The Nature Center at Chaffee Crossing
The Arkansas River Valley Nature Center was the first public amenity at Chaffee Crossing, support by a 1/8 cent sales tax passed in 1996 by Arkansas voters.
All of us are owners of 170 acres of some of the most beautiful property in all of Chaffee Crossing – the Janet Huckabee River Valley Nature Center on the shore of Wells Lake.
“Nature Center people” are very active and early adopters of the outdoors culture of Chaffee Crossing. They include its staff, volunteers and many, many regular visitors of all ages.
Opened in August 2006, this educational, interpretive nature center is operated as part of the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission as part of its mission to manage the state’s fish and wildlife and provide an enjoyable experience that allows visitors to observe, learn about and appreciate its living creatures and natural landscape. Admission is free and the center is open seven days a week. It is easily accessible to mobility-impaired visitors.
Kelly Mulvihill leads the staff of the center. Here since its planning, Kelly has a lengthy perspective on its effect on its surrounding community. A local group formed when the game and fish commission promised to build four nature centers in the state, she said, and our supporters “won” for Fort Smith. A steering committee was created to give input about what the center should become, as its parent agency was new to the “park” business.
“Their priority was education – to have school groups use the center for field trips and as an outdoor classroom,” she recalled of the steering committee. Their “culture” focused on education. That is why classrooms, interactive exhibits about this region’s typical wildlife and natural environment of woods and water were installed. The staff created educational programs with local teachers designed to match the curriculum needs of area schools.
“The program we’re most proud of is for Fort Smith Public Schools’ 5th grade. All 5th-graders put on chest waders, do seining for aquatic life and look at the health of the lake by scientific method,” she said. They also hike and study the differences in aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. It’s a real part of their curriculum,” she explained.
Other school systems of the region participate in similar science programs and fun field trips.
Visitors walk for exercise or recreation, fish at Wells Lake or bird-watch. A popular “herps” presentation teaches with live, native snakes and turtles. Program schedules are always found in this magazine’s calender. Families are devoted visitors, enjoying free use of canoes and kayaks, archery and shooting range programs, fishing and picnics. Grandparents and grandkids are often seen enjoying the center together.
All trails at Chaffee Crossing lead to this popular, loved center which belongs to everyone.
This article appears in the September 2017 issue of Entertainment Fort Smith Magazine.