Kings of con­ser­va­tion

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - VOICES - Rex Nel­son Se­nior Ed­i­tor Rex Nel­son’s col­umn ap­pears reg­u­larly in the Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette. He’s also the au­thor of the South­ern Fried blog at rexnel­son­south­ern­fried.com.

“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.”

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