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December 19, 2011

Into the Wildwood: Mark and Cindy Harbour Keep Watch Over Arkansas Wildlife Land Trust Properties

Couple volunteers to protect the land they love

All Animals magazine

  • Mike Brown

by Ruthanne Johnson

When Arkansans Mark and Cindy Harbour retired from long Air Force careers—he as a lawyer and she an accountant—they did what any nature lovers would do after years of being cooped up in an office. They traded in their work garb for hiking gear, slathered on insect repellent, and headed into the northern Arkansas wilderness to hike the abundant trails and canoe at least some of the state’s thousands of stream miles.

“Being in the outdoors is a way to recharge your battery,” says Mark, who grew up wandering the creeks of the Ozarks. His wife grew up in Montana, hiking trout streams alongside her father.

Soon it seemed the Harbours had explored every trail near their Fairfield Bay home. Then in 2000, they found a possible new hiking spot about 20 miles away. A sign designated the land as protected by the Humane Society Wildlife Land Trust: no hunting or trapping allowed. Wondering if they could hike the property, Mark called the land trust and spoke to director of stewardship Jim Reed. The conversation led to an invitation for the Harbours to become volunteer monitors of a 114-acre sanctuary in northeast Arkansas, about 120 miles north of their home.

Once trained, the Harbours dove enthusiastically into their new job: protecting wildlife from poachers and trespassers. The Wildwood Wildlife Sanctuary would provide new wilderness to explore—an area rich with mature timber, cedar thickets, and a pond.

They began traveling to the property about four times a year, making each visit a mini-adventure with flea market and antique shop stops along the way. Once on site, blanketed by supreme quiet and the smell of cedar, they walk the property looking for evidence of human intruders but usually finding only wildlife signs—wild turkey scratches and feather caches, white-tailed deer rubbings on trees, and lots of raccoon, skunk, and opossum tracks at the pond’s edge. In the water, Mark often sees box turtles, salamanders, and leopard frogs: “really beautiful olive green frogs with dark spots and bright green stripes who make a chirping sound when they are hopping away from you.”

By 2003,  Mark had started a second career as a science teacher, and Cindy as a police officer. But they readily accepted Reed’s offer to take a newly available position monitoring the site they’d discovered in 2000: the 1,241-acre Meadowcreek Wildlife Sanctuary. Featuring oak and pine forest, bluffs, creeks, a river, and waterfalls, Meadowcreek is not without human intrusion, mainly because of a county road running through the property.  

Although Mark has never encountered poachers, he often picks up trash and confronts people four-wheeling off-road, a practice that damages habitat for ground-nesting birds such as quails, wild turkeys, and sandpipers. The Harbours visit Meadowcreek every month, walking about one-fifth of the property and looking for signs of poaching such as deer stands and human tracks. They’ve encountered an abundance of wildlife: a 6-foot rat snake, Cooper’s and red-tailed hawks, blue herons, egrets, and bats. There are beaver ponds and signs of a resident black bear, plus the smell of honeysuckle and other native plants. But the couple’s favorite spot is atop the bluffs for lunch. “You can just see forever. You are up above the eagles and hawks and buzzards,” Mark says.

For 2009, the land trust named the Harbours volunteer monitors of the year. “We never expected anything like that,” says Mark. “We just sort of had fun.”

Read more from this issue of All Animals »

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