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Learning to Love Nature (and More), Right Here in the Natural State

What comes to mind when you think about the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission (AGFC)? Fishing? Hunting? Kayaking? While we're all familiar with these types of programs, not many people are familiar with the educational programs AGFC offers every year. Trey Reid with AGFC stopped by AFMC TV to talk to us about these amazing educational programs across the state. There is a lot to talk about, so get ready to take in all the hidden gems that AGFC offers through its education programs.

Hunter education is, of course, a large part of what AGFC does. “It’s mandatory in Arkansas, if you were born after 1968, that you take hunter education courses,” Trey says. However, there's so much more to their education programs.

AGFC has nine nature centers across the state that act as educational museums where Arkansans can see aquariums and exhibits demonstrating how AGFC manages our wildlife. “We have an entire education division full of around 60 teachers and other individuals with teaching degrees who work at these locations to implement conservation programs in schools that align with our state curriculum,” Trey says. AGFC also has in-service workshops where teachers can create lesson plans to teach their students about nature conservation. Some schools coordinate field trips to the education and nature centers. Some schools even have sports shooting and archery programs funded by AGFC grants. The list goes on and on.

I had no idea that AGFC had so many nature centers, much less that they were so involved in education. “Our traditional nature centers are in Little Rock, Pine Bluff, Fort Smith, Jonesboro, and Springdale,” Trey says. “I call them traditional centers because we also have some education centers throughout the state that aren’t really museums, but more learning centers.” These education centers are located in the cities of Ponca, near Boxley Valley (The Ponca Nature Center is actually elk-themed due to the large herds of elk that roam the area); Columbus, just outside of Hope (Rick Evans Grandview Prairie Nature Center); Casscoe, 20 miles east of Stuttgart near the White River National Wildlife Refuge (Potlatch Crook’s Lake Nature Center); and Yellville (Fred Berry Crooked Creek Nature Center).

These centers have laboratories that people can use to observe the local wildlife more closely. Some of these centers offer hummingbird banding programs, which Trey mentions "are very popular in the summer." A hummingbird banding program allows people to offer hummingbirds a quick drink from a sugar-water feeder people hold in their hand.

How incredible is that?

What’s even more incredible about these laboratories is that students can catch bugs and other organisms in the local lakes and valleys, bring them back to the lab, and examine them under a microscope. Students learn about water quality and how vital these organisms are to our ecosystem.

AGFCNatureCenter

In addition to the wonderful conservation education programs that AGFC offers, they also offer archery and youth sports shooting programs. "Our youth sports shooting program is about 15 years old, and our archery program is around 12 years old," Trey says. "On the surface level, you may hold your breath when you hear that AGFC offers a sports shooting program in schools, but these programs teach students how to safely use hunting rifles." Students participating in the sports shooting program learn to shoot clay targets flung in the air by a clay target launcher. Students in the archery program learn bow safety and how to hit stationary targets a few yards in front of them. Around 10,000 students in Arkansas participate in the sports shooting program, and about 50,000 students participate in the archery program. Both programs are usually offered through their schools’ PE classes. These programs also allow students who may not excel in other sports to be competitive. "In these programs," Trey adds, "it doesn't matter how tall you are, or how high you can jump, or how fast you can run."

Students who participate in these programs can also form teams and compete in regional and state competitions that AGFC puts on yearly. "We have about 5,000 to 6,000 students who participate in these competitions throughout the state," Trey mentions. As you can tell, these sports are becoming much more popular throughout our state and across the nation. In fact, trap shooting is now an Olympic sport! Arkansas resident Kayle Browning recently won a gold medal for trap shooting in the Tokyo summer Olympics. Though she started practicing trap shooting before AGFC started its program, she eventually participated in the early sports shooting programs that AGFC offered in the state. While she's been a great ambassador for the sport, many other Arkansas students have also participated in the junior Olympics and other international competitions.

“What I love about going to our state championships every year, whether it’s shooting or archery, is that the boys and girls shoot together, side-by-side. And sometimes, the girls shoot better than the boys," Trey jokes. This proves his point that, while sports shooting and archery require skill, practice, training, and dedication, you don't have to run faster or jump higher than anyone to excel at these sports.

While all these educational programs sound great in practice, they probably cost a considerable amount of money to start up in schools, right?

Actually, just the opposite. Most of these programs don't cost schools a penny. AGFC has grants that schools can apply for every year. "One thing I'd like to tell people about AGFC," Trey explains, "is that there's a big misconception that when AGFC officers write people a ticket for a violation, like not having your fishing license or your hunting license, that the money goes back to AGFC as a company. The truth is, we don't see any of that money. Instead, that money goes into a fund for our education programs, specifically toward the county where the fines were assessed."

Talk about dedication to education.

The grants are administered yearly through the Arkansas  Rural Development Commission, Division of Rural Services. Each county has a certain number of funds available to them, and many schools in these counties can (and should) apply for these grants. This past year, $750,000 of funding was available for schools to participate in these educational programs. Schools can use these grant funds to buy equipment to start an archery or sports shooting program. Schools that don't want to start these types of programs can use the grant funds to put diesel fuel in a school bus to take students on a field trip to one of AGFC’s nature centers. The grants can be used to start all sorts of educational programs, and they don't cost schools a thing! "Unfortunately," Trey adds, "a lot of the grant money goes unclaimed. I think this is an awareness issue. We try to tell people about these programs, and the funding is out there to set them up." All schools have to do is apply.

Why does AGFC even bother to offer educational programs if nobody uses them, especially when they don’t have anything to do with hunting or fishing?

That’s a valid question, but AGFC’s view is about more than just hunting and fishing. “Our view is, if we can connect people with nature, whether it be to give them a rifle to hunt ducks, a bow and arrow to hunt deer, or even a fishing pole to catch fish, that’s great! But, so many people out there may not be hunters and anglers and may not have an interest in any of that. If we can connect those people to the natural world by teaching them how to canoe or offering birdwatching courses, we will foster in them a spirit of environmental stewardship. It will make them want to take care of the environment,” Trey says.

As the nation is becoming more and more technology-dependent, we are losing our connections with the natural world around us. We must keep these connections strong. AGFC believes that its educational programs will do just that. If people who aren't interested in hunting or fishing can learn to appreciate nature through their educational programs, then our society is one step closer to understanding the importance of conservation.

“We’ve found a lot of research out there that this drift away from nature is happening across the country,” Trey says. “One of the reasons people don’t take to the outdoors is that they live in urban households that never participated in outdoor activities." Nevertheless, AGFC is determined to teach everyone to enjoy nature, no matter their background. "We have nine nature centers across the state that offer educational programs, and we even offer virtual instruction through Zoom,” Trey adds. “You can go to agfc.com and click on the education tab to see all of the specific educational programs offered at each of our nine centers. We even have a calendar where you can filter your search for different events going on near you, like fishing, hunting, and kayaking seminars.”

So, the fact remains: if you want to learn more about the incredible world around you, what are you waiting for? There’s a chance to do so right here in your backyard.

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Eldrina Easterly

Mobile: 501-553-7607

Chris Hughes

Office: 501-212-8742
Mobile: 501-553-7651

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