Hubbard Fellowship Post – Eric’s Great Plains Tourism Proposal

This post was written by Eric Chien, one of our Hubbard Fellows.  I hope you’ll read and respond to his ideas about a different kind of tourism in the Great Plains.  (Also, please don’t forget to fill out our blog reader survey HERE.)

I get the sense that most of the country mistakes the push they feel as they travel through the Midwest and Great Plains as a force pushing them through and out of the landscape, instead of what could be a push into it. Engine power has let us cross the prairies in a matter of hours. Most of us are resolved to race through the Great Plains, acknowledging it only as a void to be crossed. The wide open spaces almost seem to demand motion, demand a commitment to keep going. This character of movement the prairie inspires is in large part why I think traditional tourism has never taken a firm hold here. It is why I think a tourism economy fit for the Great Plains is one folded into the fabric of the working landscape. It is why I know that the best way to vacation on the prairie is to come out and work in it.

Katharine (Hubbard Fellow) preparing for some chainsaw work on a late summer morning.

Katharine (Hubbard Fellow) preparing for some chainsaw work on a late summer morning.  Photo by Eric Chien.

We rarely consider prairies as vacation destinations. Mountains, lakes, and beaches; these are said to be restorative natural geographies. They are, but so are prairies. I find they differ not in their effect, but only in their mode. A lake invites me to rest beside its shores or in its waters and refill my own reservoirs. A prairie drives sparks into weary legs, and reminds me that my tank is bigger than I thought. This qualitatively different rejuvenation is what sets prairie “recreation” apart, and I think suggests a shape for prairie tourism.

The heart of the Great Plains economy and the focal point of conservation efforts will always be its working lands. The nature of the prairie itself rejects idleness. The innate restlessness the landscape inspires does not mean we cannot find excitement and restoration. It just means it will not be found sitting idly. I would challenge any family to spend a late Spring weekend lopping young cedar trees out of a prairie lush with new grass and early flowers. Share an afternoon rolling old fence in a herd of cattle alive with the energy of new calves. Drift easily to sleep because of healthful work to the sound of an evening prairie brimming with life. Tell me that would not stick longer in the whole family’s mind than even the best iphone picture from some scenic mountaintop. These are real prairie experiences, playing out all over the landscape beyond I-80.


Who wouldn’t want to learn how to drive a tractor and spend their vacation working in the prairie?  Photo by Eric Chien.

Recreation and tourism are powerful tools in connecting people and place. It can also be a powerful tool for supporting the integrity of the landscape and the lives of its permanent human inhabitants. The ecosystems that hold lakeshores, mountains slopes, and ocean fronts reap a significant portion of the conservation benefits that admiration and attraction confer. They also are teetering with the weight of recreation development incompatible with the health and character of the landscapes responsible for their very existence. This is not what we want for our Great Plains Prairies.  In the place of development for recreation alone, a working lands tourism model melts into the fabric of contemporary life on the plains. “Work vacations” on working ranches and farms offer re-engagement and appreciation of the landscape. They also offer the people of the prairie a chance to share the richness of life working close to the land. We walk into a head wind by trying to impose traditional tourism on the prairie landscape. However, there is fertile ground for attracting visitors by appealing to the culture of revitalizing work that prairies inspire. Molded thoughtfully, a growing appreciation of our landscape and the part we play in it enriches the integrity of our ecosystems, and the lives of Great Plains citizens and visitors both.

During a 48-hour late December heat wave I rumbled east towards a long day of work on the tractor, kicking up the gravel of Shoemaker Island Road. Skeins of Canada geese traced the air above the nearby Platte River, the mid-morning sun spotlighting their dusky flanks. The corn stalks and grass shined their dry gold against the uniquely blue Great Plains sky. In that moment, I counted all of the people I wished could share in that day. It was a long list. It included family and friends. It also included a nameless many who I have shared so many anonymous, hurried moments with at the Pilot Gas Station off the highway. I hoped they would end their trips here, at the Platte River Prairies. Forgo another trip to the mountains or lakes back East, and join me on a fence line. Not just because I believe their visit will create an actionable impression, or through their additional hands, a greater management capacity.  I know the exertions that prairies inspire to be energizing, self-restorative, and meaningful. What more can we ask out of time spent?

