Brian Braudis, manager of Big Lake National Wildlife Refuge, was pleased with the response and interest shared by over 30 area residents attending an organizational meeting initiating a "Friends of Big Lake" group. The meeting was held Thursday evening at the Refuge Headquarters. Several members of the Northeast Arkansas Audubon Society, representatives of Northeast Arkansas Ducks Unlimited and the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism office at Batesville, were present along with Manila Mayor Melvin Browning, Mississippi County Judge Steve McGuire, Blytheville Mayor Barrett Harrison, and others that share an interest in Big Lake and its future.
Braudis explained that there are no other "Friends" group in Arkansas.
Braudis informed those attending that there are 540 National wildlife refuges with only 200 existing Friends' groups to support those refuges. Braudis talked about the important role of a Friends Group and the positive effects it can have at Big Lake. Projects that have been undertaken and funded by other Friends group include the construction of a $3 million environmental education center in Florida and the restoration of Mount Rushmore at a cost of $12 million. All of that money, he said, was raised by Friends groups in those areas.
"The reason I want to put a Friends Group together is to connect this refuge to the community. All projects undertaken by the Friends group must be compatible with wildlife and conservation efforts, "Braudis said. "This is a wildlife refuge and 50 years from now this will still be a refuge. Whatever you do, it is going to be permanent."
Braudis said there is a National Friends Conference in Washington, D.C. in February and Melvin Browning plans to attend the meeting representing Big Lake. The meeting will offer information that will be helpful to the new group of Big Lake Friends.
At one time, Big Lake had a tour boat that gave residents the opportunity to go out and view Big Lake and its beauty. Braudis talked about bringing the tour boat back.
"We can take people out there and show them what is here," Braudis said. "There is no camping on the refuge, but managers can write special permits for groups such as Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts as long as it does not interfere with the wildlife."
He said he would like to see the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and other young organizations be able to enjoy Big Lake and learn from it.
There is a lot of history involved in Big Lake. Guests said that he remembers hearing of a gun boat that was sunk in the area and that a Civil War encampment was once on Gun Island.
The group talked about the Bald Eagles at the Lake and other species in the area. Braudis said from 7:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. one day while out, they saw 47 species.
"We have more than ducks and fish out here," he said. "I've talked to members of the Audubon Society about doing a workshop on introductory to bird watching here. I want the Audubon group to have a voice in the Friends group."
The group talked about an observation tower, a bike trail, youth fishing tournaments, the tour boat, a wildlife festival, the history of the area, and other projects to bring the "communities" and Big Lake together.
Braudis said that if anyone is interested in becoming certified in environmental education that would be great and could be arranged.
"The Fish and Wildlife Service back us. There are matching grants available for good projects. We have a lot of potential here and we need to get started," Braudis said.
He said the first step is getting a mission statement and a logo. Meetings will be set once a month.
When asked how many board members are needed, Braudis said he would take all of the help he could get.
On March 14, 2003, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will celebrate its Centennial. Braudis suggested the boat tours and a festival should be organized in time for that celebration.
"This refuge lacks public use," he said. "We could use more of it."
For information on the Friends of Big Lake contact Braudis at (870) 564-2502.