“The Gonzo Naturalist”
Little Rock Free Press, March 31-April 13, 1994
by John Hofheimer
Kent Bonar, an eccentric naturalist who was once called the John Muir of the Ozarks, has helped slow the decline of a national forest.
If you don’t know Kent Bonar, you don’t know anybody like him.
For 20 years, this Ozark original and an improbably band of button-down bird watchers, solar-powered techo-hermits and other rag-tag environmental irregulars have been nipping singlemindedly at the heels of wildlife and forestry bureaucracies in Arkansas.
Along the way, he has hitch-hiked with a rattlesnake, wrecked his truck, lost and eye, been fired, laid off or involuntarily transferred 22 times - and helped slow the inexorable decline of the Ozark-St. Frances National Forest.
A scout behind enemy lines, Bonar (pronouced Bonner) is no Cherokee-driving, Brie-eating, New-Age tree hugger trucking through the weekend woods. This rough-hewn mountaineer grew up on the Johnson County, Missouri, farm his great-grandfather settled just after the Civil War. “Little brother grew up playin’ basketball and hangin’ out at the air force base,” Bonar said. “I grew up with a bunch of 80-year-old hunters, sittin’ around the fire all night, listenin’ to the dogs run. My dad had fox hounds and bird dogs. We were trainin’ dogs and huntin’ most of the time.”
Tommi Stevens, the newton County reporter, woodworker and feminist who died late last year, once said, “Kent Bonar is the John Muir of the Ozarks.”
Muir was the Scottish-American naturalist whose walking treks and written accounts led to the creation of Yosemite and Sequoia national parks and of Muir Woods National Monument, all in California.
Bonar studied wildlife managment for two years at the University of Missouri at Columbia, teaching ornithology while he was there, “As far as just practical knowledge of what’s out there in the woods, I got a lot more of my education from old-time hunters,” Bonar said. Aftger leaving the university, he came to Arkansas in 1972 as a research naturalist for the state parks Department.
“I had plenty of problems with them,” Bonar recalled. “In five years I was fired three times, laid off four times and transferred about 15 times…[transfers] that i didn’t ask for.” He worked at state parks including Devil’s Den (five times), Petit Jean (five times), Queen Wilhelmina (four times), the Ozark Folk Center (twice), and Lake Fort Smith, as well as the Little Rock office and other sites. “I’ve been moved on 36-hour notice halfway across the state,” he said. “I wasn’t married. I ended up having to do whatever it took.
“Several (Parks Department) naturalists basically agreed with me on all the positions I got fired or laid off for, and that’s why I kept getting rehired,” he said. “That’s another thing about state government - they’re not used to seeing somebody keep coming back and getting resurrected.” Once, he said, he was fired for stopping the application of an herbicide at a rate of 80 pounds per acre on 80-acre Lake Bailey at Petit jean Mountain - a situation Bonar said would have resulted in a major fish kill.
“Another time, I took on the state Game and Fish Commission because thy were trapping bobcats at Petit Jean State Park, which is against state law and regulations and all this kind of good stuff. They thought they were the state, so they didn’t have to go by state rules,” he said.
“The tourists loved seeing the bobcats. These trappers like to hang aoround downtown at the other end of the county and have a couple of dead bobcats gracing their truck every now and then. (Towns)people got tired of seeing coyotes.”
Out of a job, but not out of work
Bonar came to Newton County as a VISTA volunteer in 1977, working for the Arkansas Ecology Center. His job was to help local citizens’ groups get involved with the Ozark National Forest 10-year master planning process. When his VISTA assignment ended a year later, he was out of a job, but not out of work.
“I’m still doing it, I’m just not getting paid,” he said. “The forest is being grossly mismanaged, and something’s going to have to be done to save the world, or we’re all going down. I feel pretty righteous about what I’m up to.”
A few days ago, sitting deep in the woods near Nail, Bonar said, “Most of the old growth is around here. When I was working for state parks, I covered most of the northern and western part of Arkansas and I know there’s not anything this extensive anywhere else in the state.” Most of Newton County is naturally a diverse oak hickory climax forest.
Taking on odd jobs and collecting aluminum cans contribute to his meager income - something that can’t be said yet for the blue-tick hounds and bloodhounds he raises and trains. Bonar, who has lived in the woods, in a moldy cave behind a wet-weather waterfall and in a horse trailer, said, “I have no complaints.” Currently, he lives rent-free, caretaking a small, rustic retirement cabin belonging to a Texas man who’s “been in Russia, dismantling nukes.”
A telephone is his only utility - and he shares that with others further down the road. He hand-pumps his water, cuts wood for his stove and squats in the outhouse. He has no vehicle, so he pays for no repairs, gas, oil, registration or insurance. But for the dogs, he could pretty well fit his belongings in his rucksack and take off across the hills. His forestry allies, appreciative of all his free expertise and energy, sometimes feed him or give him a ride. As a scientific illustrator, he has drawn scores of plants over the years, freuently with an authentic quill pen.
“But don’t call him an artist,” said a friend who once made that mistake. Bonar doesn’t cotton to the term: He sees - and draws - things as they are, while artists are creators and embelishers.
So, what are his strong points as a naturalist?
“I’m pretty good on trees and vertebrate animals, ” he said. “I’m not too good on invertebrates, insects and mosses.”
