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celebrating a decade of crowley's ridge nature center
Story by Audrey Hanes; photography by Amy Long

Located on the southern boundary of Craighead Forest Park, Forrest L. Wood Crowley’s Ridge Nature Center offers those in Jonesboro and Northeast Arkansas the opportunity to learn about and grow to appreciate the area’s natural resources, plants and wildlife. The center will unveil several new projects later this month as it celebrates its 10th anniversary.

The director of the nature center, Shaun Merrell, is an experience outdoorsman who cares for the facility’s education animals and develops new and exciting programs to get people of all ages interested in the outdoors.

“My love for conservation and the pursuit of anything outdoors began at an early age,” said Merrell of growing up exploring the outdoors with his parents. “No matter if it walks, crawls, flies or swims, I’m always up for any hunting or fishing trip.” It’s an appreciation he shares with his wife, Yalanda, and son, Hunter, a freshman at Arkansas State University who plans on pursuing a career in the outdoor field as a wildlife biologist or wildlife educator.

“When we’re not working, a lot of our family time is spent kayak fishing on creeks and rivers in the hills from early spring through late fall,” says Merrell. “Though she’s not much of a hunter, my wife is quite the small mouth fisherman. She goes on several of our hunting trips where she relaxes and enjoys the outdoors while we’re pursuing whatever game species is in-season
from dawn until dark. Most of the main courses from our meals at home consist of wild game that we’ve harvested while hunting and fishing. It just doesn’t get any better than that.”

The Crowley’s Ridge Nature Center director says that he feels blessed to have found a career that focuses on his passion for the outdoors. He uses his past experience in the wildlife management division of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and passion for adventures and the outdoors to create a unique experience for visitors to the 17,033-square-foot, three-story facility and its
surrounding grounds, which include a 5.5-acre prairie, a 2.5-acre pond and 100 acres of woodlands.

“Through programs, workshops and trainings, all of the staff here at the nature center do their best to educate our visitors and give them the tools to be successful in their outdoor pursuits,” said Merrell. “… We’re so fortunate to live in a state that offers such diverse outdoor opportunities. Whether you enjoy fishing in a cypress swamp within the Delta region, casting a line in a coldwater
stream in the Ozarks, hiking to waterfalls in the Ouachita Mountains or duck hunting in bottomland forests, you can find it here in Arkansas.

“It’s exciting to educate others about these opportunities, as well as train them in the various skills that will help them be successful in their outdoor pursuits through the workshops and programs we offer.”

Crowley’s Ridge Nature Center was the second of four nature centers built by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, the other three being in Pine Bluff, Fort Smith and Little Rock. “Nature centers were still fairly new to the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission when we opened in August of 2004,” said Merrell. “… The success throughout all of the state’s nature centers is attributed to the mission of our agency combined with becoming more in tune with our visitors’ needs.

“During the past 10 years, we’ve seen our visitor base grow in
numbers, especially when it comes to our programs. We hope we’ve
fine-tuned the element to successful programming that not only
educates the participant, but that’s entertaining, as well.”

Merrell says that many people don’t realize that admission and self-guided tours to the facility, as well as participation in the center’s many activities, are all free of charge. Crowley’s Ridge Nature Center is entirely funded through the state’s conservation sales tax, allowing the facility to provide outdoor activities, programs, trainings and crafts year-round. The grounds also offer a lengthy trail system that is utilized for hiking, walking and running through the woods.

In preparation for the 10th anniversary of Crowley’s Ridge Nature Center, Merrell and his staff have been working on multiple renovation projects and new exhibits for the public to enjoy. Several of the new projects will debut at the center’s upcoming 10-year anniversary event on Aug. 23.

“One of those projects will be a new film about the Arkansas outdoors, which includes a few more special effects than the film we currently have," said Merrell. “Our anniversary event will feature our new exhibits, wildlife programs, nature crafts, outdoor games and inflatables for the kids, hot dogs, chips … and much more. Plan to come early if you can. We’ll be open our regular
hours from 8:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m.”

Merrell encourages those who have not visited the nature center recently to come enjoy the additional and upgraded exhibits and structures. He and his staff plan to continue to develop and present new outdoor programming and workshops throughout the year, as well.“From all of us here at the nature center, we would like to say ‘thank you’ to all of our visitors from around Northeast Arkansas and abroad, for supporting us during the last 10 years by choosing to visit the nature center and attending our programs and events,”
said Merrell. “Your interest in the outdoors is why we do what we do and what keeps us trying harder to pass on the passion we have for the great outdoors of Arkansas.”

For more information about Forrest L. Wood Crowley’s Ridge Nature Center, located at 600 E. Lawson Road, call 933-6787 or visit crowleysridge.org.