Ecotourism and Conservation

Ecotourism and Calamus Outfitters

“I love helping people to experience nature, to slow down, breathe it in, and open their eyes to what is around them. The magic is when you help them understand the intricate and complex grassland ecosystem. We learn and laugh and just have fun in this huge playground of sand and grass. It has really opened my eyes to the value of ecotourism for both the provider and the visitor.”—Sarah Sortum

Bird enthusiasts gather in a recycled school bus blind at the first annual Nebraska Prairie Chicken Festival. Photo by Michael Forsberg.

Bruce remembers when Adam first came to him with an idea to expand their ranching operation to include an outfitting business. Adam reasoned that the added income from fall and spring hunting expeditions might make it possible for him and his sister Sarah to return home to help their parents run the ranch and raise their own families. Bruce and Sue Ann agreed to partner with Adam to help the business get off the ground. “It was quite a bit different than anything we’d ever even thought of before. We were okay with it. We thought, ‘Boy, it might work.’” Bruce and Adam went to the local bank to secure a business loan. Bruce recalls, “We went to the lender and Adam told him what his plans were. I can still see the banker looking at that business plan and talking with Adam. He thought about it, and he pushed back from the desk, and he said, ‘I have never heard of anything like this in this area. I think it will work,’ and he loaned the money.” Calamus Outfitters opened for business in 2001. It wasn’t long before Adam expanded his hunting operations to include tanking, canoeing, and kayaking trips on the Calamus River, bird watching, and Sarah’s safari jeep tours.

Today, Bruce and Sue Ann live at the main ranch adjacent to Calamus Outfitters, and Adam and his family live in the original clapboard home built by his great-grandfather. Sarah and her family live in a new house built on land once owned by her great-uncle Robert. Each morning they meet at the Calamus Outfitters gift shop for coffee and conversation before beginning another day on the ranch.

Conservation Across Fence Lines

“As long as we can make a living on the land, we’ll be here, and we’ll be able to protect it in the way we feel it should be protected.”—Sarah Sortum

A fence line in the Nebraska Sandhills. Photo by Michael Forsberg.

In 2009, Bruce and Sarah were invited to travel 8,600 miles from the Sandhills of Nebraska to the arid grasslands of Namibia in southern Africa with a study group from the World Wildlife Fund’s Northern Great Plains program. The purpose of the trip was to visit cattle farmers there who have formed community-based conservancies with the help of the government. The conservancies provide opportunities for neighbors to work together to manage natural resources for both agriculture and ecotourism sustainably. By implementing sustainable practices, the value of the land has increased, and wildlife numbers have dramatically rebounded. Today, Namibia’s third largest industry is tourism.

Bruce Switzer visits a ranch in Namibia. Photo by Sarah Sortum.

Sarah and Bruce learned that the common interest projects in Namibia had helped private landowners economically by creating “meaningful conservation outcomes on a landscape scale.” They also connected with the Namibian farmers who, Sarah explained, “were very much like us; historically they had been family agricultural operations that had turned to tourism as a diversification tool.” Sarah believes that the Namibian cattle farmers helped her family “realize the power in numbers and the opportunity we had to be of greater benefit to our community.” When she returned from Africa, Sarah was eager to implement a similar conservancy. Her idea was to bring neighbors together to see if they shared common concerns and goals for managing natural resources and determine if it made sense to work together. Sarah recalls, “We wanted to show how managing across fence lines in livestock-friendly ways could make a meaningful impact.” 

Activity: Conservation Across Fence Lines

Public lands in the United States are often set aside for conservation of land and wildlife. In Nebraska, less than three percent of the land is protected public or conservation land. To protect at-risk habitat and species in Nebraska, innovative wildlife conservation strategies attractive to private landowners are needed. Private landowners committed to sustainability and interested in innovative approaches to land management have found that the common-interest community model can benefit wildlife populations and increase biodiversity on ranchland in the Nebraska Sandhills.

For a fun, hands-on, real-world approach to understanding the common-interest community model, click “ENTER” below to play the Conservation Across Fence Lines interactive game. 

Managing Eastern Red Cedar Trees

A year on the Switzer Ranch begins in the spring when the newborn calves arrive. Most of the calves are born in March and April and are branded in May. Before the calves and their mothers can be put out to feed on the grass, the Switzers build and repair fence for a couple of weeks to help them manage the herd. By mid-May or early-June, the pastures are ready for the calves and their mothers to begin grazing. The cows and calves stay on the grass for about 150 days. They are then brought back to the ranch so that the calves can be weaned from their mothers, and then they graze until they reach about 700 pounds. In July and August, the Switzers grow and harvest hay to put up for winter.

A prescribed night burn on the Switzer Ranch. Photo by Mariah Lundgren.

In 2012, the Switzers teamed up with the Morgan family, which owns neighboring property, to form the Gracie Creek Landowners Association. The families now work together to manage and protect grassland for grazing cattle, as well as native birds, such as the greater prairie chicken and sharp-tailed grouse, and native plants, like the endangered blowout penstemon. One of the top threats to prairie grasses and other native plants is the invasive Eastern red cedar tree (Juniperus virginiana).

