Tutelage on the Platte: There is a need to connect people of all ages to the Platte River and the cranes who require it


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By Brad Mellema

Nature centers are a tough business. Last time I checked, Warren Buffet had no nature centers in his holdings, and the business of outdoor education is not on the top of the list for career-minded young people. Despite the obstacles, there is a need, a need for a place for people to connect. What we now call Nebraska Nature & Visitor Center has come about because of a need to connect people of all ages to the Platte River and, in larger part, to Nebraska and the Great Plains.

Why here, why now? The roots for this Nature Center go back more than 20 years when we were called Crane Meadows Nature Center. The center was born from a need that arose when people came to the area to witness the spring migration of the sandhill cranes and other birds. Located between Grand Island, Hastings and Kearney at Alda exit 305 on Interstate I-80, the building is located on Nebraska’s “main street,” with more than 20,000 vehicles a day passing by our front door. The center has had its bumps along the way, but the need for places such as this have continued to grow.

Local folks have always known about the sandhill cranes. It’s hard to miss them as you drive to work and see large flocks feeding out in the surrounding fields. Most people gave little thought to them and why they were here or why they were anything special. Most locals see no reason why someone would travel to Nebraska to see the migration, after all, a bunch of gray gangly birds standing in a cornfield? Come on!

People did come. Outside of our state, aside from college football and corn, one of the things we are most known for is our amazing migration. When I talk to local groups, one of the first things I remind people of is that Nebraska is an exotic place to most of the world! It really is!

As locals, we go about our business giving little thought to the uniqueness of the rivers and wildlife that come to the area in abundance. We do notice that picture-postcard sunset filled with geese or that bald eagle that swoops near our car on the highway, but the business of life and the pressures of everyday business push aside the time it would take to stop and observe. Really just stop and take it in.

That is where our role as a nature center comes in.

Our nature center was forced to close its doors a few years ago due in large part to funding. I remind you, the business of nature centers is tough. Our board of directors was faced with the difficult task of infusing funding and energy back into this center. That was done in large part through the successful forming of partnerships that have provided the financial and programmatic underpinnings needed for long-term success. We have teamed up with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, Hastings College, The Platte River Recovery Implementation Program, and we were awarded a grant from the Nebraska Environmental Trust.

For a visitor who comes to hike our trails or take a class, this place is 100 percent about nature. For those of us who work and volunteer here, it is all about people. People need nature, and nature needs people. There, I said it! Some would argue this, but the reality is that any real conservation that is going to get done requires partnerships with landowners, government, organizations and the public. If people disconnect from the natural world, conservation efforts and partnerships will wither.

The Central Platte River valley is home to some of the most productive land on our planet. This productivity has created a robust economy of agriculture, business and industry that thrives to this day. The common thread is the Platte. The Platte breathes life into this region; it always has. This is the focus of our mission.

Nebraska is not a paved parking lot or a big-box store; it’s not a movie set or a video game; it is a people and a land. People need natural places so we can go there, and nature can live there. When people go there, they will say wow! I grew up in west Omaha and am all too familiar with that huge parking lot. I also had a chance to spend a lot of time outside as a youngster riding my bike, fishing, swimming, hunting and swimming in the Platte at Two Rivers State Park. I’m so very thankful for those opportunities. When I go back to Omaha, so much has changed, but there are those little enclaves of wilderness still there. It’s nice to know that places such as this exist, such as they are.

How does all this relate to our role at the center? It’s all about people and place. Context. For us, it goes like this: Great Plains, Nebraska and then the Platte River. People shoot down Interstate 80 as fast as they can, trying to get to Chicago, Salt Lake City or wherever. They are driving through a seemingly endless flat (boring) place full of funny-looking sprinklers and livestock, not realizing that they are traversing one of the last remaining examples of a braided prairie river that is the lifeblood of our state. They may stop in for a break and a browse through the gift shop. We will encourage them to take a 10-minute walk to the footbridge that will put them on a sandbar in the Platte. We’re planning for this type of visitor and will continue to find ways to connect them to Nebraska’s nature.

We are also going to provide structured programs for both youth and adults. Enter our Program Coordinator Dan Glomski. Dan’s responsibility is to provide a variety of opportunities to connect people through a variety of formal and informal activities. This will include local schools and community groups that make use of the center. We have already entered into partnerships with Hastings College, Central Community College, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and the University of Nebraska that will help provide people and programs that will be held on the site. It’s a big task to pull this together, especially after a few years of having the center closed down. The need is certainly there, and we will work hard to provide opportunities to connect.

You never know what will come from that opportunity. Our first big test is this year’s spring migration, where we expect some 10,000-plus visitors from across the country and around the world to stop by and see firsthand the sandhill crane migration. We’ll be here providing guided tours and educational programs. A quick glace at the traffic from our Web site, http://www.nebraskanature.org, shows us that people from all over the world will again come to Nebraska to connect. We’ll be telling the story of partnerships formed and what the successes

and obstacles are for the Platte and its wildlife.

In April, when the cranes vacate Nebraska for parts north, we’ll provide a place to introduce people to the Platte and the prairie. While the big stage of the spring migration will always be our big show, the prairie is a wonderful place all 12 months a year.

Success for this nature center will be measured when a youngster succumbs to the irresistible urge to catch a green racer as it darts from the rot of a long-ago fallen elm tree and provides an experience that will capture the imagination not just of youth, but everyone.

The Nebraska Nature & Visitor Center, located at I-80 exit 305 in Alda, Neb., is open year-round Mondays through Saturdays. From March 5 through April 7, 2010, the center will be open seven days a week. For more information, visit http://www.nebraskanature.org or call (308) 382-1820.


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