A Christmas gift that makes a lasting contribution

by Jan Spann

Holiday gifts can often be a challenge. What do you bring to someone who needs nothing or for whom you’ve exhausted the wish list?

Sometimes you might even want to do something different to astound the recipient, to show you still have a few surprises, even in the longest of relationships.

This Christmas list offers an idea that is local and living, guaranteed to be a gift that keeps on giving long after the holiday decorations are boxed up and stored. Thanks to the generosity of those who came before us, you have an option in the 501 area to give back to worthy programs and offer a gift of gracious generosity.

Located on the western end of Greers Ferry Lake, South Fork Nature Center is the dream project of two men from different backgrounds with a similar appreciation of nature. Verne Rogers grew up in Texas and joined the Navy during WWII, then earned an MBA from the University of Texas, followed by a career with Exxon.

Victor Gates’ early life and education were also in southwest Texas, earning his MBA at Texas A&M after his naval service in WWII.

His career tracked from Houston, where he helped design I-45 before moving to New York City, where he worked for the city Park Service. Gates’ connection to Arkansas came from his great-grandparents, who homesteaded acreage near Snowball (Searcy County).

Whether the two men met during their naval careers or if their paths crossed at another time, this friendship not only connected them to an ideal location for retirement but also afforded a lasting legacy for the area. Gates and Rogers bought 75 acres of what would become waterfront property upon the completion of Greers Ferry Dam in 1963. Their retirement home on the peninsula was completed in 1989, and the two men indulged in their hobbies of gardening, fishing and just enjoying nature.

When Verne died in 1999, Victor established the Gates-Rogers Foundation to create the nature center that the two friends had envisioned. Upon Victor’s death in 2004, the Foundation was endowed through their estates, and 65 acres was deeded as the South Fork Nature Center, ensuring that the peninsula’s natural habitat would be preserved for future generations to appreciate.

Growing up during the Great Depression, these two men recognized the value of giving life to dreams, and their dreams continue to grow at South Fork. The nature center has an educational mission, with field trips offered to schools and other organizations. Many of the center’s volunteer docents are former teachers who provide hands-on experiences for kids of all ages.

Board President Janet Miron’s career expertise as a microbiologist is just one reason she’s passionate about the learning opportunities at the center. She and Victor were friends with a mutual affinity for nature in its most pristine form.

“Victor and Verne provided a wonderful resource with these 65 acres, and with it comes an environmental responsibility to utilize the land as a learning tool,” Janet said. “In the last few years, we hired botanists Theo Witsell and Brent Baker of the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission to identify the 770-plus species of flora and habitat assessment on the property. Thanks to their expertise, we now have an herbarium that includes all of the flora found onsite.”

To schedule a time to view the herbarium at the Gates-Rogers Foundation, 290 Main Street, Clinton, call 501.745.6444.

“We are also working with the Nature Conservancy to provide an education component for its properties in the region,” Miron said. “In spring 2017, the Foothills Master Naturalists will begin training new members onsite and providing maintenance on the two miles of trails on the peninsula.”

South Fork offers an outdoor classroom, and schools like Nemo Vista, South Side, Rose Bud and Clinton make use of science-based lessons that support state framework goals. Cross-curricula activities bring textbooks to life as docent educators challenge students to identify biology and botany in real world examples.

The lasting lesson these young minds learn is that wildlife areas are important to our planet — and to our humanity. These students will become parents and community leaders who will one day pass these values onto future generations.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department has provided fauna signage for the trails. Partnerships provide much needed support for the volunteer-driven nature center. The federal department also initiated a grant for glade restoration and monarch habitat restoration.

Last summer, volunteers planted 500 milkweed plants, the host plant for the Monarch caterpillar. Monarch butterflies are pollinators with the longest migration arc, traveling from Canada and U.S. northern states to Mexico, with Arkansas along that trajectory. Large nature expanses like South Fork that include host plants help the butterflies recognize these safe havens.

In the works is a pavilion, which will allow field trip groups to find shelter during inclement weather. Restrooms and a water line would improve the guest experience.

If you have someone on your Christmas list that loves nature, you have several options to connect them with programs on the South Fork wish list. The website, southforknaturecenter.org, has a PayPal link as well as options for credit cards and checks. A tax-deductible gift in honor or memory of someone will include an acknowledgement note to the individual or family. 

Acclaimed wildlife conservationist Aldo Leopold remarked: “Land is not merely soil; it is a fountain of energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plants and animals. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”

Central Arkansas is fortunate that Victor and Verne respected and loved their little piece of land so much to share it with all of those in the 501 and beyond.


A Conway resident, Jan Spann has been gardening for 20-plus years and has been involved with the Faulkner County Master Gardeners for 11 years. She and her husband, Randy, have five children and eight grandchildren.