All people need a place to revisit to be “inspired anew with the wonder and pure majestic beauty of Mother Nature,” blogger Bruce Tomes once wrote. “The Niobrara River in Nebraska is that place for me, and has been since the first time I paddled a canoe down the classic stretch between the Cornell low–head dam by Valentine and the Norden bridge over 30 years ago.”


Tomes is not alone. The stretch of river he cherishes runs through Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge. About 10,000 visitors a year float it in a canoe, kayak or tube.


“The Niobrara River is a jewel in the beautiful landscape that is northcentral Nebraska,” says refuge project leader Steve Hicks. “This is an area that is still mostly native prairie. The river flows freely through the heart of that prairie.”


Part of the river lies in refuge designated wilderness.


“The wilderness character is maintained,” Hicks says. “It can be your ‘secret place’ even though you may have to share it.”


Balancing the refuge mission with river recreation can be tricky.


An unusual variety of habitats converge at Fort Niobrara Refuge. Six different plant communities and a blend of topography, soil and rock formations with differing sun, wind and moisture exposure attract a rare diversity of wildlife. “It just all comes together to be a beautiful, unique place,” says Hicks.


The 19,131–acre refuge is managed for birds, bison and elk. Habitats ranging from grass–covered sandhills to deep wooded river gorges draw more than 230 bird species. Wild and captive elk roam wooded and prairie areas. Bison can be found seasonally on the open prairie or in the gorges of the 4,635–acre wilderness area.


To minimize wildlife and habitat disturbance, the refuge enforces a river recreation management plan devised in 2005.


At a refuge canoe launch just outside the wilderness, private individuals and commercial outfitters with special–use permits can put into the river for a fiveplus– mile refuge jaunt that takes about two hours in a canoe or four hours on a tube. “You’re in a deep canyon with wilderness on both sides,” says Hicks.


On the river, visitors must follow the 2005 plan’s regulations, which prohibit alcohol; firearms; fireworks; highvolume radios (“boomboxes,” Hicks clarifies); devices capable of shooting or directing a projectile or liquid at another person or wildlife (“squirt guns”); camping; open pit fires; and hunting. The regulations also mandate daylightonly floating; five float tubes maximum tied together; fishing limitations; no ice climbing, rock climbing or rappelling; and no collecting plants, animals, rocks or historical artifacts.


Hick, a 29–year U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employee who has been Fort Niobrara Refuge manager since 2008, is grateful for his predecessors’ work. “They did a really good job in writing the plan,” he says. “The biggest challenge is enforcing those rules. When they are complied with, then wildlife, people and habitat are coexisting without one being a detriment to any other.”


Another challenge is that, because the river runs through wilderness, the rules must be enforced using non–motorized vehicles. So, Hicks points out, Fort Niobrara Refuge staff members must be highly skilled in kayaks—and they are.


The Niobrara, which originates in Wyoming, is fed by the Ogallala Aquifer and flows into the Missouri River 135 miles downstream from the refuge. Much of it is a national wild and scenic river. Even so, the nonprofit American Rivers has named it among “America’s most endangered rivers,” largely because of dam–related sediment built up at the confluence with the Missouri.


Such degradation worries blogger Tomes, a man who clearly paddles locally and thinks globally: “It’s not just about the Niobrara River or any other particular place. It’s about all of our places collectively.”