRINGDALE — A stream to walk and splash in. An up-close look at a hibernating bear in its den. The feeling of a “nibble” on the end of a fishing line.
Visitors will be able to experience these and more moments when the state Game and Fish Commission opens its Northwest Arkansas Nature and Education Center next year on North 40th Street in Springdale.
“It will have some really high-tech, interactive exhibits,” said Eric Maynard, assistant chief of education, who oversees the agency’s nature centers. “But it will also have some really low-tech features, such as asking a question and you lift the door to see the answer. And some ‘touchy-feely’ parts, too.”
Construction is moving slowly because of recent rain, but city crews are installing water and sewer lines, Maynard said. The 27,000-square-foot nature center will include an exhibit hall, a theater, classroom and meeting space, administrative offices, and an archery range and maintenance building.
Most of the exhibits have been designed and constructed, but the exhibit hall must be built, Maynard said.
For example, the education center will include a cave display to teach about the karst limestone that lies below the surface of Northwest Arkansas.
The hibernating bear will be in a constructed cave, he said.
“And if you want to, and if you’re able, you can get on the floor and crawl into the cave to get a closer look at the bear inside.”
The Game and Fish Commission oversees the protection, conservation and preservation of various species of fish and wildlife in Arkansas, according to its website. But most people probably recognize the agency for its role of issuing hunting and fishing licenses and enforcing laws related to those pastimes.
The education center will include an exhibit on hunting and fishing — and their unique terminologies. In another program, the agency supplies poles, bait and an educator for fishing experiences with children.
“Kids never fish anymore,” Maynard said. “And they don’t understand when you ask them, ‘Did you get a nibble?’
“They’re like, ‘What? Did you bring snacks?’”
This exhibit will allow first-time fishermen to understand what it feels like when a bobber goes up and down in the water.
The commission operates eight other education centers throughout the state. Each focuses on the wildlife of the region it serves from the urban habitats in Little Rock to elk education in Ponca.
Northwest Arkansas’ center will focus on the Ozark plateau, including the types of birds and trees found here. The exhibits also will highlight ways for residents to enjoy nature, from hunting and fishing to bird watching and canoeing.
The agency puts a big focus on protecting quail and its habitat in Northwest Arkansas, Maynard said. Many of the region’s pastures have been cleared of natural grasses and replaced with fescue for feeding cattle. Quail prefer big, bunched grasses that provide seed, protection and pathways for them to wander, he said.
The new education center will include 6- to 8-foot fabricated grass bunches placed in a maze, so visitors can see from the vantage of the quail. It also includes a wall of fescue grass that can’t be breached, he said.
“You can do everything you want to protect wildlife, but if you’re not protecting and taking care of the habitats, you won’t have the wildlife,” Maynard said. “Plus, protecting a certain habitat also protects the habitats for frogs, lizards and hummingbirds.”
The center also will include an aquarium and a display area for live animals such as snakes, turtles and frogs.
The commission budgeted just under $14 million to build the Northwest Arkansas education center, Maynard said.
The foundation supporting the commission raised money, and the agency received federal and local grants and private donations. Johnelle Hunt provided a $5 million matching grant.
The center will be supported by fees paid for hunting and fishing licenses and a sales tax passed by Arkansas voters in 1996, Maynard said. The tax dedicates one-eighth of 1 percent of the state’s general sales tax for conservation. The commission gets 45 percent of that amount. Arkansas State Parks, the Arkansas Heritage Commission and the Keep Arkansas Beautiful Commission also benefit from the tax, according to information on the agency’s website.
Springdale and the Spring-dale Water and Sewer Commission donated two parcels of land for the development of the center in the western part of the city, Mayor Doug Sprouse said.
The City Council also appropriated money from its 2018 bond fund to improve 40th Street leading to the center and extending Spring Creek Trail to the center. Both projects are in the design stage, Sprouse said.
