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.


Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Scaling Up the Emotional Impact of Prairies

This post was written by Eric Chien, one of our Hubbard Fellows.  Eric comes from Minnesota and brings great energy to our prairie stewardship work.  He’s also very bright, and an engaging writer, as you’ll see in this and other posts.

I recall vividly the moment I was swept up by prairies; when what had only been a textbook description of geography was sparked into a fidelity to place. The view of sandhill cranes swirling over a starkly beautiful late-spring prairie had an immediate impact on me. It was the first time I felt what I was seeing.

Sandhill cranes.

Sandhill cranes.

I have been recalling this moment lately because I have been thinking a lot about impactful experiences. I was there that blustery Spring morning for work. There was no one there to interpret or inspire. No learning objective or deliberate takeaway. Yet, that experience sits amongst the foundation of where I am now and the path I continue to take.  Impactful, emotionally rich experiences are the touchstone for action and commitment, and in prairies, in relation to other landscapes, they seem a little harder to come by. Prairies just don’t give themselves up easily. Identifying those places, characters, and moments that bridge the gap between knowing and caring could be a powerful tool for the achievement of conservation goals, and enriched human lives.

I have often struggled to facilitate powerful prairie experiences for others. Deep appreciation always seems to end up relying on the context of my own knowledge and memories, and thus unapproachable to my companions. One of the few places where prairies do not play hard to get is the Niobrara Valley Preserve (NVP). It has long been a place that confers experiences capable of tying together people and prairies. Its reference list is long and diverse. Somewhere within the consistent transfer of emotional weight that NVP delivers is an important guide and mold for reaching others.

Sandhills prairie at The Nature Conservancy's Niobrara Valley Preserve in northern Nebraska.

Sandhills prairie at The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve in northern Nebraska.

On a recent evening, I found myself sitting quietly beneath a cedar in Niobrara River valley prairie at dusk. Within minutes of my settling in, a small group of bison had quietly foraged their way down from the hills, and into this football field prairie flanked by oak-cedar woodland and the river. They were unhurried, only the occasional soft grunts accompanied the sound of little bluestem, cured wine red, being clipped off. I felt lucky that from the 12,000 acres of prairie on which they could wander, this small group had happened to choose this minute pasture for the evening. They were soon joined by a large flock of Merriam’s Turkeys. Their white tipped tail fans flashed as they scratched at the ground, flipped bison paddies, and bantered with purrs and clucks. A young whitetail buck also joined the evening stage. You can see him inquisitively wander towards me in the video below.

Before it became too dark I walked up and out of the river valley, cresting the hills, and was confronted with the stretching upland prairie of the Sandhills. A spooked pair of young bison bulls thundered off the river ridge and into the hills out of sight. I walked the sandy, two track back to the bunkhouses in the dark. These are not uncommon moments at NVP. The source of gravitas in these experiences may seem obvious, filled with charismatic wildlife, but I think it is more than that. The widely shared appreciation of NVP says a lot about where we are coming from in prairie conservation and where we want to be.

Young bison bulls at The Niobrara Valley Preserve.

Young bison bulls at The Niobrara Valley Preserve.

Conservationists will accurately tell you that a 54,000 acre preserve is still far from a whole system. The Nature Conservancy does not control the entire Niobrara River Watershed, our bison herds need to be fenced in, and invasive plants still find their way onto the preserve. However, it is one of an elite few locales that feels whole. I believe it is this sense of wholeness that beckons people to deeply connect with it in a way that is difficult in most other prairie landscapes. When I am showing people prairies, I often find myself asking them to imagine. Imagine if this highly diverse, visually stunning, 80 acres of prairie stretched to the horizon. Imagine if a herd of bison lay hidden behind that low swale. Imagine if you did not know what else might be out there. At NVP, one does not have to imagine, and in that lies its power to move us.

Large, intact, productive grasslands, like the Niobrara Valley Preserve let us transcend the conservation context in which much of our work takes place. We can escape the long road of restoration in the human dominated landscape, characterized by fragmented, degrading, homogenous, biologically depauperate prairies. We can see the prairies and landscapes we are driving at. As prairie professionals and conservationists, we should and do spend most of our time on this long road, but as we seek to bring others into the fold we should strive to impart them with a vision. Head off the question about why prairies are important; the one that often seems to accompany a trip to some isolated remnant in a sea of cropland. Take them to somewhere where the importance of prairies is unspoken and self-evident. Seek to move our potential prairie allies from “is that all?” to “what else is out there?”. I know that is harder for us here in the prairie than for those sharing other ecosystems. It is especially hard in the eastern tallgrass prairie where we have been left with nearly no truly large prairies. That said, the hard work of many (Nachusa Grasslands IL, Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie IL, Glacial Ridge National Wildlife Refuge MN, Kankakee Sands IL/IN) has made it more of a possibility than ever.

For some, the beauty found in small prairie patches is sufficiently captivating. For others, however, a sweeping landscape of prairie

For some, the beauty found in small prairie patches is sufficiently captivating. For others, it is the sweeping sea of grass that triggers a love of prairie.

There will always be those who will come to prairies more subtly; those who are innately curious about the details of plant communities, who can discern and explore the intricacies of prairie ecology that happen at the smallest of scales. I will happily continue to walk with anyone who shows enthusiasm for finding fritillary caterpillars on rare prairie violets. Prairie conservation and restoration by necessity has been built on the backs and through the sweat of those who can delight in our valuable remnants, and push forward from there. Let’s also begin to work from the other direction. Recognize that there are those who will only come to prairies through experiences of grand space and wildlife. Bring them to the end, let them see what else prairies can be. After that we can walk them back to where we are, and begin the work of the return journey to wholeness with the expanded support of more “prairie people.”