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Fat Bikes on the Prairie

I immediately noticed a familiar sound turning onto Whooping Crane Drive toward Crane Trust. The chirp of crickets and cicadas, the whispery rustle tall bluestem in the wind. It’s the sound of a living prairie.


I met with Ben Dumas, a recent addition to the Crane Trust team. Ben was hired to run a new initiative that offers VIP excursions through their historic tall grass prairie of Mormon Island and kayaking tours of the Platte River. Guests get the opportunity to experience this rare and complex ecosystem, equally enjoyed by the sandhill cranes and a herd of genetically pure bison.


It’s no secret I like riding bicycles, so when Ben offered to ride Crane Trust’s fat bikes around the prairie, I couldn't say no. Ben and I saddled up on our trusty steeds: a Surly Ice Cream Truck and Surly Moonlander. We headed south so he could show me some of the work they’ve been doing on their blinds to prepare for crane season. They also work on landscape management on the Platte River to maintain it as prime habitat for cranes. During lower flows they till the sandbars to rid them of vegetation, keeping a nice landing pad for cranes to roost. During higher flows the river naturally erodes this vegetation.


Next we headed North. The Trust maintains a set of trails in their prairie for these excursions that take you from the headquarters to the Nature center. Fat bikes are the perfect vehicle for this kind of terrain and ecotourism experience. It leaves very little footprint, is extremely capable off-road and without the noisy, erosive side effects of ATVs. To prove this Ben and I were startled when a doe jumped out of the tall grass just feet from us. Continuing on, we aimlessly rode around and shared our ideas on ecotourism.


I left the Trust that day with greater assurance that fat bikes are a perfect fit for experiencing the prairie. And a great guide like Ben makes the experience even better. It’s amazing how ecotourism continues to evolve as more people grow their interest in the prairie.

Q&A with Kirk Nelson - Nebraska Game and Parks

By Alex Duryea, Ecotourism Consultant, Nebraska Tourism Commission

The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission is implementing a plan to restore native prairie grasses and increase pollinator habitat along the Cowboy Trail. I talked with Kirk Nelson, the Assistant Division Administrator of Planning and Programing Division, who is leading the effort.

Q: Tell me about the Prairie Restoration Plan for the Cowboy Nature and Recreation Trail 
A: The trail is both a recreation and nature trail, it’s nationally designated as such. We’re interested in both facets of that designation. We want to increase the recreation aspect and increase the nature part of it to make it more of an ecological component of importance to wildlife. It's a narrow corridor, so it has it’s good sides and bad sides — but right now we’re focusing on prairie restoration.

Q: What was the catalyst in the pollinator movement?
A: There’s a national effort to help all pollinators. One of the big species that’s up front is the monarch butterfly. We’re focusing on milkweeds, first off, because we can get milkweed seedling and, second off, it’s something we can do that involves the communities [like] people planting the milkweeds and then learning about the plight of the monarch. So the milkweed is one component of that, the other component is a broader pollinator approach that benefits all pollinators. That's the prairie restoration part.

Q: Why the Cowboy Trail?
A: Well it needs work. We haven’t done much on it as far as habitat enhancement, and it was kind of a step-child that never got a lot of attention. It was expected to be a lot bigger of a recreational tourism component than it’s proven to be. So we’re looking at whatever avenues we can find to increase that. We’re hoping that people will be drawn to the trail if it has more ecological appeal. If you drive along it, ride along it, hike along it and see more butterflies, see more wildlife — watchable wildlife is one of the nation's biggest outdoor activities, and we’re trying to hook into it.

Q: Any challenges you’ve faced implementing the Prairie Restoration Plan?
A: It’s tricky, but it’s something that can be overcome. I think the biggest stumbling block we’ve got is the cost. It’s expensive. Prairie seed is expensive, it’s expensive to plant it, it’s expensive to maintain it. Those are items we’re going to have to have help with as we go on. That’s another thing that is something we can turn over to the communities.

Q: What role will the communities play in this plan?
A: Right now I hope they come out and help us plant and then maybe they can help us water these things, because it’s staying awful warm. These little milkweed plants need water ... that’s the first major emphasis. After that if they want to start to do more with other pollination species, we’re going to continue to expand this whole project to include them. We’re willing to work with people if they’re willing to work with us.



Learn more about the monarch migration here! See which of our ecotourism partners are good sites to see butterflies and other pollinators here.




Nature's Medicine

Mule deer at sunset at High Plains Homestead


Nature's Medicine
By Alex Duryea, Ecotourism Consultant, Nebraska Tourism Commission

It’s all around us, it’s something we can’t live without, yet most take it for granted. There’s a lot to be said about fresh air — it just has an aroma to it. Like water, it tastes different everywhere you go. Whether it’s the sharp cool air of a mountain peak to the thick, heavy air of the Great Plains, it has the same effect — healing.

It’s called "ecotherapy." Doctors are beginning to prescribe patients outdoor time: breathe some fresh air, go to a nearby green space, explore. While we're still a ways from picking up a prescription bottle stuffed with dirt, there's some interesting research being done on the subject. In a report published by Mind, researchers propose that ecotherapy can decrease anxiety, improve physical health and well being, reduce social isolation, and reduce the direct cost of treating mental health problems.

