The Felsenthal National Wildlife Refuge is one of over 500 National Wildlife Refuges (NWR) spread across the U.S. Though there are many, refuges have a reputation as America’s best kept secret.
“I think the biggest misunderstood concept is that they even exist,” said Bernie Petersen, Project Leader of the South Arkansas Refuge Complex, which includes the Felsenthal, Pond Creek, and Overflow National Wildlife Refuges. “People know all about National Parks but don't seem to grasp the understanding that we also have a National Wildlife Refuge System.”
Refuges belong to the people and are entrusted to those who work for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to manage for the benefit of wildlife. “No other nation has a system that is dedicated to this kind of action and is still available for the public to use and enjoy,” said Petersen.
Felsenthal NWR is located around five miles west of Crossett. Established in 1975, it is crisscrossed by a system of lakes, rivers, creeks, bayous and sloughs. These water resources are dominated by the Ouachita and Saline Rivers and the Felsenthal Pool.
Primarily the refuge was established for wintering waterfowl habitat, endangered species, and outdoor recreation. But wildlife is key. “Our priority mission above all else is putting the needs of wildlife first, not people, and that may be some of the reason why we are not as well known,” said Petersen.
However, there is plenty for visitors to do there. Fishing is available year round and sport fishing is a top activity. Hunting is also a draw and is managed via quota hunts of white-tailed deer and turkey.
“National Wildlife Refuges are wild places and sometimes that doesn’t always attract the masses,” said Amanda Wilkinson, Visitor Service Specialist for the South Arkansas Refuge Complex. “We are taking a great initiative to try and change that. We are trying to connect people to nature and appeal to not only the hunters and fishermen but also the birdwatchers, wildlife enthusiasts, kayakers, hikers, etc…”
Felsenthal NWR lies within the Mississippi Flyway so the potential for birding is big. Hundreds of species of birds are known to nest in the area. One famous one is the endangered Red-cockaded woodpecker and the refuge has the highest density of this species in the state.
According to Petersen, the diversity of natural resources here also stands out. “We have rivers, bottomland hardwoods, upland pines and hardwoods, endangered species, prairies, just an incredible array of natural resources all on one large 65,000 acre refuge,” he said. “We are a major stop over point for waterfowl during the fall and spring migration and a major stop over for neotropical migrants, so much so that we have been named an Important Bird Area by Arkansas Audubon.”
Petersen said there are also actions underway to improve the refuge. “We are looking at trying to improve the timber resources on the refuge by supervising the way we manage the water for this area,” he said. “We want to ensure the beautiful and bountiful resources we see here today will be here for our children’s children to enjoy. We have also really stepped up our environmental education effort to get our youth more involved with outdoor activities. We are also always looking at ways to improve access for our visitors.”
“This is a place set aside for wildlife, we invite you to come explore, enjoy and snoop around all you like,” Petersen continued. “This refuge is your refuge, as it is all of America’s refuge. Get involved with it, help maintain it and definitely enjoy it.”
Visitor numbers to the refuge ring in at around 400,000 per year. If you are interested in checking out Felsenthal, there are primitive camping areas (no facilities) available on site. Refuge Access permits are required for all users and Quota Hunt permits are also required. For news and updates, tune your radio to 1620 AM or follow the refuge on Facebook at South Arkansas Refuge Complex. For more details visit www.fws.gov/felsenthal/ or call 870-364-3167. A visitor center is also located at the South Arkansas Refuge Complex at 5531 Highway 82 West in Crossett.
There are nine other NWR’s in Arkansas. These include Bald Knob NWF in Bald Knob; Big Lake NWR in Manila; Cache River NWR in Augusta; Holla Bend NWR in Dardanelle; Logan Cave NWR in Siloam Springs; Overflow NWR in Wilmot; Pond Creek NWR in DeQueen; Wapanocca NWR in Turrell and the White River NWR in DeWitt.