It’s amazing what you can learn if you listen. For George Dunklin Jr., the many drives from his childhood home in Pine Bluff to family hunting land around Stuttgart and back again with his father proved that.
“He talked about the importance of stewardship,” Dunklin said. “We don’t really own this land — we’re just caretakers for a short time. I never understood until later on in life what an impact that had on me.”
In fact, those talks about the land and its fragile components led Dunklin, with no previous experience, to want to become a farmer after he graduated Memphis State University, now known as the University of Memphis.
“I didn’t grow up on the farm, I’d only gone over to our farms to duck hunt or to see the crops with my mother and father,” he said. “But I wanted to go back after I graduated college just to learn what we had and try to learn a little bit of the business. What I ended up doing was falling in love with the dirt.”
In 1980, Dunklin dug into his new vocation managing one of the family’s Arkansas County farms. The ride was not always smooth, but he persevered.
“The first several years of my career were spent learning,” he said. “I got with one of our tenants to learn how to drive a tractor and plant a crop and manage water. I also learned how to develop some of our properties for duck hunting.
“The most important thing is how you move water both on and off. Irrigation and drainage and how that all worked with rice and it also works with the ducks. So, just learning how to marry those two together.”
During Dunklin’s learning process, his dad’s wisdom came into focus: Wear out the land or squander the water and you affect habitat until the ducks disappear, along with millions of dollars to the local economy, to say nothing of the sport generations of hunters enjoy.
Dunklin’s purpose in life suddenly rang as clear as the crack of a shotgun over a frosty November bayou, solidified with the founding of the legendary Five Oaks Hunting Lodge. Dunklin scooped up the lodge after a Memphis furniture manufacturer who had been leasing a duck camp on family ground fell on hard times.
“I kind of backed into the duck hunting business when I bought that lodge on the edge of our property,” he said. “I just couldn’t see someone else owning something like that.”
His conservation activity on his own lands foreshadowed his later leadership roles in Ducks Unlimited and other organizations dedicated to shooting sports and habitat. As Dunklin told writer Rex Nelson in 2012, he’d planted thousands of hardwood trees on his farm through the years, an investment that, like its impact on the environment, he hoped would pay off for many future generations.
“We’ll keep [planting trees] for the rest of my days,” he said. “I won’t live to see some of these trees mature, but I really enjoy watching them grow from one year to the next. We want lots of diversity.”
As his star was rising in DU – Dunklin is a member since 1983 and joined the board of directors in 2003 – his hunting buddy Gov. Mike Huckabee appointed him to a seven-year term as commissioner to the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission in 2005. During those years, Dunklin was instrumental in funding improvements to numerous habitat management areas. This included mulching projects designed to make land more attractive for migrating waterfowl and spending millions to improve drainage systems.
When Dunklin was named 2009 Budweiser Conservationist of the Year, sponsored by Budweiser and the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation, the prize came with a $50,000 grant. Predictably, he handed it over to habitat improvement projects.
\Just as his stint with the commission ended, DU tagged him for their president in 2013, making him the second Arkansan to hold the office and the first in 66 years. His goals were simple: Bolster college chapters and help them bridge activism into their local communities after graduation, and keep his foot on the gas of DU’s conservation efforts which as of Jan. 1, 2016, have influenced or preserved 141 million acres of wetlands in North America.
In 2015, Dunklin became DU board chairman, the same year he was inducted into AGFF’s Outdoor Hall of Fame. But for all the accolades he’s received and all the change he has witnessed, his mission and challenge for private and public entities and individuals with a love for duck hunting remain the same.
“Our agricultural landscape has changed dramatically since I grew up,” Dunklin said. “We just don’t have the waste grains in rice fields that we used to. So we’ve got to make sure we manage what we’ve got left to the maximum.”