LAST month, Katie Nieland and her colleagues travelled 8,525 miles to learn more about promoting conservation here at home.
Namibia, meet Nebraska, and show us your ecotourism stuff.
“The best example of ecotourism anywhere in the world is Namibia,” said Nieland, assistant director and communications coordinator for the Centre for Great Plains Studies.
It’s not theme park tourism, she said. It’s the opposite. A limited number of people and a model of sustainability: a tourism industry that incorporates composting, solar power, locally grown foods and serenity.
“By yourself, out in the landscape … it’s probably a pretty good model for the Great Plains.”
Nieland traveled with a pair of Great Plains graduate fellows, Rebekka Schlichting and Daniel Clausen.
“We were the most annoying tourists,” Nieland said. “We’d ask everybody, ‘Why did you come here?’”
(Most common answer: See the natural world up close and in relative solitude.)
The trio also quizzed their Namibian hosts for ideas that might translate to Nebraska. Among the suggestions: camping tours focusing on a key species
“They seemed really intrigued at the idea of following a bison herd.”
The May trip was part of the centre’s on-going efforts to bring ecotourism to the Great Plains, using Nebraska as an incubator and expanding to other states that share our grassland geography.
“We’re trying to gain a little bit of traction of people thinking about the Great Plains as a place to visit as opposed to a flyover,” Nieland said.
Yes, they’d like to see more visitors to a state ranked No. 49 in tourism, but also visitors whose dollars dovetail with the centre’s mission of education and conservation. “For some people,
ecotourism means going on a hike for us, it’s something that actually helps the land, helps the wildlife.”
Which is how it’s working in Namibia, where wildlife populations are increasing, in some cases dramatically, while tourism is ranked as the third-largest industry.
Nieland and her fellow travellers experienced high-end ecotourism, including six-course meals prepared by a private chef, staying in luxurious lodges, spotting a kudu, zebra, ostrich, cheetah and desert elephants on guided Jeep tours. (A big economic boon without a big environmental impact.)
They also toured more modestly priced options in the natural beauty of Namibia
picture the Sand hills during a drought including a day tour, and a river camp where travellers supply their own food.
Eighteen months ago, Nieland kicked off the centre’s marketing campaign by designing a set of WPA-style posters that have proved wildly popular.
The centre has since formed an ecotourism coalition with nearly three dozen members, a combination of non-profits (such as The Nature Conservancy) and businesses (like the Singing Horse Trading Post in Porcupine, South Dakota).
They have a website: visittheprairie. com. A guide book “Roaming the Plains” and a map of 50 eco-friendly vacations in the Great Plains
There’s even a monthly newsletter published jointly with the Nebraska Tourism Commission. (The latest issue of “Ecotourism on the Prairie” features eco-friendly summer activities, an article by Nieland about the Namibia trip and a recipe for Grandma’s chokecherry wine.)
And in April 2018, the centre’s annual conference will be focused on the topic a partnership with Nebraska Tourism and the University of Nebraska at Kearney.
“There will be the nuts and bolts,” Nieland said. “Plus loftier ideas about conservation and how to hook the two together.”
And ecotourism is already happening in Nebraska. A good example, said Nieland: Switzer Ranch and Nature Reserve in the Sand hills.
The family-owned ranch operates Calamus Outfitters, offering tubing and tanking and kayaking adventures, and for the past several years, wildlife and bird watching tours along with an annual Prairie Chicken Festival. (Put it on your list for next April.)
The ecotourism side of the business allows the ranch to support three families, said Sarah Sortum, a member of the coalition and of the Switzer family who visited Namibia in 2009 with her father.
“We really saw ourselves in what they were doing,” she said. “It’s this win-win circle that keeps going around. The tourists bring extra resources to manage the ranch, and it’s made us even better land stewards … because it brings us revenue.”
Tourism as a method of conservation.
An idea that Nieland hopes will continue to ripple across the Great Plains the way it has 8,525 miles away in Namibia.
“It was really nice to see a culture so protective of their landscape and of their wildlife.”
Confidente. Lifting the Lid. Copyright © 2015