When he finished college and put his tennis racquet away for good — except for the occasional recreational game — Pine Bluff native George Dunklin Jr. took up farming on the family’s vast acreage in Arkansas and Jefferson counties.
As he learned rice farming, he noticed the correlation between good conservation practices and another of his youthful passions: duck hunting.
It led Dunklin into a volunteer role with Ducks Unlimited that’s now approaching 30 years.
Starting on the local sponsor level in 1983, Dunklin found himself on the national board by 2003, and in May he will be just the second Arkansan to serve as Ducks Unlimited’s national president (Little Rock judge E.L McHaney was president in 1948). Dunklin will have two, one-year terms in the prestigious role.
His conservation efforts on his farm and his love for duck hunting also caught the eye of then-Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Through mutual Pine Bluff friends Jay Dickey and Kevin Crass, Huckabee and Dunklin hunted ducks and developed a friendship that led to Huckabee’s appointing Dunklin to the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission in 2005.
The past year, he served as chairman as his seven-year term drew to a close June 30.
So, with just a little time between posts, and while serving DU as a national vice president this year, Dunklin, 55, moves from one major outdoors entity leadership position to another.
“The mission of both organizations is conservation,” Dunklin said. “Education is a big issue in both organizations. Science-driven decisions are important to both organizations. There are a lot of similarities.
“Both of these are volunteer organizations. … I’m a rice farmer and a duck hunter, so it plays right into what I do every day. It’s just kind of a natural.”
Where the non-hunter may view an organization like Ducks Unlimited as a vehicle to provide hunters with enough wildlife to kill each year, Dunklin sees a bigger picture.
“It’s called Ducks Unlimited, but it’s really a wetland organization where we restore, protect and enhance wetlands,” he said. “Wetlands have lots of benefits — clean air, clean water, flood control. … We’ve seen destruction of natural wetlands and massive flooding as a result.The public is becoming more aware that we’ve probably overdone it when we’re clearing wetlands for farmlands. There has to be a balance between agriculture and conservation. They complement each other; they shouldn’t ever conflict or compete against each other.”
He said the AGFC and Ducks Unlimited look for balance between hunting and conserving resources.
“We’ve got to feed the world but we can’t destroy everything to do it,” Dunklin said.
Dunklin described his pending role as Ducks Unlimited president as being more of a “cheerleader,” recruiting volunteers, raising money, helping with DU’s public policy in Washington, D.C., and helping to educate lawmakers that saving wetlands can ultimately save the government tax dollars.
Trey Reid, a Game and Fish Commission field editor and Greenhead contributor, said the office viewed Dunklin as “very likable, very approachable” in his time as commissioner.
“I want to say he’s Gentleman George,” Reid said. “He’s non-confrontational, and he really seemed to respect the opinions and input of the employees, especially the scientists working in wildlife management and fisheries.”
Reid also noted that Dunklin opens his private 5 Oaks Duck Lodge to the state DU Greenwing Camp program for youth, where volunteers and DU and Game and Fish Commission staff members instruct youngsters on wildlife and habitat.
“He does that because he cares,” Reid said. “He’s passionate about ducks, about youth and conservation, and bringing that generation along to be hunters and conservationists in the future.”
The 5 Oaks Lodge is across the highway from Dunklin’s home in Arkansas County, between Stuttgart and DeWitt. He and his sister, Deborah Dunklin Tipton, own the lodge.
It came into their hands when the Memphis Furniture Co. was closing in 1983 and was one of the first assets to be sold off; the company leased the land from the Dunklin family, so they bought the complex.
“It’s done fantastic, not financially as much as just meeting incredible people from across this country that have the same passion as I do,” Dunklin said. “And the same desires I seek, enjoying the beauty of waterfowl.”
Dunklin was 8 when he was first exposed to ducks by his father, George Dunklin Sr., and he shot his first gun at age 10.
“When I was 16 and able to drive, I really did a lot of hunting,” he said.
He also played a ton of tennis. The love of the sport also stemmed from his father, who was one of the more instrumental leaders in the game in Arkansas. George Dunklin Sr., who died in 2007 (followed by Dunklin’s mother 10 days later), was an inductee in the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame and he helped bring a variety of national stars to Arkansas for exhibitions.
George Sr. was also a major contributor to Ducks Unlimited throughout his life.
George Jr. was among the top players when youth tennis was at its zenith in Arkansas, and he would go on to play collegiately at Memphis. Working at the Memphis Racquet Club, he met his wife, Livia. They have three grown daughters.
More Than Ducks
Dunklin admittedly was known around the AGFC as the “duck guy” during his term, and a recent newspaper headline referred to him as “waterfowl guy.” But the Commission opened his eyes to much more, he said.
“We have a tremendous elk population, trout hatcheries, the warm [water] fisheries. The deer and turkey population. The black bear. Paddlefish,” Dunklin said. “I mean, it’s incredible the amount of natural resources we have in this state for our constituents, whether hunters or just people who love wildlife.”
He’s proud of helping develop a model program for restoring wetlands in the Bayou Meto Wildlife Management Area. In cooperation with DU and the federal government’s North American Wetlands Conservation Act, the state put up 10 cents to every matching federal dollar for the restoration of Hollowell Reservoir and the Wrape Plantation.
The emphasis is on getting food to the ducks during their migration through Arkansas. Changes in the state’s rice farming over the years have left little waste grain for ducks when they migrate.
“We’re tying to emphasize on our public areas, our critical rest areas, for those birds to have those feeding stations, those filling stations of carbohydrates,” Dunklin said.
“Our wildlife management areas are some of the best land in the state,” Dunklin said. “We have a tremendous management staff and employee base that does a magnificent job of managing these properties to the best of their abilities with what they have to work with.”
Hunters, Dunklin notes, help pay the freight with duck stamp and license purchases.
“Without the hunter, ironically enough, the species could just disappear off the face of the planet,” Dunklin said. “That’s a hard concept for the non-hunter to grasp.”
Maintaining habitat will be key to avoiding that disaster, he said.
“If you don’t have habitat here in the winter grounds and in the breeding grounds, it’s all over,” Dunklin said. “You’ve seen that with other species, such as quail. We’ve lost habitat and we’ve lost quail. … Now, there’s not any [in Arkansas], no natural coveys. We don’t ever want to see ducks happen that way, and it can. Conservation is conservation, whether it’s ducks or elk or deer or whatever. It’s all the same principle, it’s all about habitat.”
With Gentleman George preaching from the pulpit of the DU presidency for 2013-15, the waterfowl, hunters and conservationists all appear to be safe for a while.
“DU will be in capable hands with George at the helm,” Reid said.