An article on yahoo this week highlights the economic plight of the plains states well. Ziebach County in South Dakota has hit 90% unemployment with most of its residents living below the poverty line. While this is an extreme case, many counties in the Great Plains region face prospects that aren’t much better.
One of the goals of the Great Plains Trail is to increase economic activity near where the trail passes. Visitors, even a modest amount, will bring dollars. I believe that recreation in this area is a step toward a solution to the economic difficulties of the whole region. Recreation areas in the mountains can be overcrowded and overpriced. I believe the Great Plains offers something unique and new. It may not be the first place people think about when they think about recreation, but that doesn’t mean it has nothing to offer.
The Great Plains is an amazing place, but unfortunately suffers from a few myths which I would like to dispel here:
To anyone who has truly taken the time to look closely at the Great Plains, this is quite untrue. While it’s definitely not the Himalayas, and there are some areas that are fairly level, in general the plains have a consistent swell of land undulating anywhere from 100 to 400 feet. Along with that comes numerous cliffs, buttes, rock outcroppings, and badlands. A major mountain range also exists right in the heart of the plains, the Black Hills of South Dakota. The Black Hills boasts summits higher than those of the Appalachians, and has a unique landscape full of dramatic topography. So no, the Great Plains are not flat.
Ok, so it’s not Manhattan, Hollywood, or Las Vegas, but that doesn’t mean that there is nothing to see or do on the plains. Within the boundaries of the Great Plains there are 6 National Parks, 2 National Monuments, a National Recreation Area, several National forests and National Grasslands, plus countless state or county parks. Not into nature? The Black Hills has gambling, world class live entertainment, and endless events. The city of Denver, though usually associated with the Rocky Mountains, actually sits on the Great Plains. There are definitely things to do and places to go on the Great Plains, or maybe just enjoy the fact that it’s not Las Vegas.
There’s no wildlife.
In addition to the signature bison, grizzlies, wolves, and elk used to live permanently on the plains. They no longer do, but the bison has made something of a comeback on ranches that have decided to raise buffalo instead of cattle. There are amazing shows of bird wildlife all along the numerous rivers of the plains. The Sandhill cranes come in thousands to the Platte River in Nebraska, and the burrowing owl is a favorite among birdwatchers. This place was once called the American Serengeti for good reason. The Great Plains may have lost some of its wildlife, but much remains.
It’s too hot, too cold, or too windy.
OK, this one can be true some of the time, but if you pick the right times and places, the climate of the plains can be quite friendly. The heat of summer is often broken by dramatic afternoon thunderstorms. The cold of winter often doesn’t last long, and can be broken up by very mild spells of weather, even in the coldest months. The wind, well there’s not much that can be done about the wind when it decides to blow. Just accept it and love it as part of what made this great landscape.
There’s no water.
Well, there’s no ocean and no major lakes, but rivers are the lifeblood of the plains. They disect the region in numerous large and small flows, from the giants of the plains, the Missouri, the Platte, and the Arkansas, to endless smaller creeks running throughout the region. Rivers have always brought life and people to the plains.
So go ahead and visit the Great Plains. See what it has to offer. See it for its recreational opportunities. You may find its beauty and be surprised. While you’re at it, put a few dollars into the local economies. They need it.