SPRINGDALE – The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission’s fifth and newest nature center rose to the challenge of opening 15 months ago as the covid pandemic continued to upend the world.
Now, amid new hopes of normalcy thanks to the easing of the omicron variant, JB and Johnelle Hunt Family Ozark Highlands Nature Center are aiming for a busy spring and summer to welcome visitors.
The 61-acre site, east of Interstate 49 and south of Wagon Wheel Road in Springdale, offers outdoor and indoor archery ranges among its amenities. Target shooting is free, bows and arrows provided. On the 3D archery field with its separate pavilion, participants aim for replicas of deer, bears and other wildlife.
A message from Johnelle Hunt, widow of trucking magnate JB Hunt, greets guests entering the 32,000 square foot Welcome Center: “Celebrate the excitement and wonder of the great outdoors as only nature provides.
Sounds from outside can be heard inside the center. Pressing a button at an exhibit activates an image of birds flying overhead while their recorded calls are played. There are four flock species to choose from: Broad-winged Hawk, Common Nighthawk, Mallard, and Mourning Dove.
At the Hook, Line and Sinker Simulated Fishing Hole, visitors can test their skills with a digitally activated rod and reel. Another computer-assisted exhibit allows would-be hunters to target deer with laser guns. The indoor archery range is also equipped for shooting BB weapons.
Two drinking fountains near the entrance perform a double function as environmental messengers. In the background, a large photograph of rippling waterfalls bears a printed message: “Water quality is essential to maintaining the natural natural state.”
At the rear of the building, a digital image of a stream appears to flow along the floor toward a 2,000 gallon aquarium. Video screens under glass provide the illusion of an Ozarks stream flowing beneath visitors’ feet.
The east end of the hall is reduced for the youngsters, who are invited to make their way among towering blades of grass 7 or 8 feet high. The goal is to give preschoolers an idea of what it’s like to be a quail trying to avoid human hunters and other predators in the bird meadow habitat.
The cost of the nature center was $20.1 million. The City of Springdale donated the land, valued at $3.2 million. The Hunt family donated $5 million. Nearly $3 million came from federal grants and more than $5.5 million from the general fund and the AGFC license plate program. The money also came from the 1/8th Cent Conservation Fund created by Amendment 75 of the state constitution.
Other AGFC sites include Janet Huckabee Arkansas River Valley Nature Center in Fort Smith; Witt Stephens Jr. Central Arkansas Nature Center in Little Rock; Forrest L. Wood Crowley’s Ridge Nature Center in Jonesboro; Governor Mike Huckabee Delta Rivers Nature Center at Pine Bluff. Smaller AGFC Conservation Education Centers are located in Columbus, Ponca, Yellville and Casscoe.
When Ozark Highlands opened in December 2020, Johnelle Hunt told the gathering that the center could be a way to keep alive the spirit of the outdoors she savored as a child in Heber Springs:
“I thought about my years growing up, hiking in the woods, swimming in small streams and being outside from morning till night. One of the things that bothered me was that our children today don’t have the opportunity to experience nature the way we did. I so hope this helps in that regard.
The Wye Mountain Daffodil Festival has been extended for a third weekend and will run through Friday and Saturday. Flower picking in the field adjoining Wye Mountain Methodist Church will be permitted both days for $1 per dozen. For more details, visit the festival’s Facebook page.
Family JB and Johnelle Hunt Ozark Highlands Nature Center
- Address: 3400 N. 40th St., Springdale
- Hours: 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday
- Admission: Free
- Information: agfc.com; (877) 486-9870