Cyclists and walkers follow Spring Creek through downtown Springdale as a part of the Razorback Green-way. The extension trail will connect the education center to the Greenway.
Maynard sees the education center as a stopping point for cyclists.
“They can stop and see some of the exhibits, use the bathroom, get a drink of water, and get back on their bikes and go on off,” he said.
The commission also will develop the 63 acres surrounding the education center with its own trails. The center will sit on about one-third of the site.
“It’s a great draw to the city,” Sprouse said. “But more than that, it’s just an important educational venue for students not only in Springdale — which is the state’s largest school district — but for students from all over Northwest Arkansas.”
Jen Levy, executive director of the Association of Nature Center Administrators in Logan, Utah, said nature centers connect people with nature.
“The best nature centers serve their local communities,” she said. “It could be a more urban center that covers a block or maybe a few miles or an underserved population to the west. They might focus differently on school groups, multigenerational family activities or adult education.”
The association counts representatives of 350 organizations in its U.S. membership, Levy said. Organizations in China and other nations also joined the group looking to U.S. facilities as models.
Northwest Arkansas can boast of other programs educating students about the natural world: Hobbs State Park-Conservation Area, Ozark Natural Science Center and the Lake Fayetteville Environmental Center, which is operated cooperatively by the Springdale and Fayetteville school districts.
“Nature has the power to make children healthier, happier and smarter,” reads the website of the Children in Nature Network, recommended by Levy. “But over the last few generations, childhood has moved indoors, leaving kids disconnected from the natural world. This worldwide trend has profound implications for children’s healthy development—and the future of our planet.”
Research shows time spent in nature can benefit children’s health, education and relationships, said the organization that seeks to provide opportunities to get children in nature.
And nature center programs for preschoolers is a growing trend, Levy said.
Marcia Smith, associate superintendent for Springdale School District, noted enrichment lessons at the environmental center are limited by the facility’s capacity. Currently, the center works only with students in fifth grade and junior high school and high school biology classes.
The district hopes students in other grades can be served by the Game and Fish center.
“It opens up additional opportunities for us,” she said. She explained principals will start to outline student field trips and find where those experiences fit best into their curriculum.
The Northwest Arkansas center also will include indoor and three-dimensional outdoor archery ranges capable of hosting archery tournaments.
The agency sponsors the National Association of Archery in Schools, with about half of the schools in the state participating, Maynard said. The recent state archery competition hosted about 1,800 young archers, representing 50,000 to 60,000 others around the state.
“It’s so easy for schools to get into archery,” Maynard said. “You don’t have to build a football field.”
Money from grants supplies archery equipment to schools.
“And you don’t have to be the tallest or the strongest or the fastest kid,” he said.
Arkansas Game & Fish education centers
Gov. Mike Huckabee Delta Rivers Nature Center, Pine Bluff
Forrest L. Wood Crowley’s Ridge Nature Center, Jonesboro
Janet Huckabee Arkansas River Valley Nature Center, Fort Smith
Witt Stephens Jr. Central Arkansas Nature Center, Little Rock
Northwest Arkansas Nature Center, Springdale
Fred Berry on Crooked Creek, Yellville
Rick Evans Grandview Prairie, Columbus
Ponca Elk Education Center, Ponca
Potlatch at Cook’s Lake, Casscoe
Source: Staff report Nature time
Research increasingly shows that time spent in nature can provide children with many benefits, according to the website of the Children in Nature Network, based in Minneapolis.
Health: Time outdoors can improve physical and mental health; increase levels of physical activity; and reduce symptoms of stress, attention deficit with hyperactivity disorder and autism spectrum disorders.
Education: Learning in natural environments can boost performance in reading, writing, math, science and social studies — and enhance creative expression, problem solving and executive function.
Relationships: Through unstructured outdoor play, children develop social-emotional skills needed for life and build memorable experiences with friends and family.
Source: Staff report
Laurinda Joenks can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NWALaurinda.