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Wright Lindsey Jennings


WLJ Partner T.J. Lawhon serves on the Arkansas Game and Fish Foundation Board and chaired the 2023 Arkansas Outdoor Hall of Fame Banquet.

This article was published by Arkansas Money & Politics News Online, Aug. 23, 2023; written by Dwain Hebda.

“I can remember the earliest opportunities I had in the outdoors was when I was in kindergarten or first grade. I remember my dad would come get me out of school and we would duck hunt in the afternoons,” T.J. said. “We also grew up on the water, floating Arkansas rivers, canoe trips, lake trips to various lakes in the state, camping outdoors. Those were my early experiences that I had connecting with the outdoors.”

If you went into a lab to create the prototypical Arkansas couple, you’d probably come out with something very close to T.J. and Mandy Lawhon. The Little Rock husband-wife duo with the small-town roots — both were born and raised in McCrory — have all the attributes of what makes Arkansans special, including devotion to family and a love of the outdoors.

“From my perspective, coming from the small farming/hunting community that we did, you didn’t really have any other option but to be introduced to the outdoors at an early age, whether it was by your family members or you or your neighbor. That’s what you knew growing up in McCrory,” said Mandy. “My dad and I were big fishing buddies. He would take me out early mornings and hot days to go fishing. That was probably my earliest memory, and I absolutely loved the outdoors and the beauty of it. I felt there was just a peacefulness about it, being on the water, everything quiet.”

Little wonder, then, that the couple’s considerable passion for wild spaces would lead them to chair this year’s Arkansas Game and Fish Foundation Arkansas Outdoor Hall of Fame Banquet. The event, slated for Aug. 26, celebrates Arkansas’ outdoor culture and the people who have devoted their lives to preserving and enhancing the state’s water, woods and habitat for all.

The organization’s main annual fundraiser, the banquet attracts 1,600 attendees to the Statehouse Convention Center to salute the year’s inductees to the AGFF Arkansas Outdoor Hall of Fame. Proceeds go to AGFF programs and support the work of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, of which the foundation is the fundraising adjunct.

“In 2012, I was asked to join the Game and Fish Foundation board, and shortly thereafter they asked me to join the foundation’s executive committee,” T.J. said. “That’s when I started to develop an appreciation for how the foundation works and what they do and all the various programs that they juggle and the financial requirements it takes to run an organization like that. That’s what led us to eventually agree to help chair the banquet.”

The organization is near and dear to the Lawhons’ hearts for the work that it does to educate and promote outdoor activities for youth, support game wardens and help fund the state’s nature centers, which welcome hundreds of thousands of visitors every year.

“One of the things I did when I was in college at Harding University, I was appointed to a position at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at the Cache River Refuge in Little Dixie,” Mandy said. “I was around the game wardens, the federal officers, the conservationists that came through that organization, and it really helped me understand what conservation was and why we needed it. That became a big thing for me, and I wanted to share that with our kids.”

“With the family side of it, both Mandy and I have involved our kids in the outdoors early,” T.J. said. “We enjoy the same type of activities that I had experienced as a kid out on the water, lakes and rivers. Hunting is our primary passion; I took the kids hunting as early as they were willing to go with me in the mornings to hunt. We want to see that continue for the next generation of families all across Arkansas.”

In addition to inducting this year’s honorees — comprised of Jim Ronquest of Stuttgart; Tom Foti of Little Rock; Ronnie Ritter of Hot Springs; Bob Barringer of Little Rock; Dale Morrell and family of Alma; and Larry and Brenda Potterfield of Columbia, Mo. — the event offers food, networking and an extensive array of auction items that range from wildlife art to boats to exotic vacations.

“I think everyone is always really excited about the auctions that happen the night of,” Mandy said. “This year, Sissy’s Log Cabin will be our presenting sponsor, and we’re looking forward to some really exciting auction items that will be coming in. We’ve tried to add more items for the ladies; probably four years ago, I was like, ‘OK guys, we’ve got to do something to pull in more women.’ So, we’ve really tried to gather auction items that gear more towards them as well as stuff for the guys.

“There’s always great food, great fellowship. It’s just really fun to see people come together and get excited about the next few months that’ll be heading right into hunting season.”

Being called The Natural State isn’t just a random slogan, it’s a major component of the state’s brand identity. According to the 2023 AGFF Annual Report, outdoor recreation supports 96,000 jobs in Arkansas and generates $9 billion in annual economic benefit through consumer spending. Once overwhelmingly centered in hunting, fishing and camping, the economic model has shifted in recent years to include the rapid growth of non-consumptive activities such as mountain biking, hiking and paddling on the state’s waterways.

Even the pandemic didn’t slow the run to the outdoors much; if anything, it provided an escape from sheltering in place and allowed people to recreate while maintaining safe distance to curb the spread of COVID, which they did in droves.

Maintaining habitat, expanding land holdings and improving access to wild spaces has always been an expensive proposition for the commission, a state agency that can trace its roots back to 1915. As a function of state government, the commission is prohibited from asking for donations or directly raising funds to augment annual appropriations. This gave birth to the foundation in 1982 and today, the foundation not only supports the commission’s work, but also supports its own slate of programs targeting specific segments of the outdoor demographic.

“The primary focus of the foundation is on conservation and education for Arkansans,” T.J. said. “The various programs and opportunities the foundation supports are pretty diverse.”

Among these are the Arkansas Outdoor Society, an organization that helps connect young adults with outdoor activities and various youth programs that seek to lure the next generation away from screens and into the great outdoors. These include the statewide Archery in the Schools program, the Arkansas Game and Fish Foundation Shooting Sports Complex in Jacksonville, family and community fishing programs and maintaining the state’s nature centers.

Foundation leadership takes advantage of the captive audience at the banquet to detail the organization’s recent achievements and outline ongoing programmatic goals. This year, that message will lean heavily on AGFF’s Impact Fund, a fundraising vehicle by which donors can target their contributions to the aspects of the outdoors they love most.

Read more about T.J. Lawhon’s work with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission.