Saturday, April 10, 2010

Continuing Education at the Heartland Byways Conference

I managed to take way too many pictures on our byways tour, a lot even for me! Since I want to share them with you, I'm going to intersperse them with some of the great stuff we learned about managing our byways and attracting visitors to them at the Heartland Byways Conference.

Our first speaker was Deb Miller, the first woman to head the Kansas Department of Transportation. Under her leadership, the Kansas Byway program has really thrived. She made a very important point in that no matter why people visit our state, in terms of quantity, what they see the most is our roadsides, so if they're going to have a favorable opinion of us, our roadsides darn sure better look good!

Kansas now has nine scenic byways, including two National Scenic Byways (Flint Hills and Wetlands and Wildlife) and they have also created the Kansas Backroads program to promote routes off the state highway system.

To enhance the beauty of Kansas roadsides, they have implemented an aggressive native wildflower and grass seeding program, modified their mowing practices and scaled back the use of herbicides.

Below: the entrance to the Kansas Wetlands Education Center along the Wetlands and Wildlife Scenic Byway. The National Scenic Byway program was begun in 1991, and is operated on a completely grass-roots basis. It is local activists who decide they want either a state or national scenic byway. They develop all of the funding sources (including Federal Highway Administration Grant applications), local partners, routes and attractions. After they are successful in their designation, they are completely responsible for maintaining and growing the byway. Wayne Gannaway, the byways specialist of America's Byways Resource Center provided an excellent overview of the byways program.

Every National Scenic Byway must contain one of the deisgnated intrinsic qualities: Scenic, Natural, Historical, Cultural, Archeological or Recreational. The byway brand is becoming a resource trusted by travelers to deliver a quality experience traveling America's backroads.

Below: We all enjoy the panoramic view of the Cheyenne Bottoms marsh while we eat a delicious lunch at the Kansas Wetlands Education Center.The education center uses their space to tell the story of Kansas and how the settlement has affected the wetlands and wildlife along with simply being a showcase for the importance of the Cheyenne Bottoms wetland and the wonderful variety of species that can be found there.Cheryl Hargrove, president of Hargrove International, a company specializing in heritage tourism, discussed the travel trends we are facing. The U.S. travel industry is cautiously optimistic for travel in 2010.

One of the key factors affecting this optimism is that, although there are still economic concerns, travel is now seen as much needed therapy to combat the stress and uncertainty of the day. It is seen as a need, not a want.

One of the troubling statistics Cheryl quoted is that since 1970, kids have lost an average of 12 hours per week free time, a 25% drop in play time and a 50% drop in unstructured times. Gone are the lazy summer days when endless possibilities, limited only by their imagination, stretch before America's children. Is it any wonder we grow up to be stressed out?

Below: The Kansas Wetlands Education Center is designed to provide sweeping views of the marsh and its inhabitants. Lisa Brochu, the Associate Director of the National Association for Interpretation provided two very inspirational workshops on interpration along byways. America is becoming a landscape of scary places, a "Geography of Nowhere" in which there is nothing unique, with chain restaurants, chain businesses make it hard to differentiate one place from another.

Byways preserve the integrity of our unique communities and special places, telling and preserving the important stories of our heritage and culture for future generations. What byways do isn't just a benefit for tourists, locals come to have a greater understanding and appreciation for what makes their place special through the creation of a byway.

Below: Byways provide an important link between local producers and potential consumers. Here the gift shop contains a wide array of locally grown and made products. The creation of the Wetlands and Wildlife National Scenic Byway is an amazing success story. Although the process took nearly ten years from conception to realization, which might indicate struggles an opposition, in reality what that time period represents is simply a dedicated group of people who left no stone unturned in building the foundation for a successful byway program.

The byway spans three counties, seven communities and three wildlife refuges. Each partner was given an equal voice and seat at the table during the planning and implementation process. Amazingly enough, while generating actual support was sometimes a challenge, the steering committee faced no actual opposition.

Very often, locals are the last to recognize how special and unique their place is, or why anyone would want to visit. The steering committee had partners in each community who worked tirelessly to educate locals on the importance of developing the byway.

Below: Wildlife isn't forgotten in the education center either. The Cheyenne Bottoms wetland is home to a wide variety of fauna, including numerous species of reptiles. Lisa Brochu emphasized the importance of a centralized theme that unites the byway and provides a foundation for telling the story. In my case, representing the Lincoln Highway Scenic and Historic Byway that stretches across Nebraska from Iowa to Wyoming, designating one theme that encompasses what is important about the entire byway is a little daunting. I was fortunate enough to have Lisa as my seatmate for the byway tour Thursday afternoon, and she was very encouraging that it is, in fact, doable.

Successful thematic statements include Laramie Wyoming: An Outdoor Town with an Outlaw Past; and New Orleans: Lingers on the threshold between the old world and the new, between history and legend. Now don't those statements just make you want to plan a visit?

Below: The Cheyenne Bottoms Wetland is in the final stages of the spring waterfowl migration, and in the beginning stages of the shorebird migration. There are many species of waterfowl in this photograph, as well as glimpses of the concrete bunkers that serve as duck blinds during hunting season. Pelicans are annual visitors as well. There is a small year-round resident population, but those represent non-breeding individuals. Pelicans will make the journey into the Nebraska Sandhills and beyond to nest. If I got my facts straight, which is not a guarantee, the birds below are Cormorants. As I mentioned above, the byway includes three wildlife refuges, the Nature Conservancy Cheyenne Bottoms Preserve, the Cheyenne Bottoms State Wildlife Area to the north and the Quivera National Wildlife Refuge near the south end of the byway.

Cheyenne Bottoms is the country's largest interior marsh covering 41,000 acres. The state wildlife area covers 20,000 acres and is managed by the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks. The Nature Conservancy preserve contains 7,700 acres, while Quivera covers 22,000 acres of salt marshes, freshwater wetlands, woodlands and prairie. Quivera has been named a "Wetland of International Importance."

Below: At the Quivera scenic overlook, a fire of "undetermined origin" blackened 500 acres less than a week before our tour. Look closely and observe the green shoots already emerging from the blackened soil. Lots of Pelicans enjoy the waters of Quivera, and if you enlarge the photograph and look at the group of white birds behind the Pelicans, you'll see a colony of Great Egrets. Other wildlife make their home in Quivera as well. The shape in the middle of the cattails is a Muskrat den. And here is one of the little creatures swimming close enough to the bus window to get a decent (OK, half-way decent?) picture. These two Pelicans were disturbed by the monstrous tour bus invading their territory.Here is where I really wish my photography skills were greater (I realize that you all have wished all along that my photography skills were greater, but they are what they are!), and that the road wasn't so rough that it would make my longer lens impractical. Right next to the tiny island in the background is an Avocet. Behind the water is one of the numerous oil wells that dot the preserve. This is an example of the original saltwar marsh that comprises much of Quivera. The grass is inland salt grass.Though the effects of the fire I showed you above were caused by probably an unintentional man-made burn, farmers in the area use fire as a means of returning valuable plant nutrients to the soil. All of the preserves also use fire to control cattails and other overly abundant plant species, as well as to revitalize prairie environments. The creation of byways is all about telling America's stories through preserving our important transportation corridors. Much of our history is contained in the small settlements that dot the landscape, many of which are facing depopulation and tough economic times.

All told, the byway creation effort has received $600,000 in numerous federal grants to fund a variety of planning, development and implementation portions of the project. These dollars must be combined with local match of 20% (which according to my mathematically-challenged calculations comes to $120,000). Add to that an investment of approximately 7,500 hours of staff time and you reach a considerable investment on behalf of the local communities, the bulk of which was borne by Barton County.

The effort to create a byway, especially a National Scenic byway is not for the faint of heart. The effort requires strong and organized leadership, tenacity and the commitment to build support every step of the way. Obviously the organizers of the Wetlands and Wildlife Scenic Byway did a fantastic job.

The tiny town of Hudson, population 133, is one of the seven communities along the byway. It is home to one of Kansas "Eight Wonders of Commerce," the Hudson Cream Flour Mill that is one of the last remaining independent flour mills.

Below: Some of the structures along the central business district. The towering structure of the Hudson Cream Flour Mill behind the Hudson Community Hall. Grain elevators such as this dot the Kansas landscape and are known as "Skyscrapers of the Prairie."Hudson boasts a beautiful church and picturesque cemetery, although I didn't have time to stroll among the graves to get a sense of the story they tell. That will have to wait for another visit. Do you get the feeling that early settlers to the region were perhaps of Germanic origin? The final speaker of the conference was Berkeley Young of Young Strategies, Inc. Berkeley is the picture of a southern gentleman, who brings a persuasive argument about the importance of catering to the visitor to the conversation.


Byways must always focus on what we are going to do with the visitors once we get them to our place. They need to feel comfortable that they know what to expect, how to get there, and be confident that they are going to have a good time when they arrive. As time starved as travelers are today, the last thing they need is to finish their precious few days of leisure time and realize that they wasted it. We have a responsibility to make sure that they get what they need out of a vacation.

Byways not only sustain the heritage and core of our communities, they must infuse money into the local economy while doing it, otherwise they will not be sustainable.

If we are going to make a difference in the creation or success of our byways, we have to be committed to rolling up our sleeves and simply getting it done. As Berkeley stressed "Can't never could!" If we practice the right leadership model, we will develop a local team that will accomplish amazing things.

Below: The Nebraska contingent stop long enough in the beautiful Kansas early evening to pose for a picture.
I just love the story that the two pictures below tell. When originally platted, the founding fathers of Hudson Kansas had big dreams for the future of their town.
When the dust finally settled, the reality was slightly smaller than the dream.
However, it didn't dampen the peoples enthusiasm for their community. The tiny Wheatland Cafe served up a wonderful spread in the community hall for our enjoyment.
This has been a marathon post, even for me! Thank you for staying with me to the end. As you can probably tell, I am very enthusiastic about what I learned, and taking it back home to my own byway! I hope you'll have the chance to visit one of the nations wonderful scenic byways soon.

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