The University of Nebraska-Lincoln Center for Great Plains Studies
has kicked off a new campaign “Visit the Prairie,” and has been releasing a series of tourism posters online that will soon be available for purchase.
The campaign focuses on eco-tourism rather than the region’s rich history to lure visitors off the interstates.
“This work tries to promote ecotourism as a strategy for preserving the enormous and precious biodiversity of the Great Plains grasslands,” its website explains.
And that’s a great thing. For those who saw my series of book talks this year for The Last American Highway: The Dakotas, read this blog, or are members of the Fans of U.S. Route 83 Facebook page, I do my best to promote travel on Highway 83 specifically, and the Great Plains and all backroads in general. The beauty of the region is a running theme in all these writings.
This campaign is sorely needed. Let’s face it. Our nation has given the prairie lands short-shrift when it comes to habitat preservation. This began in the 1800s with the wonton destruction of the American bison, continued with the Army Corps of Engineers’ damming of our rivers and the ecological destruction brought on by mono-agriculture and overgrazing.
Even in these more enlightened times — with groups like the Nature Conservancy and World Wildlife Fund becoming more involved in the region — there is a lot of room for improvement.
How are we going to encourage travelers to either make the Great Plains a destination unto themselves, or at least stop for a day or two on their way to or from the Rockies or Black Hills?
Let’s look at some examples of what can be done along Highway 83 in Nebraska. From Valentine to McCook, the topography surrounding Highway 83 is beautiful from beginning to end. North of North Platte, it travels through the Sand Hills, which are not only Nebraska’s best-kept secret from tourists, but the nation’s. Yet the state has done virtually nil to promote them as a destination. Give me just one “Visit the Sand Hills!” sign on Interstate 80, please!
Highway 83 is the main conduit taking travelers from I-80 through the stunning and unique Sand Hills to the Niobrara River, the Fort Niobrara Wildlife Refuge and Nature Conservancy's Niobrara Valley Preserve there — one of the state’s prime eco-tourism destinations.
On the way is the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge. It has some nice kiosks explaining to motorists about the area's eco-system. That’s a good start. But what we need is a serious interpretive center, well-developed walking paths and auto tours through the heart of the hills.
It should be as impressive as the Audubon National Wildlife Refuge on Lake Audubon on Highway 83 near Washburn, North Dakota. I stopped at both refuges in April and there is a jarring difference.
Don’t get me wrong. I love the Audubon Refuge and spent a morning there soaking in the sounds of dozens of bird species. It was an amazing symphony. But that lake isn’t even supposed to be there. It was a creation of the Army Corps of Engineers. Its relatively new center has displays, a gift shop, knowledgeable rangers there to answer questions, a nice walking path in back, and auto trails for those who can’t get around as well as they once did.
Meanwhile, the Sand Hills has no dedicated interpretive center to explain their creation, eco-system or the importance to the nation of the Ogallala Aquifer that lies underneath. The money to build and staff such an interpretive center would come from the federal government. That means Nebraska’s congressional delegation needs to make this happen. And that means their lawmakers' constituents need to encourage them.
Meanwhile, Nebraska Public Power District wants to string ugly, giant electric towers right along Highway 83 on this main road taking travelers to the two refuges, and the little talked about, but stunningly beautiful Dismal River Valley. They would run from Stapleton to Thedford.
I have written Letters to the Editors, and posted my opinion on NPPD's comments page, written a letter to Valentine’s own Sen. Deb Fischer. I’ve only heard back from the landowners who would be affected.
Where is the outrage from the rest of the state? Where is the groundswell of opposition from those who care about the Sand Hills and eco-tourism? I’m not hearing it.
But NPPD is still taking comments. The first “P” stands for “Public.” I hope the public cares about the state’s vista-scapes and starts a ground-swell of opposition to this boneheaded plan before it’s too late.
(There are public hearings scheduled for November. Link here for a schedule and to leave comments. Tell NPPD it can post pictures of rainbows and sunsets behind the towers, but they are still ugly.)
Farther north in South Dakota, here is what you see when entering the Fort Pierre
National Grasslands. A sign reading: “Fort Pierre National
Grasslands.” The next thing you see is a sign that says: “Leaving Fort Pierre
National Grasslands.” Not a single kiosk, or anything in between. There are
some wooden boxes where you can pick up a map, but they are hard to spot.
Again, no interpretive center on par with what the prairie deserves.
|Photo by Stew Magnuson|
The Kansas Department of Tourism, meanwhile, has a scenic byways campaign that includes a long stretch of Highway 83 on its Western Vistas Historic Byway route. It has setting up some kiosks explaining the region’s natural history south of Oakley. I haven’t been there since they were installed, but I’m looking forward to seeing them next year.
This column was intended as food for thought for those wanting to promote travel in the region, rather than travel tips for those wanting to see some of these sites centering around eco-tourism on Highway 83. I’ll leave that to another column.
I hope the Center of Great Plains Studies really starts a movement. To preserve our natural heritage, people must care about it. They must have opportunities to emotionally connect with nature, and eco-tourism is one means to do so.
Whether it’s hiking, camping, canoeing, biking, hunting, fishing or simply “taking a drive or a ride” on a road like Highway 83 and soaking in the topography, connecting
The UNL Center of Great Plains Studies’ “Visit The Prairie” campaign is a great idea. I’ll be the first to buy the bison poster when they go on sale.
Stew Magnuson is the author of The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: The Dakotas, available at Amazon.com and bookstores and gift shops along Highway 83.
To join the Fans of U.S. Route 83 group on Facebook, CLICK HERE. And check out the U.S. Route 83 Travel page at www.usroute83.com. Contact Stew Magnuson at stewmag (a) yahoo.com