The benefits of ecotherapy may not stop there, and the practice could turn patients on to ecotourism as well. Through treatments, patients may discover a fondness of nature and become natural stewards, inclined to protect their remedy. Dr. Craig Chalquist, a large figure in the ecotherapy field, said in an interview in The Atlantic that the benefits of being outside can be felt in the body.

Spending time in green spaces is also showing benefits for children especially. A recent study by the University of Southern California found that youth with green space within 1,000 meters of their home are less likely to show aggressive behavior. Some researchers believe more green space in high-crime areas could help reduce criminal activity.

Whether or not you buy into the research, you can ask any nature tourist about the relaxation they feel while out in nature. For more amusement, check out this video from The Atlantic on ecotherapy.

A Nice Day Spent in Nebraska

By Erin Lenz, Public Relations Intern, Nebraska Tourism Commission

A theatre made for independent films, an art center that celebrates hundreds of creative minds, and ice cream that seems to take you back in time. All of this is what I, along with a group of University of Nebraska-Lincoln students, had the opportunity to explore on Friday, April 15th. The places we visited were Film Streams, Crystal Forge and Springfield Drug and Soda Fountain, all stops on the 2016 Nebraska Passport Program.

The first stop was Film Streams in Omaha, a nonprofit arts organization that plays indie, foreign and classic film titles. Now I’m not the type of person that typically likes indie or foreign films, but after touring Film Streams and having the communications director explain the different movies available, I can’t wait to go back. This theatre does fun promotions like free movies on Monday nights for students, the playing of a live score in the theatre during a silent film, playing movies on the old form of film projector and more. This theatre is small, unique and has a great atmosphere to it. It also doesn’t hurt that the people who work there have a passion for the theatre and films of all kinds.

The next stop on the list was Crystal Forge in the Hotshops Art Center in Omaha. Before I describe Crystal Forge, I have to talk about the Hotshops Art Center as a whole first. Artistic, fun, unique and lively are just some of the words that came to mind to describe this place. We were shown unique structures of the building, walked through rooms of pottery, wood making and stained glass. We even walked through an area where people were creating dozens of clay squirrels, yes I said clay squirrels. At Crystal Forge we watched the process of creating art through glass blowing. This process is not at all what I expected, which is weird because glass blowing actually involves blowing on the glass. We watched basically a small dot of melted glass turn in to a medium-sized, crackled textured, beautiful vase. It was a very detailed, but amazing process to see (video is below). I recommend going to this unique art gallery- it’s interactive and has a little bit of something for everyone. Plus it’s right off of the Old Market area where you could easily do some shopping and get a bite to eat too.


Lastly, we made a stop at Springfield Drug and Soda Fountain for a treat. This destination is similar to a small-town Walgreens, but with a fun addition of an old fashion soda fountain. This is my kind of stop because I am an ice cream fanatic. The soda was deliciously sweet and I think I might have drank my rootbeer float in a matter of seconds. Besides the ice cream, it was fun sitting up at the bar and feeling like I had been taken back in time. 

Overall it was a fun day trip. I’ve lived in Nebraska my whole life and trips like these help me realize how much more I still have left to explore. I can’t wait to go back and visit these stops so I can get an actual Nebraska Passport stamp, and I look forward to exploring everything else the Nebraska Passport has to offer (mainly the tour that is heavy with coffee shops because I’m a caffeine addict).

Experience Nature on a Bike
Experience Nature on a Bike, by Alex Duryea, Ecotourism Consultant, Nebraska Tourism Commission

A bike can take you places. Well yeah, they get you from point A to B, but I’m talking about mentally. When I’m maneuvering my Litespeed around the flowy singletrack of Lincoln’sWilderness Park, I am in a different world. I am surrounded by nature.

The trusty steed waiting for me to catch my breath

My bike has taken me to so many unique places in Nebraska — it allows me to explore areas that just aren’t accessible by car or would take too long to hike. Just southeast of Fremont, Neb., there’s some singletrack that butts up next to the Platte River called Calvin’s Crest. The area is full of whitetail deer, bald eagles, and even owls. There’s a section that runs right along the edge of the Platte; I like to stop there and just take it all in. I hear the wind rustling the leaves on old oak trees and listen to all the life surrounding me.

Crystal clear, spring-fed water flows down the Long Pine Creek.

Some might think that to experience ecotourism, one has to travel to some exotic country and stay in a bamboo shelter. That’s ridiculous. There is so much incredible wildlife and diverse ecosystems right here in the Great Plains to explore. Ecotourism is all about letting yourself experience the nature around you. Honestly a lot of us are ecotourists and we don’t even know it. I thought riding my bike around and stopping once in awhile to enjoy the natural sights and sounds around me was me just being a typical weird tree-hugging millennial, but I was ecstatic to find out that there’s a word for it — ecotourism.

I think we should give the bike more credit. Sure it can be a great way to get some exercise and even have a little fun, but cycling is a is becoming a viable form of ecotourism. More and more ecotourism destinations are starting to offer bicycle rentals and host cycling tours (includingCrane Trust). Ecotourism destinations are showing us how bicycles can be used to enhance the nature tourism experience. I hope others catch on to this trend and give it a shot, I really think it’s a great way to get more people out there to experience all the Great Plains has to offer.

Picked up a hitchhiker on the Cowboy Trail near Norfolk.