Eastern red cedar is a pioneer species, the term used to describe the first plants to move into a disturbed habitat. Pioneer plants can be beneficial for controlling erosion after a flood or a disturbance caused by livestock or humans, but cedars also reproduce and grow rapidly, outcompeting native plants for soil nutrients and precious groundwater and rainfall from nearby creeks. They also produce toxic oils that discourage the growth of native plants, reducing the amount of forage available to grazers.

Historically, those grazers, such as bison, elk, pronghorn antelope, and mule deer, helped to naturally control pioneer species. Wildfires also cleared away invasive species and restored nutrients to the soil. Today, the Switzers and the Morgans are mimicking these natural cycles as effective management tools to control the spread of Eastern red cedar trees. They use selective grazing and prescribed burning to stimulate plant growth and restore balance to the Sandhills prairie ecosystem.

Fire is a natural component of the grassland ecosystem. In only one growing season, large amounts of dead plants, what scientists call “biomass,” can accumulate on the prairie. In the past, wildfires caused by lightning could burn for hundreds of miles. In the dry days of the late fall or early spring, these massive burns removed the annual biomass accumulation, releasing nutrients into the soil that are essential to plant growth. The Plains Indians also used fire to attract bison and other wild game, as grazers prefer to eat nutrient-rich young plants.

Young family members of the crew mates watch the burn practice from a local fire truck. Photo by Mariah Lundgren.

he first white settlers in Nebraska, however, viewed fire very differently. Because they built permanent homes arranged in towns, rather than nomadic camps, settlers were worried about the damage that could be done by large grassland fires and actively suppressed wildfires. They defended their homes and farms against blazes fueled by a sea of dry big bluestem grass with water wagons that assisted bucket brigades. They lit small, controlled fires to deprive wildfires of their fuel. Today, many Sandhills ranchers still view prairie fires as extremely dangerous and prefer not to use fire as a management tool, but this is beginning to change.

Today, the Switzer and Morgan families, with the help of a regular crew of friends and neighbors, conduct small controlled burns on spring evenings when the humidity is high, and the wind is low. After a burn, the prairie comes alive with species adapted to fire. No longer hidden by dense vegetation, sandy tunnels dug by pocket gophers dot the landscape. Within days, the blackened earth quickly sprouts new life. Black turns to green, as young cool-season grasses and flower shoots push through the nutrient-rich soil. Once the grasses and sedges have had the opportunity to grow deep roots and stabilize the sand dunes, cattle will return to graze the pasture.

In this 360 video, Adam Switzer explains why burning in the Sandhills is beneficial for the control of the invasive eastern red cedar.

Prairie Chickens and Wind Energy

Male greater prairie chickens gather on a lek near a wind energy facility south of Ainsworth, Nebraska. Photo by Larkin Powell / University of Nebraska.

The greater prairie chicken has become a focal point for ecotourism on the Switzer Ranch. The Sandhills provide important nesting and breeding habitat for many permanent resident bird species, including the threatened greater prairie chicken (Tympanuchus cupido). Prairie chickens typically mate in the Sandhills in the spring. To attract females, male prairie chickens perform a thunderous “booming” dance in specific mating arenas called leks, which are primarily found in sub-irrigated meadows. The Switzers have many prairie chicken leks on their ranch. The leks provide an opportunity for ecotourists to quietly gather in the early morning to observe the birds from blinds, which include recycled school buses. As interest in the birds grew, Sarah started the Nebraska Prairie Chicken Festival in 2012 to encourage bird enthusiasts young and old to “celebrate prairie grouse species, the grasslands, and the culture that surrounds them.”

But one year later, the Nebraska Public Power District (NPPD) announced that it would be building a new transmission line through this region of the Sandhills. For the next two years, representatives from the NPPD held public meetings to help determine the route. Sarah and other members of the Gracie Creek Landowners Association attended the meetings and voiced their concern about routing the transmission lines through prime prairie-chicken habitat. Scientific research suggests that prairie chickens avoid roads, and transmission lines have associated access roads. If the transmission lines were to come through the Switzer and Morgan ranches, it could result in reduced populations and also reduce grazing capacity for the families’ cattle herds. Both their cattle and tourism businesses would be threatened.

Through active involvement in the decision-making process, Sarah and other members of the Gracie Creek Landowners Association convinced NPPD representatives to route to the north of the two ranches. Sarah was pleased, but “we knew at the same time, if it didn’t come through us it would come through a neighbor.” For Sarah and other Sandhills ranchers, they did not consider this a battle against wind development or transmission lines. They were concerned for the Sandhills—the land, its wildlife, and its ranching culture. Sarah recalled that they were “not anti-wind-power.” Instead, she explained, her family and neighbors wanted the project to be completed “in a very smart way. Just take a step back and let’s just look at this. Can we put these wind farms in places that make more sense, rather than coming out here in one of the few remaining intact, pristine grasslands on the globe and changing it—changing it forever?”

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