JOHNSTOWN — Way off the beaten path north of here, the Sandhills lays claim to one of the state’s best secrets — The Nature Conservancy.
Containing 56,000 acres mostly along the Niobrara River, the conservancy is the only place in the world where six different eco systems come together, including three kinds of prairies and three kinds of woodlands.
It is home to two herds of bison, with much of the land leased out for cattle grazing. Traveling to view it requires going on a few “beaten paths” from Highway 20, where pickups or other four-wheel drive vehicles are a must.
Gerry Osborn of Ainsworth knows the land well and can tell stories, ranging from fishing the Niobrara River as a boy to nearly drowning in it once as an adult.
“I don’t swim in it any more,” Osborn said. “I got into some backwater and couldn’t get out. I got against the wall (of rock) and used it for springboarding to get myself out. I stopped swimming in it after that.”
Osborn was honored three years ago for his 70 years of service as a cooperative weather observer. It’s a job he still does as a volunteer.
The former postmaster and former mayor of Ainsworth loves nature. And if you ask him about the Ainsworth area and the Sandhills, he can quickly rattle off facts and stories from more than eight decades of living in the region.
Osborn also is the founder of the annual “Sandhills Discovery Experience,” which attracts visitors near and far for three days of speakers and tours to attractions within about 100 miles of Ainsworth.
This year’s conference included the Niobrara Valley Preserve, which is part of The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. It is located north of Johnstown, which is along Highway 20 west of Ainsworth.
The Sandhills Discovery Experience attracts a lot of retired people, but all generations are represented.
“I would say student representation is about 10 percent,” Osborn said.
This year’s conference featured tours of regional attractions on Wednesday and Friday, with lectures on Thursday at the Ainsworth Conference Center.
The morning sessions on Thursday focused on historical data with the afternoon reserved more for scientific pursuits, such as soil composition. Speakers are brought in from all over the region, including many researchers.
This year’s discovery experience attracted about 70 people, with a mixture of locals and some from as far as Missouri and South Dakota.
“I would say 70 to 75 has been about the average number (of attendees) in recent years,” said Linda Alberts, who also assists with registering people for the Sandhills Discovery Experience. It is held each year the Wednesday to Friday following Independence Day.
Alberts, who has been involved with the conference since 2009, said she has learned something new each year, whether it is fossil digging or touring a Native American Reservation.
“You better believe it,” she said. “This is a good conference. There’s something new even if it is a topic that we covered before.”
The tour from Ainsworth to the Niobrara Valley Preserve took about an hour. The preserve features a new building with restrooms and a large gathering room. It is from that location where tours are given, including to view one of two bison herds and other animals, such as eagles and prairie dogs.
This week, the east bison herd was viewed, which includes 350 bison on a 10,000-acre pasture. Some of the herd is culled each year to help fund the conservancy.
The preserve includes six eco systems: mixed grass, tallgrass and sandhills prairie, northern boreal, western coniferous and eastern deciduous.
It also features hundreds of species of plants, including one of two places where Nebraska Aspens grow naturally.