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 lowhead 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
Part of the river lies in refuge
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 19,131acre refuge is managed for
birds, bison and elk. Habitats ranging
from grasscovered 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
4,635acre wilderness area.
To minimize wildlife and habitat
disturbance, the refuge enforces a river
recreation management plan devised
At a refuge canoe launch just outside
the wilderness, private individuals and
commercial outfitters with specialuse
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. Youre in a deep canyon with
wilderness on both sides, says Hicks.
On the river, visitors must follow the
2005 plans 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 29year 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 nonmotorized
vehicles. So, Hicks points out, Fort
Niobrara Refuge staff members must be
highly skilled in kayaksand 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 Americas most
endangered rivers, largely because of
damrelated sediment built up at the
confluence with the Missouri.
Such degradation worries blogger Tomes,
a man who clearly paddles locally and
thinks globally: Its not just about the
Niobrara River or any other particular
place. Its about all of our places