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 – Inspiration is at Our Feet

This post was written by Katharine Hogan, one of our two current Hubbard Fellows.  The photo is hers as well.  Katharine has shown to be an introspective thinker and writer, in addition to a curious and hard-working member of our conservation team.  I think you will enjoy this and other posts she writes.

After a rigorous morning spent chain sawing trees on the Platte River Prairies, I headed inside to finish a half-completed blog post. It would be nice to get off my feet; I was breaking in my new fire boots acquired for performing prescribed burns, and my feet were a bit sore from the new stiff leather and soles. It would also be great to finish this blog post that had been persistently hanging around in my head. However, to my dismay after working at it for some time, it simply kept falling apart the harder I tried to make it fit together. Finally, I conceded defeat, but was also frustrated in my attempts to settle on an alternative topic. As my frustration grew, I decided to go for a walk in hopes of the remnants of a crisp autumn day yielding some inspiration.

Annoyed for having spent such a chunk of time on nothing that turned into more nothing, I put on my well-worn, much loved hiking boots that have seen me through countless work and pleasure hours across the country. They were more comfortable than the tall, black boots I had taken off earlier, for sure! I decided to walk up into the sand hills south of the house, get a higher perspective on the land, and enjoy another stellar Nebraska sunset against the golds and reds of prairies grasses falling asleep before the advance of winter.

Even if I didn’t come up with any ideas, going for a walk outside is always good, I thought, as I headed out. Never waste time doing something important when there’s a sunset to watch, right? (I got that one from the dusty, back corner shelves of the Internet…). Yet I had barely even gotten into the pasture when I realized something felt different. My old boots suddenly felt different from all the unspoken familiarity with which I had apparently subconsciously come to associate them. Had they always been that sensitive to the terrain on which I was walking? What a distinct texture the inside of the boots had, and how perfectly fitted they were to the shapes of my feet! But no big deal, I said to myself, just keep walking and your feet will adjust and feel normal.

But they didn’t. I was hyper-aware of myriad sensations in my feet with every step through the crispy vegetation. I couldn’t stop being distracted by it. My normal had changed that week to those fire boots, which in my mind are in some strange way the pedestrian version of being inside a tank, fitted with impressive protection and defense features. Changing from that back to something previously familiar had made that familiar new again, and had made me aware of aspects of those old boots that I otherwise would never have noticed.

I never thought I would add footwear to the list of unexpected teachers in my life. Ultimately, good work boots are pivotable to land stewardship and field science, though, so maybe it shouldn't come as such a surprise.

I never thought I would add footwear to the list of unexpected teachers in my life. Ultimately, good work boots are pivotal to land stewardship and field science, though, so maybe it shouldn’t come as such a surprise.

Is this a large part of how humans learn, constantly yet perhaps subconsciously? Do we make retroactive observations and connections about familiar places, people, and concepts best upon exposure to the new and different? This experience reminded me of other observations that I had previously regarded as unconnected, small events. Upon travelling to Missouri I realized the swathes of cottonwood along the Platte River in Nebraska don’t create the same familiar comfort as the hardwood forests of more eastern regions because they are more monocultural woody systems. Comparatively, forests from hardwood regions are symposiums of many tree species with rich myriad canopy hues throughout the growing season.

Conversely, during a recent trip back to Vermont, I had never realized how imbalanced the scattered old fields and open green spaces of the northeast felt; they are scars that the advance of trees (so undesirable here on the prairies) inexorably tries to heal. The resilient grasslands of the Platte and the Niobrara, practically exploding with a diversity of species and habitats to which I was hitherto unaware, allowed me to see ecological challenges of my old home. Prior to my experiences elsewhere in the country, I arguably was assessing these childhood surroundings with rose-tinted glasses (or maybe glasses tinted with the fiery colors of New England autumns). Even after finishing college in Indiana, I had no real comparison as a backdrop.

There are other observations I could list, but suffice it to say I learned a lesson that day, as I found myself simply standing in the middle of the prairie under an orange tinted sky, staring at my feet. Yes, I’ve always been a proponent of learning through new experiences, but it hadn’t occurred to me with such force how much we stand to learn from new experiences about the places we have already been. We become so readily comfortable in our routines that we lose sight of the immediately surrounding world. This is simply how our brains function to avoid constant stimuli overload. But what exciting potential there is for us if we see our new experiences as a sounding board for our old experiences, and not only the other way around!

I never did end up going for the rest of that walk, nor did I see the sun set. Instead, I found myself heading straight back for the house, laughing aloud at myself at my eagerness to write about the unexpected results of simply wearing a new pair of boots for a few days. This wasn’t the type of post I was originally planning to share with you all, but I hope it may give some of you a little excitement about the hidden world of inspiration and discovery that may be right under your feet.

Or on your feet. Who knows? I sure didn’t.