Two Roads, Diverged in a Wood 
AGFC Commissioners navigate changing tastes

By Dwain Hebda

 

Arkansas’s outdoors are changing, in every sense of the word. 

AGFC Chairman Ken Reeves of Harrison

AGFC Chairman Ken Reeves of Harrison

To the east, throughout the beloved Arkansas Delta, hunters still gather seeking duck and deer, echoing the previous generations. To the north, crystal-clear trout streams and the Buffalo River draw anglers by the thousands. 

But these represent only a portion of the outdoor consumer. To the northwest, an avalanche of young, active mountain bikers, hikers and mountain climbers abound with a seemingly insatiable appetite for trails and experiences.

“When I was a boy it was common to see boys walking up and down the street with a BB gun or a pellet rifle in their hand or a fishing pole going to a creek or going to a pond. Today if you saw a 10-year-old boy walking down the street with a BB gun, somebody’d call the police,” said Ken Reeves, who took over as chairman of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission July 1. 

“Times have changed and Baby Boomers like me, we’re starting to depart the scene and we’ve got all these Millennials, this younger generation who love the outdoors just as much as we do but in a different way. Our challenge is doing a better job of making it a worthwhile experience for those we call nonconsumptive users. [The outdoors] are just as important to them as it is to those that hunt and fish.” 

Reeves joins six other governor-appointed commissioners in providing guidance and direction to the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, the state agency tasked with conservation, preservation and regulation of the state’s wild spaces and associated activities. Among the agency’s most important long-term priorities is to meet the changing needs of its constituency without forsaking traditional interests.

“Northwest Arkansas is the fastest-growing population center in the state. There is a lot of the nonconsumptive sporting activity that is represented by that population,” said Commissioner Andrew Parker of Little Rock. “I don’t know whether or not that necessarily reflects the state as a whole, [but] we recognize that is an area of the state that has been ignored for too long.

Commissioner John David “J.D.” Neeley, of Camden

Commissioner John David “J.D.” Neeley, of Camden

“I don’t think we’re making decisions yet to have our efforts be driven by the non-consumptive activities, but there is a lot of effort over how we can incorporate what we do with those. A growing event in Northwest Arkansas is a bicycle race that includes a shooting activity, kind of like a biathlon. The numbers reflect that that’s surging while other things are falling. [Meanwhile] there is a fallen population in a lot of our rural areas. Does that have something to do with it? Probably.”

Over-generalization is dangerous and it would be easy to whitewash the nonconsumptive and the hook-and-bullet crowds as a cultural generation gap. But it’s not hard to see where the two groups converge. Both want easy access to wild spaces, both want quality habitat to support native species in abundance and both see the outdoors, as previous generations did, as a God-given right and an important underpinning of quality of life.

“I think we’ve got a new frontier. We’re seeing things today that someone in my age category, it’s all new to me and I have to adjust,” said Joe Morgan, AGFC commissioner who splits his time between Little Rock and Stuttgart. “The natural resource is about as basic as it gets. Without it, you and I don’t have anything to talk about. But it’s going to be a moving target as time goes on.”

Being appointed a commissioner is an honor, but it’s often a thankless job, too. Outdoor consumers are possessive of their favorite spaces, and changes in usage or modes of management aren’t always greeted with enthusiasm. Nonetheless, there’s much to be proud of in how the commission has responded to challenges, be it watchable wildlife or supporting ducks in uncooperative weather, said Commissioner Stan Jones of Alicia. 

“The last four years, Game and Fish has gone into some of these WMAs we can’t flood in October,” he said. “We’re going around to different areas and leasing some rice fields from farmers and flooding these up so that whenever the ducks come down, even though the woods are not flooded, we’ve got rice fields right there that are. The ducks can come in, sit and eat and not be shot. I think that’s really a great thing.

“The other thing is, some of the ground that Game and Fish owns, we’re planting corn, we’re planting millet, we’re planting sunflower. Our biologists are making a great effort to go around to the fields that we normally call food plots. If it’s good moist soil and got good natural grass, we’re leaving that and flooding it up. If it’s not good moist soil then we’re either planting some millet or some corn. We’re planting something to make these food plots better.” 

