The Forest for the Trees
Ford Overton’s AGFC tenure marked by passionate, plainspoken style

By Dwain Hebda

Passionate doesn’t begin to describe Ford Overton when it comes to matters of the Arkansas outdoors. Neither does intense, authentic or direct. But put all of them together and a better picture starts coming into focus of the Little Rock native and chairman of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, who concluded his term on July 1. 

Overton learned early and honestly the value of public service. His father, William Ray Overton served eight years as federal judge, for the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas. While briefly considering a law career of his own, Ford, former AGFC chairman, instead chose business and owns West Tree Services in Little Rock. He served on the Arkansas Game and Fish Foundation Board prior to Governor Mike Beebe appointing him an AGFC commissioner in 2012.  

Ford Overton takes in the view from a choice hole in Bayou Meto.

Ford Overton takes in the view from a choice hole in Bayou Meto.

ARKANSAS WILD: It feels like the state is at a crossroads in terms of outdoor consumption. Is it? This spring, we had our commission meeting in Northwest Arkansas, toured the facilities, held a town hall meeting. The takeaway from all that is it gave the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission an awakening and awareness of nonconsumptive users. We needed to see where Millennials are going these days—the kayakers, the birders, the hikers, the bikers, the communities that are sprawling throughout Northwest Arkansas. It’s what kind of bike do you have, what trail are you going to go on, let’s kayak down the Little Maumelle or whatever. 

As a commission, we needed to see this. One thing I am going to say is that it’s pretty dadgum cool what we learned. The only thing I can relate it to is whoever the bright people were that created the open space of Central Park in the middle of New York City. That’s what the Walton Foundation, the Hunts, the Tysons, industry, companies, the cycling community—that’s what they’re doing up there. 

So if hunting and fishing are down—and they are—does that mean these other activities replace them? Yeah, the question is, how do you convert? What’s the conversion variable and how do we go there or should we go there? 

A lot of the ways that I came up in the outdoors are still handed off in Jonesboro, Blytheville, Piggott, the Mississippi Delta. The closer you get to Northwest Arkansas, these Millennials are congregating, running huge companies, IT and all that, and we’re missing them.  

Now, [Northwest Arkansas is] protecting these open spaces and not letting anybody touch them and making sure you can have miles of walking, hiking, mountain biking, road biking. I love it, it’s exciting. But it’s not the whole world.

Lake Village is a long way from Bentonville, talking about the two extremes of the state here.

Again, on the subject of hunters and anglers declining—how does that happen in a state like Arkansas? I firmly believe technology is our biggest challenge to the outdoors, whether it’s video games, internet, Snapchat, Facebook, that deal called the cell phone. That’s instant gratification, instant feedback versus being patient on where the deer are crossing or learning how deep you fish for crappie.

I had a lot of mentors who took a liking to my enthusiasm for duck hunting and who were avid duck hunters themselves. My dad didn’t care anything about getting up early; he was a big fisherman. He loved to float and fish. I love to do that, but I really wanted to duck hunt and I really wanted to deer hunt, so he had some longtime friends that took me up under their wing.

I’m not sure that a lot of dads these days, or single moms, know how to do any of that, are networked to do that or have a desire to poke a child to go get involved in the outdoors. Frankly, they’re kind of scared of it. So there’s a real break. 

And if there is intention to make an effort, there’s often issues of access. We’ve tried to eliminate barriers to entry by reinstituting hunter education back into the school system, which we have. That’s just one example.

But to your question: I’m real worried about license sales. Really. We’re going to continue to try hard. We need some Millennials appointed on the commission so we can figure out how to touch other Millennials from Lake Village to Bentonville.

What is the biggest environmental challenge facing Arkansas right now? Bayou Meto in particular. That’s our crown jewel and it’s deeper than any time in the last 36 months. So one of the things that we’ve done is rekick this Bayou Meto irrigation project. It’s a big deal that involves the U.S. Corps of Engineers, the Bayou Meto Irrigation District, the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission. There is a way to get rid of this water, but we’ve had to poke these other members – the Corps and ANRC being two in the government—and say we’re going to lose our crown jewel in the 34,000 acres of Bayou Meto if we don’t kick this up.

What are your feelings, stepping off the commission? I’ve loved it. It’s been one of the biggest honors of my life. I do believe that the Game and Fish Commission is set up properly. If there’s a personal agenda or a political agenda that a commissioner shows up with, it lasts about 30 minutes. We say get your idea and your ass out of here because that won’t last. That’s the way we work. We’re not red tape.

It is cool what we’ve done. At the end of seven years, we’ve had an opportunity to make an impact and I know, because I’ve lived it. I’m real proud of what we’ve accomplished.