PONCA, Neb. — Splashing bird dogs, flopping fish and climbing kids opened the Missouri River Outdoor Expo at Ponca State Park with a bang Saturday.
Nebraska Game and Parks Commission organizers expect a record-setting crowd of about 45,000 people for the two-day event after tents are rolled up, ammunition packed away and kayaks carted off later Sunday.
Behind all the free fun is a big target: preserving the future and heritage of natural resources and outdoor recreation by introducing or rekindling interest in camping, fishing, hunting, bird-watching and other activities, said Jim Swenson, a regional parks manager for Game and Parks.
It's part of an initiative by wildlife and parks organizations nationwide to reverse trends of declining participation in outdoor activities by Americans.
A new federal report indicates it's working.
Thirty-eight percent of all Americans age 16 and older participated in wildlife-related recreation last year, an increase of 2.6 million from a 2006 survey, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Participation in recreational fishing increased by 11 percent, and hunting was up 9 percent.
The increase reverses a trend found in previous surveys showing a 10 percent decline in hunting participation between 1996 and 2006.
The 2011 survey reported a corresponding increase in hunting equipment expenditures, which were up 29 percent from 2006. Hunters, anglers and wildlife watchers spent $145 billion last year on related gear, trips and other purchases such as licenses, tags and land leasing or ownership.
Jeff Fields, superintendent of Ponca State Park, said he hopes the expo guides people to the outdoors.
Swenson compared the expo and similar events in parks and schools as a net.
“It's like seining for bait fish,'' he said. “You take a big swoop and you get a lot of fish in your net. You sort through that. There will be some you continue on with.''
Ultimately, he said, what emerges are more-educated people who become advocates for outdoor stewardship — and who buy parks, fishing and hunting permits.
The sale of permits, tags and stamps is the primary source of funding for most state wildlife conservation initiatives. Hunters and anglers have been the largest contributors to government wildlife conservation programs. Sportsmen provide more than 80 percent of the funding of most state fish and wildlife agencies through excise taxes and license revenue.
The expo's focus, however, is on fun and inspiration.
Matt Stutzman of Fairfield, Iowa, showed off archery skills that won a silver medal at the 2012 London Paralympics.
Born without arms, Stutzman inserts an arrow into his compound bow with a bare foot, lifts and steadies the bow with his right foot and draws the string with his mouth — not his teeth.
He pulls the arrow back with a release aid strapped to his right shoulder. He releases the arrow with a trigger, like those used by other archers, by applying slight pressure from his jaw.
Stutzman apologized to a crowd for being rusty since his medal-winning Paralympics performance, but he hit a balloon on a target 77 yards down range.
He set a Guinness World Record for the longest accurate shot — 230 yards — at the Ponca expo last year.
At an archery range, 12-year-old Tessa Knutson of Hartington, Neb., fired blunt-tipped arrows at flying foam disks. The highlight of her day, however, was spotting a mountain lion near Newcastle on the drive to Ponca with her dad Todd and sister Maya.
Across the park, Karley Koob, 7, of Sioux City, Iowa, scampered up a climbing wall with three siblings.
Karley's mom, Tara Koob, said there's a reason the expo is popular with families.
“They get to do things they normally wouldn't get to do,'' she said.
This is the final day of a weekend of hands-on demonstrations, presentations, exhibits and activities on hunting, fishing, wildlife watching, bird dog training, game calling, firearms safety, shooting sports, kayaking, camping, outdoor cooking, wildlife art, outdoor survival and more.
Swenson, the regional parks manager, said the expo is an opportunity for parents and grandparents to introduce activities to children and grandchildren.
“You've got grandma and grandpa and mom and dad and the kids and the family dog, so what better opportunity to reach all those generations?'' he said.
The expo continues from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.
Ponca State Park is about 120 miles north of Omaha. A daily $5 Nebraska state park entry fee is collected at the gate, but all expo activities are free. Hayracks ferry people to more than 80 activities and events around the park.
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