Calamus Outfitters demonstrates the potential of ecotourism in Nebraska
The story of Sara Sortum and her brother Adam Switzer is not unlike that of many Nebraskans who grow up in the freedom and sunshine of a ranch or farm and then find something missing in their adult lives.
Sara and Adam left their home on the Switzer ranch, a fourth generation cattle operation near Burwell, NE, to further their educations and careers after graduating from the local high school. Following marriage and the birth of their children, though, both Sara and Adam began to imagine a way they could return to the ranch so that their children could live the ranch life and bond with the land and the community as they had growing up.
But supporting multiple families in the 21st Century on ranching alone can be a hard scrabble, so the siblings turned to a relatively new way to carve a living out of Nebraska’s sand hills: ecotourism.
“Adam and I and our families wanted to live and work permanently on the ranch,” Sara said. “This is where we wanted to be, and it didn’t take us long to realize that as outfitters we could make it happen.”
An education in Namibia
Adam, who formerly worked in agricultural sales, took on the challenge first. He and his wife, Theresa and their three children returned to the Switzer Ranch, repurposed the main house as a lodge and started a hunting and outfitting business. When Sara’s husband was able to secure a teaching job in a nearby community, she and their three children followed.
But it was after a trip Sara and her dad took to Namibia, Africa in 2009 that they began to consider the real possibilities of ecotourism.
The Grassland Foundation, a Nebraska-based conservation group with ties to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF-US) invited them to see how nature tourism is managed in Namibia, a country that is recognized for its accomplishments in growing an ecotourism industry.
“The Grassland Foundation is interested in conserving grassland biodiversity on the Northern Great Plains, basically through helping ranchers develop successful nature-based tourism operations to supplement their cattle income,” Sara said, “They asked if we wanted to visit Namibia to study biodiversity and ecotourism.” Although Namibia is home to zebra, wildebeest and cheetah, a significant portion of Namibia is in private hands, similar to Nebraska, and landowners in Namibia operate mixed farming, ranching and wildlife operations. The government developed policies to allow private land owners and local people to benefit more from their wildlife resources by creating value in wildlife viewing and hunting, so that now nature-based tourism is the second most important industry there.
Meeting the needs of wildlife
Upon returning from Namibia, they were inspired to facilitate the Gracie Creek Landowners Association which now involves three ranches and about 50,000 acres of land. Sara Sortum is the planning director and her role is to disseminate information and help solve problems associated with the conservation plan.
“What I love about Gracie Creek is the uniqueness of each ranch and what works for one will require tweaking and changing to be successful on another ranch,” Sara said. “We manipulate the plans to meet the needs of the wildlife. We look at the land from a bird’s eye view.”
The Gracie Creek Landowners Association acquired a capacity-building grant from the Northern Bird Partnership and the World Wildlife Fund, and the association currently is improving habitat for grassland birds by removing invasive cedar trees, developing innovative grazing plans, and monitoring Greater Prairie Chicken and Sharp-Tailed Grouse numbers and distribution on the ranches. The association was also awarded a research grant from the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission to improve Prairie Chicken and grouse habitat.
“The Gracie Creek landowners are beginning to look at their land in ways to benefit wildlife and to understand that the benefits spread to other uses of the land,” Sara said.
Success and challenges
Lodging, meaning heads on pillows, usually provides the primary revenue source for an outfitter, but after Adam started the hunting outfitters business, it soon expanded to include river trips, tanking, tubing, canoeing, Greater Prairie Chicken and grouse viewing, bird watching, jeep tours and trail rides. The good times at the Calamus are well-received nationally and in Nebraska.
“Business is good; hunts are booked; 3,000 beds are filled during the year and approximately 3,000 river trips are booked too,” Sara said.
But for all the success Calamus Outfitters has enjoyed, there are still plenty of challenges. For one thing, tourists must drive 200 miles from the Omaha airport through the sand hills with few landmarks to reach the Calamus Outfitters; some report feeling lost and even fearful as they drive across a landscape that is strange and unfamiliar to them.
Sara would like to organize shuttle services from the Omaha airport in a van driven by an informed driver who could act as a guide on the trip.
“We would like a one call, one click vacation package,” Sara said. “In Namibia, the government provides highly trained people to guide tourists; well-trained guides greatly enhance the tourist experience.”
Sara also said that a lack of lodging was also a barrier to improving ecotourism in the Burwell area, but rather than build a generic motel, she’d like to see more landowners building lodges or bed and breakfasts and cabins on their land. “Generic ruins the experience.” She’d also like to see more hiking and biking trails in the region.
Is ecotourism for you?
Although ecotourism has been good for Sara and Adam and their families, it’s not for everybody. Sara said there’s more work than you realize and it means giving up a lot of privacy.
“You have to write a business plan,” she said. “You have to know what you have to do to turn a profit.” She said the difference between the agriculture side of the business and the tourism side is that in agriculture you don’t determine the prices of the commodities you sell, but in tourism, you determine the price of each service. “We like planning for profit, and we know before our guests arrive the cost of their stay and the profit that returns to us.”
Sara also advises that you plan for insurance costs, which can be 10% of the business, and says, “You have to keep stuff clean and always provide hospitality; you have to deliver a positive tourist experience for the customers.”
In the future Sara said they’d like to develop more upscale and unusual birding or wildlife watching experience, somewhat similar to safaris in Africa.
It’s not the easy road, but if your goal is to stay on the land, to maintain your rural lifestyle and values, and to raise your children in the fresh air and sunshine, the way you were raised, Calamus Outfitters is proof that it can be done.