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Playground, quail pen natural additions to northwest Arkansas nature center

Visitors to the J.B. and Johnelle Hunt Family Ozark Highlands Nature Center will see some new additions in the coming weeks, supported by the Ozark Natural Sciences Center, the Walton Family Foundation and the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. 

Thanks to a Walton Family Foundation grant, a new 4,200-square-foot outdoor activity area is being built between the buildings of the nature center and the archery range and walking trails. The playground will feature six stations, including a boulder cavern, a cargo net climbing platform, a perched log climb, stepping stumps with balance beam logs and vertical log- and tree-climbing stations. A shaded area with log slab benches will offer parents a comfortable place to watch their children enjoy using their creativity and imagination while making use of the fun activity stations.

Natural State Treehouses is completing the playground project using locally sourced natural materials wherever possible. Boulders, trees and other natural objects are being shaped and assembled to fit the plans, creating a unique outdoor experience for nature center visitors.

“That’s where the Ozark Natural Science Center really stepped up,” Reid Phifer, facilities and operations manager with the AGFC, said. “They’ve really helped with a lot of materials and this project couldn’t have been done as well without them.”

According to Phifer, one of the most interesting aspects of the materials being donated from ONSC is the wood being used for the project. 

“They had a lot of (eastern red cedar) trees that had to be removed, so this is an ideal way to repurpose that wood. Those unwanted trees have been cut, debarked and are being treated to withstand the elements. Pretty soon, they’ll be part of some child’s outdoors experience.”

Eastern red cedar is actually native to the United States, but is treated as an invasive species because of its tendency to take over a landscape, particularly in the absence of fire. Research has shown that red cedar is a dominant factor in displacing grassland birds and songbirds from native prairies, and many projects that benefit northern bobwhites and other ground-nesting birds involve the removal of red cedars through mechanical means and the suppression of such woody trees through prescribed fire. In addition to providing material for the construction, the partnership is offering a springboard for educators at the facility to tell the story of how prescribed fire is a critical component of habitat management for wildlife diversity.

“It really ties into the theme of the nature center and makes some great use of the surrounding landscape to offer a variety of activities for visitors,” Phifer said. “It’s the perfect complement to the outdoor quail enclosure we’ve built.”

The quail enclosure sits beside one of the center’s buildings and will house more than 20 northern bobwhites for educational purposes.

“It’s about 1,200 square feet and will stand 9 feet tall so the quail inside can stretch their wings and fly a little inside,” Phifer said. “The interior will have some overhead cover to protect the birds from harsh weather, but will be open enough for visitors to see the quail inside so teachers and center staff can get the attention of students for presentations. It’s also set near one of the center’s prairie restoration areas to incorporate that background for teachers to expand on their lesson.”

The J.B. and Johnelle Hunt Family Ozark Highlands Nature Center is a 32,000-square foot facility on 61 acres to learn about the natural world and outdoor recreation in Northwest Arkansas. It is the ninth nature center developed by the AGFC with the help of the Amendment 75 Conservation Sales Fund. Learn more about the Ozark Highlands Nature Center at www.agfc.com/ozarkhighlands or follow us on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/JBJHFOHNC.

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