It is a rare institution that can win the sort of near-universal respect and admiration that the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission has enjoyed over more than a century of existence. Though he has served as Director of the AGFC for only a year and a half, Austin Booth has already earned his fair share of that respect.
Booth was raised in the unincorporated community of Scott, Arkansas. Between Scott’s rural environment, and his work in the family business of boat engine building, the outdoors played an integral role in Booth’s childhood.
He attended Catholic High School for Boys in Little Rock where in 2001 he witnessed the tragedy of 9/11 take place from his sophomore homeroom. Booth’s love for his country and his participation in the school’s ROTC program set him on a trajectory for the military.
“I wanted to enlist right out of Catholic,” Booth said. “But mom and dad told me, ‘No no no no. You’re going to college first; that door is always going to be open.’ I’m really glad that I did.”
He went to The Citadel – The Military College of South Carolina, in Charleston. From there he went to the South Carolina School of Law in Columbia where the military came calling once again.
A Marine Corps recruiter visited the law school one day, and when he asked who was interested in being a lawyer in Afghanistan, Booth was the only one to raise his hand.
“The weight of seeing so many of my college peers going into the military and the fact that for some of that time we were both in Iraq and Afghanistan, I just told my wife, ‘I can bill hours when I’m old. I can be a general counselor when I’m old. I can’t be a Marine officer when I’m old,’ ” Booth said.
He attended Officer Candidates School for the Marine Corps in 2010 and went on active duty in 2011, followed by a deployment to Afghanistan from July 2015 to Jan. 2016.
“Going into combat, it calibrates what stress looks like,” Booth said. “Additionally, the Marine Corps is the only service that is built around people. The Navy is built around ships, the Air Force is built around planes, but the Marine Corps mantra is that every Marine is a rifleman. That kind of ethos about leadership existing to serve the boots on the ground has impacted me in a lot of ways.”
In Afghanistan, Booth’s work was mainly focused on ensuring possible targets were legally valid and firefights were handled in accordance with a new set of rules of engagement, something that members of Congress were watching closely.
“Oftentimes I would leave the operations center after advising on a kinetic strike,” Booth said. “Then I would walk into a room full of members of Congress who had come to Afghanistan to hear how we were utilizing these new rules of engagement.”
A congressional staffer he frequently worked with noted he had a knack for interacting with members of Congress and recommended the Marine Corps Congressional Fellowship Program.
Booth signed up for the program and was sent to Capitol Hill for a year. He worked for Rep. Steve Womack of Arkansas’s 3rd District, who sat on the House Appropriations Committee and Defense Subcommittee.
“I’m not from Northwest Arkansas, but it was the closest that I got to home other than visiting,” Booth said. “In any one day in that office, I would see more Arkansans than in my entire time in the Marine Corps. I loved it, just absolutely loved it.”
Booth gained extensive insight into how the Marine Corps got its budget, such that when his time with the program came to an end, the Corps allowed him to remain in Washington for the next two years. He acted as an advocate for the Marine Corps, responsible for a $14 billion slice of its budget – work that gave him valuable experience in lobbying for resources. He would remain in the Corps until 2020, when he was honorably discharged at the rank of captain.
His work with Arkansans in Washington convinced him to return home, taking up residence in the state for the first time since leaving for the Citadel. He became the Chief of Staff and CFO for the Arkansas Department of Veterans Affairs, a natural fit for his military and congressional experience. His jump to the AGFC, however, was a less obvious choice.
Before he became director in 2021, Booth had no experience with conservation and had never considered a career in the field. He had never interacted with the commission beyond acquiring licenses and had never been checked by a game warden. Yet it was an agency that he always loved dearly, and he had a strong affinity for the idea of conservation.
“When I think about the Arkansas outdoorsman to me growing up, it’s just so important to me that it exists in the same way or in a better way for my kids,” Booth said. “So, I had the passion even though I was what I like to call a lay-conservationist.
“I still read the paper every day. I read in the paper that the director of the Arkansas Game and Fish was retiring and heard that they were hiring a headhunter. When they released the name of the headhunter, I looked it up. I went on his website and sent in a cover letter and a resume, and we were off to the races.”
Booth believed that his background would be helpful both in leading the agency and in fighting to get it the resources it needed. Meanwhile, he trusted the AGFC’s biologists and professional conservationists would be able to manage the technical aspects of the agency’s work as they had for over a century.
Booth’s arrival at the AGFC was quickly felt, both coinciding with and contributing to a time of great activity for the commission.
“We have a lot of momentum in this agency, and this is a really special time for the AGFC where there’s been a lot of challenges and we just keep tackling them,” Booth said. “I wouldn’t say that I’m so much responsible for it. This happened organically; there is an unprecedented unity, a shared vision between me, the commissioners and the agency staff. We’re all moving in the same direction, we’re doing it quickly, and we have the right team behind it.”
Nothing exemplifies that new direction as clearly as the AGFC’s five-year strategic plan, Natural State Tomorrow. This ambitious plan includes a diverse set of goals, from preserving habitat to improving the internal workings of the agency to public outreach. Though the strategic plan covers many bases, the new direction of the AGFC can be summarized in one phrase: “Habitat first, people always.”
“We really want to put a focus on habitat like this agency has never had before,” Booth said. “It’s important not only because that’s what the wildlife needs, but also because of what hunting and fishing mean to Arkansas culturally. Secondary to that, it supports our economy in a huge way, to the tune of roughly $9.7 billion a year.”
To protect Arkansas’s habitat, the AGFC has begun to tackle major generational conservation issues. Perhaps the most important is its green-tree reservoir restoration project, the success or failure of which may decide the future of duck hunting in Arkansas.
Greentree reservoirs are areas of bottomland hardwood trees over which the commission artificially retains water to provide public access for duck hunters and habitat for waterfowl. That immense quantity of habitat is what makes Arkansas the duck hunting capital of the world. But decades of holding this water over the reservoirs too early in the year and for too long has caused severe damage to the trees. In a forest health assessment at Hurricane Lake Wildlife Management Area in 2018, the AGFC found 42% of the red oaks there were either dead or beyond saving.
Leaving the trees to die or ceasing to hold water in the reservoirs entirely would spell doom for the habitat, causing ducks to migrate elsewhere. Steadily over time, the state’s duck hunting identity would be lost, as would the economic benefits that come with it. Therefore, the AGFC is renovating the reservoirs to remove water more quickly and avoid harming the trees, preserving both the habitat and public access. Two such renovations are expected to be completed by the end of June.
Greentree reservoirs are but one of the generational conservation issues that face Arkansas’s outdoors. Habitat loss, forest health and water quality are also serious problems that have been developing for decades and will take many years to solve. But Booth and the AGFC are determined to begin the process here and now. He expressed great confidence in his team’s ability to deal with any issue, but his greatest and most immediate concern is getting the necessary resources.
“We’re grateful to have a Governor-elect and a legislature that understands the importance of the outdoors to Arkansas, both economically and culturally. As we continue to work with them to communicate the great need that we hear from Arkansans, we are only more and more confident that Arkansans and our natural resources will get the resources they deserve.”