by Caleb Talley
Each summer, millions of teenagers across the country take on a part-time job to learn some responsibility and earn a little gas money. Few, if any, turn those temporary gigs into lifelong careers. But that was exactly what Pat Fitts did when he became the new director of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission.
Fitts landed his first job with the agency he now leads when he was 17 years old, mowing levees at a fish hatchery in Lonoke. And though he was young, he knew right away that he wanted to stay with AGFC.
“I started out at a very early age – 17 years old,” says Fitts. “My job was to mow pond levees. At that time, that was the greatest job in the world. I was proud to have it, and I was going to be the best pond levee mower they had ever seen.
“It didn’t take long, interacting with the people at the hatchery and getting a view for what the agency does,” he adds. “I knew very quickly that this was the team I wanted to serve on.”
When he returned to high school, Fitts says he realized his summer vacation was better than everyone else’s. He even briefly considered not attending college, going straight back to work with AGFC when he graduated.
But he changed his mind, realizing that without a college education, he would be limited in all he could accomplish with the agency. With a promise from the AGFC not to forget him, he went to college at Arkansas Tech. There, he got an education and a fiancée.
After graduation, AGFC kept their promise and gave him a job as a fish biologist. He served in that role for nearly eight years before he started to hear another calling.
“I always felt a pull toward the enforcement side of this agency,” says Fitts. “We had a program that would allow employees outside of that division serve in a minimal capacity in enforcement, alongside a certified officer. I started to feel that this was where I was called to serve.”
So Fitts transferred and was assigned as an officer in Ashley County, where he served for 20 years. During that time, he continued to move through the ranks as doors began to open for him. “It wasn’t even by design,” he says. “It never once crossed my mind when I took a role to start thinking about going to the next level. But, these opportunities kept presenting themselves.”
He became a sergeant. Then a lieutenant. Then Fitts was promoted to captain of his district. And then major, then colonel.
“Each time I assumed one of these roles, I thought to myself, ‘I can’t believe this is happening.’ I never dreamed this,” Fitts says. “And it just kept going. Then, I was brought on as an assistant deputy director, over four or five divisions.” And in December, he was named director.
“I will say, I never in a million years would I have envisioned myself in the director’s seat. Not at all. I think if you had asked my friends and the people I grew up with if I’d be director 20 years ago, we would have all had a big heehaw over that.”
An Awesome Responsibility
In his new role, Fitts says he aims to steer the ship as best he can, giving back to an agency that has given so much to him, while also fulfilling his duty to the citizens of Arkansas.
“This agency helped raise me since I was a kid,” says Fitts. “I started when I was 17. Short of those four years in college, I’ve been here almost my entire life. I love this agency. I believe in what we’re doing here, and how we serve. I think we have the ultimate charge from the people of the state of Arkansas to protect something they hold very dear to them. Not to own it, not to control it, but to take care of it. That’s an awesome responsibility.”
Fitts says managing and protecting the state’s many natural resources is a major responsibility, one that he takes very seriously. Many Arkansans, he says, are relying on him to do it right.
“To be in charge of these resources is not something I take lightly,” says Fitts. “I take it very seriously. Our citizens work hard and they look forward to the weekends. They look forward to the opening day of deer season. They look forward to duck season. They want those resources to be there when they get to unplug from their job and enjoy. I do, too.”
An Economic & Social Driver in Arkansas
The great outdoors has a significant impact on the Arkansas economy. In 2016, the state’s GDP grew by 3.9 percent, leading the entire country. According to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, more than half of that growth was a direct result of Arkansas’ outdoor sector, including hunting and fishing.
Fitts recognizes how important these activities are to the state’s overall economy, as well as to the economic wellbeing in rural Arkansas.
“In rural Arkansas, hunting and fishing is king,” he says. “I have a friend who has a grocery store in Hamburg, and he’ll be the first to tell you. His biggest boom is the week leading up to deer season. He’s ready for the masses headed to deer camp. And he takes a lot of pride in supplying them with what they need… You go to Walmart the Friday night before gun deer season and you have five or six people working the sporting goods desk, selling licenses and the gadgets people use. It’s a fun time.”
