June 26, 2019
Jim Harris Managing Editor Arkansas Wildlife Magazine
LITTLE ROCK – It’s often been noted by his fellow commissioners and the staff of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission how much levity Ford Overton has interjected into their meetings the last seven years. He lives a mantra that, in turn, he urged his other commissioners and AGFC personnel to adopt when he passed on the gavel as chairman at the June monthly Commission meeting last week: “Everybody works so hard. Y’all need to keep this fun. You need to have fun.”
Later, away from the formality of a commission meeting, he recalled a moment when he first joined the Commission as a Gov. Mike Beebe appointee in July 2012. The first vote he’d been a part of concerned whether the AGFC would proceed on to the U.S. Supreme Court in a suit against the Army Corps of Engineers or accept a multimillion-dollar settlement. It was eye-opening, he said. “Is this what this is all about?”
So, a little later, his mischievous side surfaced: “You know those shock pens, where you push it down and a buzzer inside it goes off? That first meeting, my first month, I hand one of those things to Fred Brown, who had joined the commission two years before me. Now, if it was me, I’d feel that thing up and down my arm. He’s got bigger arms and he’s sitting there holding that thing down with this sort of grin and a look of ‘I’m going to kill you.’”
All joking aside, though, Overton can have his serious moments. “Have fun, enjoy what you’re doing, that’s how I approach my life,” says the owner of West Tree Service in Little Rock. “But, you can ask my wife and my children, when I’m serious, you don’t want to mess with me. Now, when we’re having fun, we’ll have as much fun as anybody.”
So it was, in Overton’s year as Commission chairman, that he decided the AGFC had patiently waited long enough on the Bayou Meto Irrigation Project with the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission and needed to get serious. “We have $3 million that we long ago invested in this. There is $142 million that has just been sitting out there and nothing is being done, but we’re getting calls about getting water in and out of our baby, our 30,000 acres of the (George H. Dunklin) Bayou Meto Wildlife Management Area for the past few years now. I asked them, do you want to give the money back? Or do you want to get this project moving.”
Overton brushes aside any credit for a long list of achievements in his year as chairman, only saying that he approached the job as a commissioner “with passion. And I’m passionate about the employees here. They run the agency.”
Ken Reeves, who takes over as chairman of the commission July 1, said of Overton, “He’s been so focused. His year as chairman has been remarkable, we all know that and we all talked about it. The other six years (of his commission tenure) were remarkable, too.
“He’s always been focused, he’s always been passionate. And he’s done what we all need to do, and that’s always remember our mission and, in making our decisions, think: Does it fulfill our mission? Is it good for the agency? is it good for the people who work here? Ford has always taken those into consideration in everything he’s done here. Politics have never been part of even one discussion in his seven years. His service has been consequential and he’s made a difference.”
Overton said that during the last year, he would lean on AGFC Director Pat Fitts before every vote. “I’d lean over and whisper, ‘Do we need to do this? Should we do that?’ I know that if it comes from the AGFC staff, it’s a science-based checkmark that I need when I cast a vote. One of the most important things you do as a commissioner is cast a vote, a vote that will impact something major, and you ask yourself, do you understand the science involved? The staff has recommended it and it is driven by the people who live it.”
Overton saw himself as a “consensus builder,” he said. “I don’t mind tension. I don’t mind being on the other end of a vote or an issue as long as we’re being open. There’s nothing political, nothing personal, and we’ve talked through it and we understand why we’d be on opposite ends and we respect each other.
“If it gets political, personally, I get real grumpy. I have no patience for that ... If you come in with a personal agenda, odds are you aren’t going to last long as a commissioner.”
When the AGFC began its new series of town hall forums early in 2019, Overton’s boyish charm eased some of the pre-forum tension that might have existed among the staff in the agency’s main headquarters auditorium, but then his serious side kicked in too with a coach-like pep talk. He told the group that day, before the doors opened for the public, “Let’s be serious here. Are we in or out? I looked around and it was funny to me, it seemed like everybody had this worried look. I said, ‘I hope there are 10,000 tough questions. That’s how we get better as an agency.’”
Though the forums began during his year as chairman, Overton gives to credit to Commissioner Bobby Martin for “kicking the ball” that evolved into the agency beginning the town halls. A second town hall was held in the spring in Springdale, and another is planned for Stuttgart just before duck season begins. The town halls are scheduled around monthly commission meetings.
“It came from the wise Bobby Martin,” Overton explained. “He didn’t say, ‘Hey, let’s do a town hall meeting.’ He might have said we need to be more open with the public in the way we make regulations. With R3 we need to be more transparent. That segued into me thinking, ‘Let’s have a town meeting.’ He’s so subtle like that.”
The AGFC this year began a Landowner Award given to Arkansans who had dedicated time and a significant amount of acreage to boosting quail habitat. Overton said this was the result of a domino effect. “It all started with the quail. Seven years ago, I pushed like crazy for the quail,” Overton said. “How do we want to bring these dadgum bobwhite quail back? You get into it and it ain’t no layup because Arkansas is 90 percent privately held. So, how do we go about getting these landowners growing what is needed and not growing fescue? Then we need private lands biologists to go around and talk to these landowners about what to do.
“We will go nowhere if the private landowners don’t follow suit. In order for them to follow suit, they need to understand, and they need to be acknowledged, somehow they might need to get compensated for laying out their land for this ... It’s simple. If they don’t do anything, we’ll never have quail.”
Another Overton initiative was pushing for a more ethical approach among more hunters and anglers and the general public in the outdoors.
“Obviously, I’m passionate about it,” he said, adding that while some of the issues might seem “like layups, they happen. It’s as simple as etiquette, as common courtesy. It’s having respect for others.”
Overton said that at the end of his tenure, and the end of the day, “my heart is in this for the organization.” He spent several minutes both at a dinner party the night before the Commission meeting, and in his final words to the Commission and staff at the June meeting, noting that many difficult challenges lie ahead for the AGFC. He urged the Commission to continue to “remove barriers” to hunting and fishing for all ages, streamline such items as its massive code book, and to pursue automatic renewal of licenses.
“I’m real proud being able to serve with this group, the Commission, this staff,” he said. “What an honor, what an honor, what a lifetime honor. I’m so proud. I feel real good about the direction and consensus that these folks have with each other.”