If it weren't for duck hunters, the Cache River might now be a long straight ditch with farm fields on either side. If it weren't for deer hunters, Grandview Prairie, with its wildflowers and birds and archeological sites and mosasaur bones, might be home to a coal-powered plant. If it weren't for Game and Fish's work in the early part of the 20th century to buy up land and rehabilitate and restock, the Arkansas landscape might be devoid of deer and bear and turkey.
So The Observer can understand why the agency's Witt Stephens Jr. Nature Center, sandwiched onto land between the Arkansas River and the nightclubs of the River Market district, is a paean to itself. The Observer also understands that when Game and Fish talks conservation, it's talking about hunting.
So we were naive to think that the nature centers Game and Fish promised to the public in exchange for its approval of a 1/8 cent conservation tax — a public that for the most part does not hunt — might be about something besides bass and Bambi.
These are the thoughts that struck The Observer as we passed by the Nature Center's 36-foot-long glass display case of fishing lures. And its even longer aquarium, the signs that list the state's Rod and Reel Records, the kiosks devoted to the fisheries and wildlife divisions of Game and Fish. At the latter, a voice intones, “From deer and ducks and turkeys, to bear and gators and elk, the wildlife division prides itself as the authority on Arkansas wildlife.”
What about the wildlife you don't kill to enjoy? What about things that don't even bleed?
There are nods to the non-consumptive: A small but tall diorama of the Big Woods, with a stuffed prothonotary warbler tucked on a branch of a cypress tree and a swallow-tailed kite painted high on the wall behind a tupelo gum. A sign recounts the shrinking of the great bottomland forest — and Game and Fish's successful efforts to bring back the black bear there. For the children who think the swallow-tail is a pterodactyl, there is a small key to the features of the diorama.
There are nods as well to extinct species, like the passenger pigeon and the Carolina parakeet (the ivory-billed woodpecker's status is left a little fuzzy), among the reminders of what over-hunting can do. There are bird feeders outside a window.
But mostly, what Game and Fish spent $7 million on is advertising, to put forward the idea that hunting and fishing are the way to get the Nintendo generation out of the house and into the woods. That's not wrong — it's just narrow.
The Observer has been to game agency-built nature centers in Texas and Missouri. There, the references to nature aren't obligatory. Missouri centers do owl prowls, frog walks, feature exhibits on native plants and invasive species, talk about water and wetlands and geology. Texas has the Great Coastal Birding Trail and wildlife viewing trails all over. Texas does butterflies and bats. These states know that more people own binoculars than guns, and they're capitalizing on that.
For all that, one of The Observer's favorite images at the Stephens Center: An old black and white photo of a man releasing a deer into the woods. To think they were almost hunted out. Now they're munching azaleas in Robinwood.
Heck with nature, heck with history too.
Since we were in the neighborhood, The Observer strolled over to the riverbank to watch the work to expose the Little Rock. This is a huge earthmoving project — they're taking Riverfront Park down 20 feet to get to the rock. We talked to one of the heavy equipment operators about what he was uncovering. A 19th century tannery, he said — all that was left was a wall, about six feet of it. And the foundations of a brewery. They ploughed right through, the better to see a little rock.
Meanwhile, the six-foot fiberglass gecko (though some say it's a lizard) is still missing from the exterior wall of Artchurch Studio in Hot Springs. If you've seen it, let them know at email@example.com.