CHEYENNE BOTTOMS WILDLIFE AREA – Gov. Sam Brownback thinks it’s time for Kansas to better share its wetlands wealth with the rest of the world.
“I hear people say (Cheyenne Bottoms and the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge) are some of the best-kept secrets in the world. That’s not an accolade to me,” Brownback said Saturday at the Kansas Wetlands Education Center.
Ted Eubanks, a nationally recognized expert in nature-based tourism, agrees and told Brownback and others at the first Governor’s Ecotourism Summit the state can improve how it markets a variety of attractions.
Eubanks spoke to Brownback and about 50 local and state tourism and wildlife officials gathered to discuss ways to promote nature-based tourism, including birding, hiking, mountain biking and kayaking, to help the Kansas economy.
Brownback became increasingly interested in ecotourism after traveling to Nebraska this spring to witness the sandhill crane migration, which draws visitors from all over the world.
In the past he’s held several summits to help promote the Flint Hills and started a celebrity pheasant hunt to bring more attention to the good hunting Kansas has to offer.
Now, he also wants to focus on what Kansas’ two main wetlands have to offer.
“Quivira and Cheyenne Bottoms have excellent potential for the expansion of economic growth without spoiling the resource,” Brownback said.
Eubanks, a Texan with worldwide professional ecotoursim experience, said Kansas’ famed wetlands are special enough to draw global attention.
Both are considered world-class birding locations that often feature very rare birds, like whooping cranes.
Some days birders may see 100 or more other species, including many unique migrants at the areas.
Eubanks said the Internet is a great and inexpensive way to garner more attention. Better signs, especially along I-70, could get travelers to make the one-hour detour from the interstate to the wetlands area.
He said the wildlife viewing needs to be as easy as possible.
Things like observation blinds, viewing towers and guided tours could help, as could detailed information in handouts, online and on well-placed interpretive signs, he said.
“(Visitors) don’t want to be told to go see Sam down at the coffee shop, and he can tell you where to go,” Eubanks said.
Kansas communities also need to offer a good all-around experience for those coming to see the wetlands.
Ecotourists, he said, want a feel for the area, and to enjoy more than just a morning watching sandhill cranes.
Eubanks recommended ways to tell visitors about local personalities like Pelican Pete, a hermit who lived amid the Quivira marshes in an old chicken coop.
And all aspects of nature should be touted.
“You need to tell the story of (wild) sand plums that make the most wonderful jellies,” he said. “Someone that comes here needs to be introduced to the jellies because that helps introduce them to the land. Someone also needs to sell them some of those jellies. If you don’t reach out for those dollars, they’ll fly right through town.”
Though the natural offerings will get people coming to the area, some manufactured attractions can help.
Eubanks referenced long mountain bike trails created in North Dakota and geocaching events that draw many thousands.
One of Eubanks’ favorites is a fall foliage festival in Canadian, Texas, a small panhandle town.
He said the main fall colors are provided by poison ivy, but the festival has drawn national media attention and annually brings thousands of visitors.
After Eubanks’ talk, Brownback had participants brainstorm ideas.
Things mentioned included herpetology tours, ways to get private landowners and agriculture involved in the tourism industry and resulting profits, better signs around the state, and ways to make Cheyenne Bottoms and Quivira more easily enjoyed by visitors.
Brownback was one of several who said they left with a better idea of how to promote ecotourism in Kansas.
He now wants to devote more time and energy to the concept.
“I think we’ve come up with some real good things we can do here,” the governor said. “I think it was certainly a good start for me.”