For folks like Sara Sortum and her brother Adam Switzer, ecotourism has become a way of life. They returned to their childhood home on the Switzer ranch, a fourth-generation mixed-grass prairie cattle operation in the Sandhills near Burwell, repurposed the main house as a lodge and started a hunting and outfitting business.
They encouraged neighbors to join them through the Gracie Creek Landowners Association, which is improving habitat for grassland birds by removing invasive cedar trees, developing innovative grazing plans and monitoring greater prairie chicken and sharp-tailed grouse populations. The hunting outfitters business has expanded to include river trips, tanking, tubing, canoeing, greater prairie chicken and grouse viewing, bird watching, jeep tours and trail rides.
“Business is good; hunts are booked; 3,000 beds are filled during the year and approximately 3,000 river trips are booked, too,” Sortum said.
The operation has been named one of the top 10 ecotourist sites in the Great Plains by the Center for Great Plains Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The center defines an ecotourism site as any place or site that is primarily devoted to environmental or biodiversity conservation, provides an opportunity to experience nature and is open to the public, either free or for a fee.
The center surveyed field personnel from nonprofit organizations, managers of private ecotourism companies, state agency officials and others to identify the Great Plains sites they considered to offer the best environmental experiences.
You don’t have to be in the Sandhills to be relevant to ecotourism. One of the other top 10 sites is the combined Fort Robinson State Park/Soldier Creek Wilderness/Petersen Wildlife Management Area in the Pine Ridge. The center describes the area as “habitats alternating between mature ponderosa pine forests and grasslands in typical ridge-and-canyon topography. An excellent area for hiking, climbing or exploring by horseback, visitors can see prairie dogs, wild turkeys, golden eagles, prairie falcons, barn owls and western songbirds such as mountain bluebirds, western tanagers, common poorwills and white-throated swifts.”
Several bed-and-breakfast inns in the Fort Robinson neighborhood have sprouted in recent years, including the Creekside Bed and Breakfast, the Ponderosa Ranch, Trunk Butte Ranchhouse and Aunt Myrna’s Cabin. An organization called Nebraska High Country lists them among its 26 members. Another is the High Plains Homestead, run by Mike Kesselring, chairman of the newly formed Nebraska Tourism Commission.
Some of the other top 10 sites on the Center for Great Plains Studies list are within a few hours of our doorstep. They include Badlands National Park (S.D.), Rowe Bird Sanctuary/CraneTrust/Central Platte River (Neb.), Devils Tower National Monument (Wyo.) and Conata Basin (S.D.).
Ecotourism generates revenues for landowners and helps nearby communities by raising awareness of what their region has to offer. While some residents take those features for granted and see conservation efforts as an intrusion, visitors to places like the Rowe Sanctuary come from all over the world, drawn by cranes and other migratory birds, and spend millions of dollars in the region.
As Kesselring and other state officials look for ways to boost the state’s tourism industry and economy, one of their challenges will be recruiting landowners to look at how sharing the beauty and bounty of their land can diversify and enrich their operations. If your goal is to stay on the land, to maintain your rural lifestyle and values, and to raise your children in the fresh air and sunshine the way you were raised, ecotourism demonstrates it can be done.