Wonders of wildlife: Johnny Morris' mega-museum and aquarium stresses conservation
SPRINGFIELD, Missouri — Wow is a word heard a lot around the Wonders of Wildlife National Museum and Aquarium.
It was a dream that Johnny Morris, founder of Bass Pro Shops, said he had for 25 years. The stunning museum and aquarium took a decade of planning and building to complete.
It's adjacent to the Bass Pro Shops in Springfield, which was the No. 1 tourist attraction in Missouri even before the museum and aquarium were built, if you can call a store a tourist attraction.
The 350,000 square feet museum and aquarium opened to much fanfare in September 2017, and in its first year 1.6 million people went through its doors. There is a mile and a half of exhibits with 35,000 live animals in the aquarium, including more than 800 species of sharks, rays, jellies, eels and sport fish.
Most guests spend between four and five hours in the museum and aquarium, said Shelby Stephenson, public relations manager at Wonders of Wildlife.
That is because there is so much to see. There is a massive “open ocean” ring shaped aquarium and the two-story Shipwreck Room where guests can touch stingrays on the ocean floor.
The 4D dioramas in the wildlife galleries are spectacular. Guests can view animals native to America's National Parks, the polar regions, the African savannah and the Amazon rainforest. You even feel the temperature change to match the region's climate as you walk through the galleries.
The museum pays homage to Native Americans. It's home to the Bass Fishing Hall of Fame and the International Game and Fish Association Hall of Fame.
There is a gallery of fishing photographs with past presidents from Theodore Roosevelt to George W. Bush with a Bass Force One Bass Tracker, the boat that Morris gave to Bush, and Jimmy Carter's homemade peanut fly for fly fishing. Fishing vessels of writers Zane Grey and Ernest Hemingway hang from the roof.
The museum offers a history of Bass Pro Shops and an exhibit recreating Johnny Morris' first store in the back of his father's Brown Derby liquor store in Springfield.
Hunters will admire the impressive Boone & Crockett's Collection of Heads and Horns. This year is the “Year of the Bird” as 2018 is the centennial of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and the museum devotes space to an important piece of conservation legislation.
More than 40 wildlife conservation organizations made contributions to Wonders of Wildlife. Conservation is a message reinforced throughout the museum and aquarium.
Before visitors tour the museum, they are greeted with a video message from Morris where he encourages people to get outdoors and involved in conservation. He speaks of the important role hunters and anglers play.
Many people who do not hunt or fish — and some who do — are not aware that taxes paid on hunting and fishing gear have funded state and wildlife efforts to the tune of tens of billions of dollars since 1937. It may seem incredulous to some that the people who are the greatest consumers of wildlife resources, hunters and anglers, are also its greatest protectors, but it's true.
The Pittman-Robinson Act's federal excise taxes on ammo, sporting arms, handguns and archery equipment fund wildlife conservation activities. The Dingell-Johnson Act's federal excise taxes on fishing gear fund fisheries conservation activities. Together they make up the federal Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Program.
For fiscal year 2017 alone, the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation received almost $25 million in federal Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration funds. The money is used for a wide array of wildlife management and conservation projects, including building boat ramps, conducting black bear research, monitoring endangered species, buying land for wildlife management areas and more.
In an interview before last year's opening of Wonders of Wildlife, Morris said he wanted to “inspire kids and get them connected to where we've come from. I want to help them appreciate that hunting and fishing are great American traditions. And I want to salute and make everybody aware of the incredible role that hunters and anglers play in conversation.”
At the Wonders of Wildlife grand opening last year, America's most popular angler - Oklahoma's own Jimmy Houston - told the Chicago Tribune that Morris is the greatest conservationist of our time.
Theodore Roosevelt is widely considered to be America's greatest conservationist of all-time, but Houston pointed out to the newspaper that the former president's work “was all done with government money. Johnny does it on his own.”
Morris has amassed a fortune from his retail empire but there is no questioning his sincerity about conservation and the need to protect our natural resources. He stresses its importance as you enter the Wonders of Wildlife, during your visit, and as you are walking out the door.
Scrolled on the wall as you depart the museum for Bass Pro Shops is a final reminder that "we all live downstream."
IF YOU GO
What: Wonders of Wildlife National Museum and Aquarium.
Where: Springfield, Missouri.
Price: Aquarium Adventure and Wildlife Galleries combo ticket, $49.95 adults, $29.95 children (ages 4-11).
For more information: Call 888-222-6060 or go to wondersofwildlife.org.