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.
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.
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?