The Interpretive Perspective: Revealing Nature to Urbanites

Article follows the photos:
Pinnacle Mountain State Park
Pinnacle Mountain State Park
Star Gazing, Pinnacle Mountain State Park
Star Gazing, Pinnacle Mountain State Park
Pinnacle Mountain State Park
Pinnacle Mountain State Park
Pinnacle Mountain State Park
Pinnacle Mountain State Park
May 28, 2003


The Interpretive Perspective:
Revealing Nature to Urbanites

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By Jim Taylor, travel writer
Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism

LITTLE ROCK -- When the moon is full and the weather clear, the lunar light dominates Earth's night sky, rendering less visible the kindred planets and distant stars. Similarly, human beings tend to dominate their environment, subjugating the natural world around them and lessening their subsequent awareness of it.

James Mullins knows those phenomena well. For 17 years, he has been an interpreter at the 2,000-acre Pinnacle Mountain State Park on Little Rock's western edge. He schedules the park's popular Star Party astronomy programs on nights when the moon is absent or perhaps a thin crescent. And, since many of the park's patrons live in Arkansas's largest urban area, he tries to ensure the park's interpretive programs enhance their appreciation of nature, in part by covering a variety of topics.

"In an urban area, people's contact with the environment is much more limited than in a rural setting," Mullins said recently. "We have kids in the early grades who visit the park and it's the first time they've ever been out in the woods. It's rare for them to get around ground that is not mowed or paved, so getting out on a trail in natural woods is a real experience for them. Sometimes they're scared by it."

Mullins has been an Arkansas state parks employee for some 27 years. Following a brief stint at Daisy State Park on Lake Greeson in southwest Arkansas, he became superintendent of the Toltec Mounds Archeological State Park near Scott. The latter was a job he'd sought because of his academic background in archeology. By the mid-1980s, however, he was drawn to Pinnacle, a park he believed offered opportunities "for broader types of environmental education."

"One of the first programs I ever did with state parks was in astronomy," he said. "I've had a telescope, or at least access to one, since I was about 12. I've always had an interest in looking at the night sky and learning what it is I'm looking at, and I've always enjoyed explaining it to people."

"People who come out from an urban area are often amazed at how much you can see in a dark-sky environment," he continued. However, he said, "I've seen quite a bit disappear because of light pollution as Little Rock has expanded out this way and Maumelle and Conway have grown. It's affecting the amount of stars you can see, but we're still on the fringe of the growth so you can still see quite a bit more from here than, say, downtown Little Rock."

Mullins said there is much more to see in the night sky than stars, planets and the occasional meteor. By researching helpful web sites, he is able to learn about and then point out satellites and other manmade objects. "There're quite a few satellites that go over in the course of the evening, including U.S. military spy satellites," he said. "Rocket bodies left over from satellite launches also go over, and sometimes they're tumbling and making kind of an on-and-off repetitive motion that's interesting to see."

The park is scheduled to host three more star parties this year, on June 28, Aug. 30 and Sept. 27. Admission is free. Each party begins at 8 p.m. in the auditorium of the park's visitors center with a program lasting 30 to 45 minutes usually presented by staff from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock Planetarium. Then the session adjourns to the center's parking lot for viewing of the night sky with telescopes provided by the Central Arkansas Astronomical Society. Guests are welcome to bring their own telescopes, Mullins said, but they should be willing to share them.

The park will also host a "Star Gazing River Cruise" aboard a party barge on the Big Maumelle River on June 27, but the event -- the last of its type currently scheduled for this year -- is sold out. "On the cruises," Mullins said, "we tend to stay in one or two locations where we've got good viewing and we review the major constellations and the general layout of the sky. We point out major stars and the planets and we also watch for meteors and satellites." No telescopes are used on the cruises, he added, because the boat doesn't provide a stable platform for focusing.

Among the varied topics of other programs conducted by the park's interpreters -- Mullins is one of three -- are bats, snakes, bears, animal tracking, primitive weapons, mushrooms, backpacking, geology, and edible and medicinal plants. Interpretive nature cruises on the Big Maumelle, guided canoe float trips on the Little Maumelle River and barge cruises on nearby Lake Maumelle to observe wintering bald eagles are also popular events. While many events are free, cruise fees, payable in advance, are $5.75 plus tax for adults and $2.75 plus tax for children 12 and younger. Canoe rental is $35 plus tax per canoe.

On Oct. 18-19, the park will host its largest special event, the annual Rendezvous Fall Festival, which features an encampment of mountain men re-enactors, a Native American village with demonstrations of dancing and drumming, a pioneer village and arts and crafts vendors.

Pinnacle Mountain State Park has some 11 miles of trails, including two that ascend the 1,011-foot peak for which the park is named. The park is also the eastern terminus for the Ouachita National Recreation Trail, which stretches more than 220 miles through the Ouachita Mountains and ends at Oklahoma's Talimena State Park.

In the park's 80-acre Arkansas Arboretum, the paved, barrier-free and 0.6-mile Arkansas Trail travels through six areas where tree plantings correspond to Arkansas's six geographical regions. Along the way, interpretive panels with recorded messages and maps give visitors background on each of the regions while smaller signs identify and give information on specific tree species.

The park is located off Ark. 10 about seven miles west of Interstate 430 in northwest Little Rock. From Ark. 10, take Ark. 300 north about two miles to the park. A schedule of park events may be viewed on-line by visiting http://www.partnersforpinnacle.org/calendar.htm. Other park information is also available on that web site and at www.ArkansasStateParks.com. Park information can also be obtained by phoning (501) 868-5806.

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Submitted by the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism
One Capitol Mall, Little Rock, AR 72201, (501) 682-7606
E-mail: info@arkansas.com

May be used without permission. Credit line is appreciated:
"Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism"