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OPINION | REX NELSON: Ducks and Dunklin

by Rex Nelson | January 24, 2021 at 8:46 a.m.

With masks firmly in place to set a good example, some of the state's top education leaders gathered on the Grand Prairie in Arkansas County last month to sign an agreement that could pay dividends for decades to come.

George Dunklin Jr., owner of the nationally renowned hunting lodge known as Five Oaks, entered into the agreement with the University of Arkansas System. He will provide a 5,000-acre field laboratory for wetlands research.

Dunklin served seven years on the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission and was the commission's chairman during his final year that ended in June 2012. He has long been a leading proponent for finding innovative ways to attract migrating ducks to Arkansas.

In May 2013, Dunklin became president of Ducks Unlimited, the world's most famous waterfowl conservation organization. He was the 42nd president of DU and the second from Arkansas. E.L. McHaney of Little Rock was the first, becoming president in 1948.

DU began in 1937 during the Dust Bowl era as waterfowl numbers dropped due to drought. The organization was formed to preserve breeding areas in the Canadian prairies. From 1937-83, all funds raised were spent in Canada. Since 1983, money has also been spent for waterfowl conservation efforts in the United States and Mexico.

Dunklin had to spend a lot of time away from his beloved Five Oaks during his two years as president, but made worldwide contacts in the process. No one in Arkansas is better connected when it comes to wetlands conservation.

The United States has lost more than half its original wetlands and continues to lose an average of 80,000 wetland acres each year. Whenever soybean prices soared in the 1960s and 1970s, thousands of wetland acres in east Arkansas would be drained for row-crop agriculture. Much of that was marginal farmland at best.

Dunklin planted thousands of hardwood trees on his land. He created the Five Oaks Ag Research & Education Center and entered into a partnership with the University of Arkansas System's Division of Agriculture and the University of Arkansas at Monticello. Dunklin will contribute $600,000 during the next three years to provide tuition assistance and stipends for students enrolled in a new wetland and waterfowl habitat management graduate certificate program.

"We need the science that these folks at UAM are doing," Dunklin said. "We're able to provide some funding for that and our properties as kind of an outdoor lab that they can use. We've done a lot of work out here, but we just don't document it. We're not in the science community. But we want these kids to be able to come in and get this graduate certificate. . . . They'll get applied knowledge working on the farm with us."

In an era of declining state funding for higher education, such public-private partnerships are necessary. A key factor in Arkansas attracting highly educated individuals to live here in the years ahead will be the protection of natural resources and increased opportunities to enjoy the outdoors.

Donald Bobbitt, president of the University of Arkansas System, said: "We have to find ways to expand our resources while still meeting our mission of service to the state and our constituents. . . .

It's our duty to think creatively and collectively."

An editorial in The Pine Bluff Commercial noted: "This new program will encourage scientific research that will be a benefit to other private landowners as well as to the Game & Fish Commission with its many wildlife management areas, such as Bayou Meto, where the deleterious effects of green timber flooding are becoming more and more apparent. The arrangement should also serve as an example of how individuals and businesses can take a private resource and multiply its benefit many times over.

"No one may remember George Dunklin's name 100 years from now, but if at that time ducks, with their wings cupped, are eagerly swinging down through the limbs of flooded red oak trees and splashing down for a few acorns, that's all that matters."

When Dunklin was growing up at Pine Bluff, the family business was Planters Cotton Oil Mill. Cotton was still king in the Delta, and his father worked for the company for more than 60 years until his retirement in 2005. George Dunklin Sr. was president of the National Cottonseed Association and a member of the Cotton Advisory Committee of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The younger Dunklin played football and basketball as a child but found himself concentrating on tennis by the ninth grade. Coming out of high school, he considered three colleges: Ouachita Baptist University at Arkadelphia (his father, a member of Pine Bluff's First Baptist Church, had given the school a substantial contribution for a tennis complex), the University of Mississippi, and what's now the University of Memphis. He wound up at Memphis.

Dunklin's last major tennis tournament was the Arkansas State Closed in 1980, a tournament his father had won nine times. Dunklin Jr. captured the title and began to think about new goals in life. His friends were surprised when he chose to move to Arkansas County to operate a farm that had been in his mother's family for decades.

He had dabbled in radio during his college years, helping produce a show taped in Memphis that featured the top 80 songs of 1980. Called "Countdown 80," it aired on almost 60 stations. He decided, however, that his future wasn't in radio. After attending the 1980 U.S. Open in New York as a spectator, Dunklin convinced his mother to let him take over the farm, even though he knew nothing about farming or timber management.

Naturally smart, Dunklin learned along the way. Extra income came from leasing part of the land to Memphis Furniture Co. for duck hunting. That deal was cut during lunch one day at the Memphis Country Club. The company built what's now Five Oaks Lodge in 1976 as a place to entertain clients. Jerry Jones, who bought the Dallas Cowboys in 1989, built a club down the road in 1982 based on what the Memphis company had constructed.

In 1983, Memphis Furniture lost its largest account, Sears Roebuck & Co., and decided to sell the lodge. Dunklin bought it. Since then, he has developed one of the finest duck hunting operations in the world while becoming an icon among waterfowl conservationists for his efforts to restore this piece of the Mississippi Flyway. And given Dunklin's background, it's fitting that there's a tennis court at Five Oaks.

When he took over the farm in the early 1980s, there was one area of cutover timberland. Dunklin leveled the fields and created small sloughs 18 inches below the grade of the rest of the land. He also built mounds 18 inches above grade on which ducks could rest. In addition to planting hardwoods, Dunklin added corn plots for additional food.

In those early years of managing the farm, Dunklin lived at DeWitt. He moved into a room in the lodge after buying it, then built a house near the lodge when he got married in 1987. His wife Livia spent her early years in New York City and moved to Memphis at age 13 when her father, a cardiologist, took a job there. The two met when Dunklin was working at Memphis Racquet Club.

Dunklin hired a full-time biologist, Jody Pagan, away from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in October 2005, and developed a type of golden millet that can be used to improve waterfowl habitat while providing forage for quail, dove and turkey.

Duck hunting had become one of Dunklin's passions after he and a cousin came up on thousands of ducks in the 1970s at a flooded spot near Reydell in Jefferson County. With each passing year, he became more interested in wetlands conservation. Now he's ready to share that knowledge with a younger generation of Arkansans.

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Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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