Kings of conservation
“Do you hear that?” Mark Karnes asks. “That’s a bobwhite whistling.” We’re standing in a stand of pine trees near Gurdon in Clark County, and we’ve just been talking about quail restoration efforts. I hear the bobwhite again, and it makes me smile. I grew up hunting quail with my father in this county, and it’s nice to know there’s a sustained effort to bring them back. Also with us in the south Arkansas woods on this sweltering Thursday is Ross Whipple, one of the most successful bankers in this state’s history. Whipple has chaired the Arkadelphia-based Ross Foundation since the death of foundation founder Jane Ross in June 1999.
On Aug. 11 at the Statehouse Convention Center in downtown Little Rock, Karnes and Whipple will make up two-thirds of the 2017 induction class for the Arkansas Outdoor Hall of Fame. The third inductee will be a former governor and U.S. senator, David Pryor.
Karnes has managed Ross Foundation holdings for the past 35 years. It’s rare for two people from the same organization to be inducted into the Hall of Fame in the same year, but it’s hard to think of two men who have done more for wildlife conservation in Arkansas than Karnes and Whipple.
Karnes, a 60-year-old Monticello native, attended the University of Arkansas at Monticello. Rather than majoring in forestry as so many UAM students do, he was in the school’s wildlife and fisheries program. Karnes went to work in 1980 for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at DeGray Lake. He joined the Ross Foundation in 1982 and describes himself as “employee No. 1.”
“I can’t say I’m a trained forester,” Karnes says. “I’m a land manager.”
“Don’t let him fool you,” Whipple quickly interjects. “He knows more about forestry than anyone I know. Mark has helped me enormously through the years.”
Timber long has been king in south Arkansas. J.G. Clark, Jane Ross’ grandfather, began acquiring timberland in the 1880s. Ross’ father, Hugh Thomas Ross, further expanded the family timber holdings. Jane Ross, who was born at Arkadelphia in 1920, graduated from what’s now Henderson State University in 1942. She worked as a photographer for the U.S. Navy, served as a photographic technician for the Women’s Army Corps of the Army Air Force and then received a photography degree from the Rochester Institute of Technology in 1947. Ross opened a photography studio in Arkadelphia but gave it up soon after her father’s death in 1955. There was a timber empire to manage, after all.
In 1966, the Ross Foundation was established with the timber holdings of Ross’ mother, Esther Clark Ross, serving as the foundation’s primary asset. Jane Ross’ mother died the next year. Whipple, who’s now 66, began handling the foundation’s day-today operations in the late 1970s.
“She also gave me 500 acres to manage personally,” Whipple says of Ross. “It was a test. Everything with her was a test. She was testing me until the day she died.”
“Jane had tremendous faith in Ross,” Karnes says. “No matter what happened, she would say to me: ‘Ross can fix it.’”
Karnes and Whipple have expanded the foundation’s holdings from about 18,000 acres to 62,000 acres through the decades. If you throw in the privately owned land, the two men are responsible for almost 130,000 acres.
“We manage it like a mini national forest,” Whipple says. “I guess the best way to describe it is that this land is managed more softly than the typical commercial forest. I give J.G. Clark, H.T. Ross and Jane Ross a lot of credit for preserving their land at a time when other companies were cutting the timber in this part of the state and getting out. They were concerned with everything from plant communities to wildlife to water quality. Each time we’re faced with a decision, we try to reflect back on what they might have done. And once we acquire land, we don’t tend to get rid of it. We just have a different mentality from the average timber company.”
The land under management is in both the Gulf Coastal Plain (about 10,000 acres of that is bottomland hardwoods rather than pine) and the Ouachita Mountains. The foundation has entered into cooperative agreements with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission to operate the Big Timber Wildlife Management Area in the Gulf Coastal Plain and the Jack Mountain Wildlife Management Area in the Ouachita Mountains. Those agreements allow the public access to the land. The 28,000-acre Jack Mountain tract was acquired by the foundation from International Paper Co. in 1993.
“It was the wild, wild West up there,” Karnes says of Jack Mountain, which is between Arkadelphia and Hot Springs. “People were dumping stolen cars out of Hot Springs and all kinds of things. But the purchase allowed us to expand our scope. It brought a whole new level of diversity to our holdings. It was a marginal site for growing trees, but a great opportunity for managing the wildlife habitat. Jack Mountain has its own ecosystem.”
“What if someone other than us had bought it?” Whipple asks. “What would have happened then? We feel we’re protecting a special area.”
The foundation owns property in six counties. Whipple has personal holdings in nine counties.
“I figured I would be here no more than five years,” Karnes says. “I saw this as a good place to get started in the land management business. But then you establish personal bonds, and you realize you wouldn’t trade this for anything.”