The Niobrara River cuts across Nebraska and creates a meeting ground for eastern and western landscape.
That’s why 78-year-old Larry Wewel wants to include stretches of the river, as well as the surrounding land, in a proposed Great Plains National Park.
“The proposed park area contains a rare biological crossroads where many plants and animals live beyond their ranges,” he said in a proposition for the park. “A truly unique biological phenomenon occurs as eastern forests meet western forests on the bank of the Niobrara River, in North Central Nebraska.”
This crossroads creates a unique breeding ground for both animals and plants.
“The ecological diversity is tremendous and includes several prairie grass ecosystems,” Wewel said. “This rare convergence of plants brings with it an incredibly diverse mix of animals.”
The 175,000 acres that Wewel would like to have in his dream park includes the Fort Niobrara Wildlife Refuge and runs 29 miles upstream. A portion of the proposed park acreage includes 76 miles of river already protected by Wild and Scenic River designation.
According to Wewel, more than half of the land is already owned by the federal government or nature conservancies.
Not all people agree with Wewel’s idea of creating a national park in the Valentine area, but no one disagrees that the area is full of charm.
Steve Hicks is the project leader of the Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge. He is originally from South Dakota and has been working for wildlife refuges since 1984.
“It’s just a beautiful area with amazing natural habitat and outstanding prairie,” Hicks said about the refuge.
Hicks isn’t the only person who is blown away by the beauty of the Niobrara River.
Mary Mercure of Valentine is the owner of Brewers Canoers, which is a canoeing and tubing company. The company has been operating on the Niobrara River for more than 30 years.
“There’s so much diversity,” Mercure said. “The waterfalls, the scenery and the wildlife. It’s pretty hard not to like it.”
Since she and her husband work on the river, they get to welcome newcomers to Valentine.
“People come and have never come before and had no idea that it (the river) existed,” Mercure said. “They get here and they are just amazed that this is in Nebraska.”
According to Wewel, 61,000 people canoed the river in 2018.
“Twenty or 30 years ago, you’d have two cows that would wander into the river to cool their bellies off, so that (the river’s use) has grown exponentially,” he said.
Steve Thede, superintendent of the Niobrara National Scenic River, was born in Minnesota and has worked for the National Park Service for 30 years. He took the position at the Niobrara River only after he floated down the river and experienced the natural beauty for himself.
“I had known about Niobrara, but I didn’t really know that much about it,” he said. “I had the chance to float down the river and after that, I knew it was the place for me to be.”
The Niobrara River was designated as a Wild and Scenic River in 1991, making the river protected for the enjoyment of present and future generations.
“They didn’t just look at a map, they looked at the river,” Thede said. “They did an analysis. What you see now is a result of that analysis, and I think they were right.”
Even though the river is widely regarded as special and set-apart, only time will tell if a national park designation stands in its future.
“Looking out at the scenery, the trees, the Sandhills, looking at the topography and the wildlife, I think that’s the specialness of it all,” Thede said. “You don’t feel like it’s a manmade environment. It’s all wild.
“That connection with nature is in our DNA.”