And while hunting and fishing culture drives a large portion of the state’s economy, it also plays a role in building relationships with friends and family. “When you unplug from the world and pull up next to that campfire, tell some stories – some true and some not so true – that really recharges your batteries. That’s such a driver for me,” Fitts says.
It’s that element of relationship building that he hopes to preserve as the AGFC looks toward the future. Fitts knows participation in hunting and fishing is declining among the next generation of Arkansans, and he and his staff are working to reignite that flame.
“So much of the work we’re doing is good for today. But it’s also aimed at helping the next generation,” Fitts says. “I want to be able to hand to the next generation this rich heritage, these traditions. I want them to know what it’s all about. This next generation is a little bit harder to reach because there’s just a lot more competition for their attention. For our part, we need to be competitive for their participation.”
Developing a new generation of sportsmen is one of the biggest challenges the AGFC faces. Their focus, Fitts says, is an R3 effort: the recruitment, retention and reactivation of people who hunt and fish.
With fewer participants, there are fewer dollars flowing into the agency through license sales to be put towards conservation efforts. Fitts says it would be wrong for the agency to frame their outreach efforts around a financial need, but he recognizes the importance.
“There’s a nationwide decline in participation in hunting and fishing,” he says. “And it’s a danger here to frame this through the lens of license sales. That’s not at all what it’s about to me. If we do that, we’re making a huge mistake. I want participation. I want these activities to be available to the next generation. If we fail to do that, the decline will continue.
“But as that number shrinks,” he adds, “we do lose dollars, which means we lose the ability to conserve this landscape across the state of Arkansas.”
More Than Hunting and Fishing
In conserving the state’s resources, Fitts says his agency is looking to bridge the gap between those who hunt and fish and those who just enjoy spending time outdoors. Dollars collected from license sales are put toward conservation, but conservation-minded outdoor enthusiasts may never purchase a license.
“There’s a large component of our citizens who love the outdoors and conservation, but don’t hunt and fish,” says Fitts. “They would have no reason to buy a license, but they appreciate conservation. Whether it’s hiking, canoeing, paddle boarding, outdoor running, and you can go on down the list – we need to get the conversation going with that segment of the population. How can we better serve them?”
Fitts says the AGFC continues to add programing to reach non-consumptive outdoor enthusiasts, including bluebird box building and backyard butterfly initiatives. The agency has also made educational nature centers available to Arkansans and out-of-state visitors.
Goals: Customer Service and Animal Populations
Fitts says one of his goals for the new year, and as new director of AFGC, is to get his house in order. The first order of business is to improve customer service and the ways in which AGFC employees interact with the public.
“We’re going to explore ways to improve our customer service,” he says. “It may be me coming around the desk to shake your hand or making myself available to listen to what you have to say, engaging with the public. If you come here to buy a license, I want this to be a great experience for you. When you go to our WMAs or you encounter a wildlife officer in the field, I want that to be a good experience.”
A lot of effort is also being put into stabilizing the turkey population and reintroducing quail. And in doing so, Fitts says he wants AGFC to work closely with private landowners.
“We want to link arms with private landowners, because not only do we want to stabilize wild turkey populations on our public areas, we want to help landowners do the same on their properties,” says Fitts. “We want to do the same with quail.”
Reintroducing a quail population is personal for Fitts, who says he spent much of his youth hunting them with his grandfather and their bird dogs.
“When I was a young man, quail was plentiful,” he says. “If we don’t get them reintroduced into the landscape now, they’ll be gone. We’re going to have a whole generation that won’t even know what a quail is… It is a very high priority for this agency to get these populations improved across the state. But we are seeing some momentum being gained. We’re putting our money where our mouth is.”
For Fitts, the stakes are high but the mission is simple. “I don’t want anything to leave the state of Arkansas. I don’t want a generation of Arkansans to miss out.”