The commission’s work is challenged by the whims of Mother Nature and the fact new conservation practices—such as when to move water or combating chronic wasting disease among deer populations—can take years or decades to fully take root. This is often met with impatience by the public, something the body addresses through town hall meetings and other communications.

“The word ‘regulate’ is not a friendly word, yet the way we manage the resources, largely, you have to do it through regulation,” said Commissioner Bobby Martin of Rogers. “But every time we regulate something, we largely take something away, or that’s how it’s viewed. We don’t necessarily have people understanding the tough decisions having to be made.”

“I think this is where we are the most critical of ourselves, and duly so. We don’t communicate well enough. We recognize every time that we run into the sentiments where people are dissatisfied. We realize a big part of that’s on us just not communicating well.” 

Martin, who championed AGFC’s R3 initiative – standing for recruitment, retention and reactivation – noted that for all the new blood in the outdoors, one big concern for the agency is participation among children and youth. It’s a refrain echoed from one commissioner to another.

“Here in Arkansas we’ve got such great resources, yet things are changing,” Martin said. “We know we’re competing with different ways that people now engage with the outdoors. Bottom line is we really cannot, must not let a generation come and go that loses its connection with the outdoors.”

“Let me ask you a question, when’s the last time you drove through a neighborhood and saw a bunch of kids out in the yard playing ball?’ I can’t remember the last time I did,” Morgan said. “My generation, we didn’t have a cell phone to talk on, we didn’t have an iPad to play with. We didn’t have video games. We barely had television. You can throw money at problems, but you still haven’t fixed the problem; somebody’s got to take these kids to get them started and that boils down to mommas, daddies, aunts, uncles, grandmas and grandpas.”

“It’s not a smooth transition at this point,” agreed Reeves. “So many of these kids, like my own grandsons, they’ve always got some kind of electronic device in their hand. One of them had a duck hunting deal on there and he had me duck hunt with him on his laptop. Then I’ve got two [other] grandchildren and so far, neither one of them is interested in hunting.”

AGFC has long supported hunter education courses and have built upon that experience to introduce a whole new wave of programs to entice children and youth off the couch and into the outdoors. These include fishing derbies, free fishing and hunting weekends and, in particular, archery and youth shooting programs that have quickly grown into major activities. Commissioner John David Neeley of Camden envisions bridging these activities into professional opportunities, as well.

“One thing I want us to be teaching in our schools are the job opportunities in our field of conservation,” he said. “I’m a forester and we need to be teaching kids about forestry and the managing of the forest. We need to be teaching them that there’s jobs out there with Game and Fish as a biologist, possibly enforcement, possibly as an educator or possibly in IT.

“We need to be teaching kids about the park service and all those wonderful state parks we have. The jobs that are out there in our conservation industry so many don’t know about. So many [young people] think of traditional roles, but they might not think of a role where they could be out there and part of a group working in the lakes or streams. They might have a passion for it, but just not know how to connect to it.”

One striking element of the commission continues to be that of representation. All but two of the all-white governing body is over 50, the exception being 42-year-old Commissioner Parker and just-appointed Anne Marie (Hastings) Doramus, 27, the first woman appointed to serve a full term on the commission in state history. Parker said Doramus’s appointment shows the commission is moving proactively toward representing all Arkansans, but it’s a pivot that doesn’t complete overnight.

“I think it’s hard having a young person on the commission; it’s been a hard juggle for me,” Parker said. “I’m in year five and I’ve got two years left and I’m only now getting to a point where I’m able to really contribute my particular skillset, which is about the last 15-20 years in the political sphere in the state.

“I think that it’s essential to have that kind of representation from the right person who is passionate about these things and has something to contribute. I know that those people exist. I think the governor’s appointment shows he’s keenly aware of how big the stakes are, not only on management of property, but also diversity and that Millennial thing.”