The Janet Huckabee Arkansas River Valley Nature Center located in Fort Smith (Sebastian County) is one of four nature centers owned and operated by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission (AGFC). It interprets the natural environment of the Arkansas River Valley, as well as expands upon the mission of the agency, which is to manage the fish and wildlife resources in Arkansas while providing an enjoyable experience for visitors. The 14,000-square-foot nature center is located on 170 acres of land typical of the river valley, along with a twelve-acre manmade lake. The facility features exhibits interpreting the natural history of the area, and nature trails around the property give visitors a first-hand view.
The four nature centers built by the AGFC were made possible by the one-eighth-cent conservation tax passed in 1996. The other facilities are located in Pine Bluff (Jefferson County), Jonesboro (Craighead County), and Little Rock (Pulaski County). Several Fort Smith–area groups supported the tax passage, and these groups went on to lobby that one of the nature centers be built in their community. The grand opening of the nature center was held on August 31, 2006.
The center greeted over 80,000 people in its first year of operation. Many of these were school children, the main target audience of the nature center. Programs teach about—among other things—animals, insects, habitats, and predator/prey relationships in Arkansas. The nature center’s location within a variety of habitat areas—including wetland, upland forest, oak savannah, pine forest, and lake—is ideal for outdoor study.
The nature center was well received by the general public. Weekend and evening programs target the general population, especially families. Many programs relate to hunting and fishing as tools of wildlife conservation. Archery, BB guns, and computer hunting games are popular among visitors. The center loans out fishing poles and tackle, as well as hosting hunting education and boating safety courses. Other programs include guided hikes and canoeing.
The nature center building includes a state-of-the-art exhibit area highlighted with a 1,700-gallon aquarium representative of the Arkansas River and a life-sized post oak tree with surrounding oak-savannah habitat. An interactive classroom is full of activities for families to experience together, and a large multipurpose room is used for education programs and community meetings. Annual programs being established include National Hunting and Fishing Day in September, Earth Day celebrations in April, National Migratory Bird Day and an Outdoor Expo for school groups in May, and Free Fishing Weekend in June.
For additional information:
“Back to Nature.” Times Record (Fort Smith). August 13, 2006, p. 1B.
Hughes, Dave. “First Lady’s Bagged Turkey Part of New Nature Center’s Displays.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. September 1, 2006, p. 4B.
Janet Huckabee Arkansas River Valley Nature Center. http://www.rivervalleynaturecenter.com/ (accessed November 1, 2007).
“Nature Study.” Times Record (Fort Smith). January 20, 2008, p. 1B.
“A New View of the Valley.” Arkansas Wildlife (September/October 2006): 22–24.
Janet Huckabee Arkansas River Valley Nature Center