Our Vistas Can Lure Tourists

Promotion, preservation of tallgrass prairie
can boost economic development

Editorial Board

Des Moines Register

December 20, 2004

[Note: This material is copyright by the Des Moines Register, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other or commercial use requires the prior approval of the Des Moines Register.]

Just as they do in Iowa, small towns in the Texas Panhandle struggle for survival. The oil and gas boom came and went. Cattle ranching on the high plains isn't what it used to be.

So what's left for a rural community to build on?

One answer, whether in Texas or Iowa, is to tap into the largest industry in the United States - travel and tourism.

But not just any tourism. It needs to be tourism that relates to the unique features of the land, the history and the people of particular areas. This kind of tourism goes by several names: ecotourism, nature tourism, environmental tourism, experiential tourism. It's the fastest-growing segment of the travel industry, fueled by people who have had their fill of artificial attractions like Disney World and are seeking to experience something real.

Texas, which has capitalized on its cowboy culture and high-plains vistas, can provide a road map.

The broad strategy for Iowa will involve incorporating a major emphasis on ecotourism into our economic-development plans. More specifically: Establish our state as the place to explore the tallgrass prairie, an endangered ecosystem that is every bit as exotic and fascinating as tropical rainforests. The tallgrass could be Iowa's "brand," a unifying theme around which communities could design their tourism efforts.

Experiential tourists "are searching for the natural, historical and cultural heart of a region, and their defining principle is authenticity," according to Fermanta Inc., a consulting firm that was hired by Texas Panhandle communities to help develop a nature-tourism strategy.

Several communities in 15 counties joined to form the Texas Prairie Rivers Initiative, offering a variety of tourism experiences linked to local natural features such as prairie dogs, burrowing owls and prairie chickens. A Great Texas Wildlife Trail was designated from the Oklahoma border to Laredo to showcase the best locations for wildlife viewing.

Fermata reports that Canadian, Texas, a town of 1,500 in the Prairie Rivers region, has gained more than 150 jobs in the last five years and "is no longer blowing away" while preserving its way of life.

A big selling point for nature tourism is that it is "sustainable" economic development. That is, it generates economic activity without depleting the underlying resource. Indeed, the income provided by tourists can be used to further conserve and enhance the natural landscape, making it even better.

The Loess Hills region in western Iowa gives the state a head start on the path toward developing ecotourism. It contains some of the best prairie remnants in Iowa, arrayed on a land form that exists nowhere else in this hemisphere. Public and private entities in the region banded together to promote tourism and development. Among other successes, they gained national designation for the Loess Hills Scenic Byway.

But the tallgrass prairie at one time existed in almost all of Iowa. The theme could be used almost anywhere in conjunction with community festivals, parks, bike trails, camping, wildlife viewing, historic sites.

Or, the theme could be stretched beyond Iowa. Mary Jeanne Packer, chief operating officer of Fermanta, suggested the possibility of a multistate tallgrass prairie tourism consortium.

Her company is consulting in Kansas, where the Flint Hills contain the most extensive tallgrass prairie remnants in the nation. Packer said the Flint Hills might not be a large enough attraction alone to draw vacationers from, say, Chicago. An entire region that combined the Flint Hills of Kansas with the Loess Hills of Iowa and on north into South Dakota - from Wichita to Sioux Falls - might be more successful.

We Iowans have always been too modest about the pleasing vistas of Iowa: the rolling hills of the south, the majestic bluffs of the east and west, the far horizons of the northwest expanses.

If new-generation tourists are looking for the "real" and "authentic" experiences - well, what's more authentic than Iowa?