The author cuts down a tree in a prairie, simultaneously providing a treat for cattle at the same site. Photo by Katharine Hogan.

The author cuts down a tree in a prairie, simultaneously providing a treat for cattle at the same site. Photo by Katharine Hogan.


This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , by Chris Helzer. Bookmark the permalink.

About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.

15 thoughts on “Hubbard Fellowship Post – Eric’s Great Plains Tourism Proposal

  1. An earlier version of this included an old “saying” that turns out to be best known as a Nazi slogan (but is also used in other contexts). We’ve removed that from the post, and apologize to anyone who found that hurtful or offensive.

    • I want to personally apologize for not knowing and recognizing the historical context of the removed saying, and its inclusion in my post.

  2. To Eric:

    Eric, I really enjoyed your post and I wanted to tell you that you made some very perceptive points. I also like the reference to “Work will set you free” (although I also know how to say it in German). Besides the benefit to the participants, or to the management of a prairie, there is also a great deal to be gained by the local economy. All too many agricultural economies have ceded this segment of the market to the mountains or beaches. In addition, I think that Plains vacations could help heal the rift that has become the rural-urban divide.

    I would like to see more farms and ranches, as well as conservation organizations such as TNC, open their doors to farmstays or “working vacations”. There are many ranches in states such as Colorado and New Mexico that know how to augment their incomes this way — I don’t know why it hasn’t taken off in the Great Plains states like Nebraska.

    At any rate, we will be coming out to Derr House during the week of March 20 (we are staying four or five nights), so we look forward to meeting you and perhaps discussing your Great Plains Tourism proposal at greater length.

    Katie and Bill Stevens

    Moab, Utah


    • I am glad you enjoyed it, and I appreciate your comment. I think you’re point on the opportunity for plains tourism as being a point of intersection for two increasingly insulated demographics (from each other at least) is a really excellent one. I think the goal of healthy landscapes is often widely shared by rural and urban residents, and collaborative on-the-ground experience would go a long way in complicating (in a good way) all of our own individual understanding of what it will take to get to that shared goal.

  3. I think I would only come to a ranch for a working vacation if the owners showed a willingness in protecting the land for the long term. It’s not good enough to express an interest in keeping it working for the next generation. As long as it remains possible to sell the “improved” land to a developer or farmer who might convert the land, I wouldn’t be interested in helping to restore it. If you want someone to come work on private lands to restore native prairie, put an easement on it to keep it from being plowed or converted. There is so little native unbroken prairie left, that I think this needs to be a prerequisite.

  4. Eric, good post and well thought thru. I fear we have taken the term recreation to mean only idle time as opposed to the idea of re-creation which we desperately need in our crazy rush to extinction. working on the prairie, cutting weed trees, replanting degraded sites to a high diversity mix, gathering seeds and then watching the day end with a grand prairie sunset, there is no greater recreation, mentally, physically and spiritually, especially when done with a mix of people to help.

  5. There’s a lot of provocative ideas in this. The one thing currently missing is an evaluation of the concept by prospective travelers to find the optimal design for a prairie-oriented vacation. We can’t assume that because “work” seems like a logical differentiator, it would actually appeal to many people. Could be that scientifically-oriented work could make sense- we just don’t know. I do customer-centered innovation consulting for a living, so these sorts of questions immediately come to mind.

    • Good point Steve. It would be interesting to see how in demand current tourism operators who work within this model are. Like Susan Kleiman pointed out above, there are already places doing some of this stuff that might be able to shed some light on whether it could be successfully adopted as a wider reaching tourism model. I don’t know if your citation of “scientifically-oriented work” was just an off the cuff example, but I think you are on to something there too. Based on the wide participation in many citizen science programs, it does not seem outlandish to me that people would really enjoy committing some of their free time to “research vacations.” Great Plains conservation needs more monitoring as badly as it needs more chainsaws. I imagine there are real world examples of individuals and organizations trying this to learn from as well.

  6. The idea is good, but it will not go very far without advertising. What kind of signage do you have along I-80? Have you considered a visitor center? People pass by every day looking for a place to take a break from driving. Your prairies would be a great place for them to take a rejuvenating walk. If they like what they find, maybe they will come back to help.

  7. Great post cousin. Michele, the kid, and I want to come visit before your fellowship ends. I’ve been reading this blog for a few years now and have wanted to see it. What’s the timing like?


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