Joe Franklin Nix (1939–)

Joe Nix is a water chemist, environmentalist, naturalist, and educator considered by many to be the watchdog of Arkansas rivers and lakes with respect to water quality and usage patterns. His mission has been to have society use good scientific data in making decisions about environmental matters.

Joe Franklin Nix was born on August 28, 1939, the only child of Frank and Era Nix, in Malvern (Hot Spring County). His father was a mechanic; his mother was a homemaker. He was a sickly child, so the doctor advised that he spend a lot of time outdoors. As a youth, he fell under the personal tutelage of family friend and former state geologist Joe Kimzey of Magnet Cove (Hot Spring County).

In 1953, his family moved to Arkadelphia (Clark County), whereupon he developed a deep love for the Caddo River. After graduating from Arkadelphia High School in 1957, Nix studied chemistry at Ouachita Baptist College—now Ouachita Baptist University (OBU). He credits the humanities, which he did not want to study, with providing him the bridge between chemistry and nature. Nix graduated in 1961 with a BS in chemistry and entered the graduate program at the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County). Studies in nuclear geochemistry took him to Yellowstone and Lassen Peak national parks. Dr. Kimio Noguchi, a visiting Japanese geochemist, introduced him to the Japanese idea of finding the simple beauties in nature and the thrill of uncovering nature’s secrets.

Nix received his PhD in nuclear geochemistry in 1966 and accepted a position at OBU. He immediately adapted his research skills to studying streams in Arkansas. The Arkansas environmental movement was building strength, focusing on preventing the damming of the Buffalo River. The Ozark Society was formed for that purpose. Nix—like Neil Compton, Harold Alexander, and other environmentalists of that era—was heavily influenced by the writings of Henry David Thoreau and Aldo Leopold.

Nix became an environmental activist, serving as co-chair of the Soil and Water Committee and chair of the Natural Resources Committee of the Arkansas Wildlife Federation, which named him Conservationist of the Year in 1970. He served as chair of the State Committee on Stream Preservation and vice-chair of the State Policy Committee Advisory Committee on Environmental Planning and Management. He was elected as the second president of the Ozark Society. He served on the board of the Arkansas Science and Technology Authority and as chair of the Arkansas Mercury Task Force.

Nix continued to teach and research. His early research on the Caddo River and the pre- and post-impoundment of DeGray Lake led the Waterways Experiment Station of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to use DeGray Lake as a model system for studying reservoirs. Nix mentored scores of students as they studied lakes, rivers, streams, and wetlands. He routinely took students with him to committee meetings and public testimony sessions so they could see the important role science plays in the day-to-day workings of government and society. During his career at OBU, Nix attracted more than $7.5 million in research funds.

In 1987, Nix married Laura McHaney, who already had a two-year-old daughter.

In 1994, Nix took early retirement from OBU to become Director of Programs for the Ross Foundation in Clark County. He represented the foundation in the public nonprofit arena and coordinated its grants program. During his time at Ross, Nix chaired the Eagle Mortality Task Force of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. He coordinated the efforts of hundreds of scientists from all over the country as they identified the deadly disease avian vacuolar mylinopathy, the cause of which has yet to be determined. Nix also served on the boards of the Ozark Folk Center Foundation and the Arkansas Community Foundation, along with numerous local, regional, and state volunteer organizations. He retired from the Ross Foundation in 2005.

Nix was a technical advisor and/or on-screen personality for the following documentaries on the Arkansas Educational Television Network: The Black Swamp (1994), Ouachita! (1996), The Mercury Story (1997), The Forgotten Expedition (2002), Saving the Eagles (2008), and The Buffalo Flows (2009). Among his awards are the 1988 Neil Compton Award of the Ozark Society and the 1989 Lifetime Membership Award of the Arkansas Environmental Federation, especially noteworthy because one organization represents outdoor preservation and the other industry. Nix was named the 1980 Fellow of the Arkansas Museum of Science and History (now the Museum of Discovery) and was also elected to the Arkansas Game and Fish Foundation’s Arkansas Outdoor Hall of Fame in 1996.

For additional information:
Arnold, Margaret. “Friends, Admirers Gather as Museum Honors Nix.” Arkansas Gazette. August 24, 1980, p. 5D.

Compton, Neil. The Battle for the Buffalo River: A Twentieth-Century Conservation Crisis in the Ozarks. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1992.

Joe Jeffers
Ouachita Baptist University


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