Dwayne Knox, vice president of the Newton County Wildlife Association, called Bonar “one of the leading experts…on rare and endangered plants in Newton County, and “great fun in the woods…exceedingly dedicated.”
Barry Weaver, the association’s president, said, “Kent especially brings really extensive knowledge of ecology and ecological forestry. He’s really focused.” Weaver said Bonar’s knowledge transcends mere plant identification to an understanding of many of the complex relationships between plant associations, animals, watesheds, roads, and people, among other factors.
“His first love clearly is field work. That’s his greatest value to us,” Weaver siad.
And what of the future?
More of the same, said Bonar.
The latest battle
With a reporter in tow, Bonar grabbed his pistol, pack and axe and slipped quietly into the woods on Bean Mountain a few days ago. Spring lags in the Ozark Mountains, so the hardwoods were just budding as he led the way down a hill, across a draw and up a steep embankment to, arguably, state-record servicebeerry and red hickory trees.
While measurements by Bonar and a state forester supported state-record designation, he said, measurements by a U.S. Forest Service employee did not. Bonar said that originally, this old-growth timber had been slated for clear-cutting, but that under public pressure, the Forest Service had redesignated it for pre-commercial thinning, by herbicide.
“Herbicides can’t be justified in terms of forestry, ” Bonar said. “Basically, all these trees are connected underground. When you start poisoning one, you can’t leave the one right next to it and expect it not to be affected.
“Right across the hill from us is Dismal Hollow Research Natural Area,” Bonar said. “In order for it to be worth anything as a research natural area, you’ve got to keep old growth stuff like this fairly close to it so that you can have biological corridors where the animals, and plants that are carried by animals, can move through.”
He said Dismal Hollow, at 1,500 to 2,000 acres, was the largest research natural area in the southeastern United States. “Even so, it’s way inadequate for what it ought to be. We’re proposing that they make the entire drainages of Stepp Creek and East Fork of the Little Buffalo river as one big research natural area.” He said that by adding those roughly 9,000 acres, Arkansas will “have something really significant and you’ll have saved an entire forest instead of just one little patch.”
The Forest Service’s 1988 Union Grove Timber Sale called for clearcutting this site and many other old-growth ones on the 35,000-acre Sandy Springs Project. In challenging Forest Service plans, the Newton County Wildlife Association says the Sandy Springs watershed may be on eof the most biologically diverse areas in the Ozarks and that Forest Service managment in the region has resulted in extreme resource depletion, heavy erosion, siltation, chemical contamination and habitat destruction to the benefit of the timber industry.
Bonar said that when environmental groups challenged the clear-cuts, the Forest Service simply changed the wording to more politically correct “shelterwood cuts” and “wildlife openings.”
“It’s a manager’s dream, even though it’s an ecological nightmare. It gives them something to play with,” Bonar said. “They have plans for every acre out here, practically. The thing about it is, some of this stuff needs to be saved for its own value, because God put it there. There’s so little (old-growth timber) left in the United States.
“The Ozark National Forest claims (it’s) going to manage all (its) old growth by even-age managment,” he said, “which means that they’ll cut all the old growth and give it a 250-year-old birth date, so they can go ahead and cut it. And then everybody’s supposed to leave (the site) alone for another 250 years and use the restraint they didn’t.
“Saying that they’ll preserve the old growth by giving it a long rotation after they’ve cut it is just lying their way out of the whole thing. They intend on destroying all the old growth systematically that they can.
“They get paid to wreck. That’s where their training is. They can run skidders and bull dozers and make roads. It itakes too much (work) to go ahead and guarantee single-tree selection and just take one tree here and one tree there and keep the forest. They’d rather go in there and just manage, which means keep hackin’ at it, keep butcherin’ it, keep choppin’ at it and poisonin’ it and doing something to it about every 20 years.”
Kent Bonar’s face and well-muscled arms glistened with sweat in the hot afternoon sun July 3, 1982, as he walked north toward Jasper on the shoulder of state Highway 7. A traffic accident in 1974 left Bonar blind in one eye and otherwise uncomfortable behind the wheel.
Later, already legendary for parking his truck unintentionally in roadside ditches - sometimes on its side - he hung up his keys. Which is pretty much how he came to be hitch-hiking across the county that day with a four-and-a-half-foot, velvet-tail rattlesnake in a five-gallon pickle bucket.
Recalling that incident recently, Bonar said he’d caught the snake in his garden at Nail. thinking that his friend and benefactor Tommi Stevens might want it for the petting zoo at the primitive retreat on her homestead, Bonar dropped it in the bucket and popped on the top. “That’ll keep the tourists on the trail,” he remembers thinking.
He then hoisted his pack, grabbed the bucket and hit the highway. Most of the travelers on state Highway 7 that time of year are tourists. “They’d see me, step on the gas, and go drivin’ off. roll up the windows - even more than usual - and I’m thinking ‘How do these people know I’ve got this snake in the bucket?’”
Eventually, a local recognized him and drove him to Jasper, where Bonar discovered that two armed religious fanatics had hijacked (no lie) a Continental Trailways bus and were holding the passengers hostage on the Jasper Bridge. “All the tourists had been hearing the reports on (their car) radios, they’d see me looking strange and thought I was part of the conspiracy, ” he laughed. Later, after his “donation” to the nature center was spurned, Bonar caught rides back across the county, where he released the snake into the woods - a good 10 miles from his garden.