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Monday, 13 March 2006

Consultants work to increase ecotourism in Nebraska

Every September, 100 grouse hunters from across the state and the country head for Mullen for the Sandhills Sharptail Shootout on more than 100,000 acres of privately owned land.

It's a cooperative event. Landowners provide the land and many act as guides. Although 60 percent of the hunters are Nebraskans, the event attracts hunters from across the country. And motels and restaurants in the area benefit from the influx of visitors.

It is just the sort of activity Tom Tabor has been hired to encourage. Tabor is the ecotourism consultant for the Nebraska Travel and Tourism Division.

Many people have a narrow view of ecotourism, that blend of conserving the natural environment, making money through tourism and sharing the benefits with the community.

They think of a Kenya photo safari.

They think stargazing in Bernese.

But Nebraska has no shortage of potential environmental adventures, Tabor said.

"We don't have mountains and we don't have the ocean. But we have the Sandhills and the Pine Ridge."

And we have sandhill cranes.

Every year, thousands of people hide in blinds at Rowe Sanctuary to watch the cranes standing on spindly legs or rising en masse to fill the blue sky. The migration of half a million cranes in the spring brings millions of dollars of added tourism income for Kearney and Grand Island, said Tabor. That's ecotourism.

Tabor's job is to help communities and property owners develop and promote ecotourism opportunities.

It's not hard for Tabor to list Nebraska-based possibilities.

Take a jeep ride through Pine Ridge country, where there are elk, moose, antelope, big horn sheep.

Photograph the long-billed curlew in western wetlands.

And hunting can be considered ecotourism, he said, because it helps keep the population stable when there are no natural predators.

Canoeing is ecotourism, too.

"You are not doing any harm by floating down the river. Plus there is flora and fauna to observe." 

Agritourism and ecotourism often join hands. Calamus Outfitters, for example, allow greenhorns to help herd or brand cattle — for a fee. The Switzer Ranch, home of Calamus Outfitters, is a fourth-generation cattle operation in the Calamus River basin in central Nebraska Sandhills.

The ranch family also offers trail rides, where guests learn about the grasses, wildlife, the land formation and the ranch history. And they rent canoes and horse tanks for floating down the river, said Sue Ann Switzer.

On Jan. 8, the family puts on a coyote-calling contest. Hunters call coyotes (no dogs allowed), then shoot them, helping keep the predator population under control.

And Nebraska has something not available in many states, said Tabor: immense areas of solitude and serenity, areas of quiet isolation as healing as the roar of an ocean.

Near Fullerton, Douglas and Darla Russell operate Nebraska Outfitter, providing an array of activities from hunting to weddings on their land, the Broken Arrow Wilderness.

Douglas Russell once dropped off a fellow from Chicago and a tent at a quiet private pond on the Russell property for a weekend.

"He just wanted (to be) taken out there and dumped," Russell said. "I picked him up in two days. He absolutely loved it. He thought it was greatest thing on earth. I charged him $500 a day for that."

Spending time at Broken Arrow gives visitors a taste of the rural Nebraska way of life, he said.

"My wife does the cooking. We hire hometown kids as guides. They meet neighbors at the café. It's not commercialized. And they can't believe it."

That social experience is part of ecotourism, said Tabor.

His position was created after a comprehensive planning process indicated many communities wanted to promote more nature-related tourism. 

His job is to help landowners look at tourism possibilities outside their back doors. He can help identify wildlife and fauna of an area. He can help communities cooperate and cash in on ecotourism in their midst. He can direct people to marketing grants. And he will market Nebraska at sport shows.

Tabor came to the job with built- in credentials and interest. For 15 years, he helped improve park habitat for the state Game and Parks Commission. He has an economics degree with a minor in biology, is a certified forestry technician and has worked at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, helping university faculty get grants.

And a year he spent as a computer programmer convinced him  life tastes sweeter out-of-doors.

Tabor recently floated down the Middle Loup River, getting photographs for next year's travel guides. Last week, he visited a private, 15,000-acre ranch where he saw some 100 wild turkeys 20 yards from the barn.

"It's a tough job, but somebody's got to do it," Tabor said.

During his first few months on the job, Tabor also has been involved in a soon-to-be announced ecotourism project: a state birding trail.

The Nebraska Partnership for All-Bird Conservation is developing a driving tour across the Nebraska with 400 viewing sites for bird watching.

People will be able to use the group's Web site to plan trips. Communities will be able to promote the activity, Tabor said.

Hiking and walking is still the most popular outdoor activity, but bird watching grew by 155 percent between 1982 and 1996, Tabor said.
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