I often feature natural areas within a reasonable distance from Northwest Illinois. However, there are some places that are so unique and fascinating that they must be included as an option. In 2005 the Natural Areas Association had its annual meeting in Lincoln, Nebraska. We decided to attend four days of seminars and then head off for a week, exploring the great Nebraska Sandhills that we had heard so much about. Since our first trip it has served as a close destination 550 miles west on route 20.
The Nebraska Sandhills are not kown by many, other than botanists and cattlemen. It plays second fiddle to the Kansas Flint Hills as the best representation of pre-settlement vegetation on a large scale. The Nebraska Sandhills is an area of 19,600 square miles (1/4 of the state) of sand dunes that are covered in native grasses and forbs with clean lakes and marshes scattered between. Early on, settlers realized that the land could not be farmed and it immediatly became an area conducive only to light grazing. In 1904 the Kincaid Act was passed and it allowed homesteaders to claim 640 acres (a square mile or one section), much more than the 160 acres previously defined by the Homestead Act of 1862. The act was created specifically for the sandhills region and is responsible for the hugeness of the land holdings there today. It is now one of the most remote areas of the United States. So sparse, in fact, that Cherry County is similar in size to West Virginia, while holding only 6,098 people, half of which reside in Valentine, NE. This results in a population density of one person per 1.02 square miles. Only areas of the backcountry in Alaska and North Dakota can compare. Land is discussed in sections and the term “acre” brings up odd looks.
Because of these extremes you have an ecosystem that is largely intact. The cattle density is very low due to the fragility of the sand dunes. The ranchers know very well the damage that can be done once a sand “blow out” occurs. Some of the prairie species that occur in the shortgrass and sandy prairies in the Midwest are also found here and feed the prized cattle. The extensive root systems and sandy soils assist in filtering water of the Ogallala aquifer, the worlds largest, which lies beneath the endless sand dunes. Exotic plants make up only 7 percent of the entire flora here - an amazingly low number when compared to the fertility of the Midwest. The area also supports large numbers of birds and mammals, it is the namesake to the Sandhill Crane (Grus canadensis) and Forbes magazine called Grand Island, NE the number one destination in the world for bird watchers.
If you travel to the Sandhills region be prepared to not see many people, fill up with gas when you have the opportunity, not sleep at Holiday Inns (we slept at someone’s house once) and be overwelmed by its vastness and ranching traditions. You will also realize that windmill repair and maintenence is an actual industry here. There are several campgrounds and B&Bs throughout and recreational opportunities available, especially near Valentine.
I will never forget the pleasure I had when a hungry sales shark was trying to sell me a timeshare in Orlando, Florida. She asked me where I enjoyed vacationing the most and where I took my last vacation. I didn’t realize that honesty was also the best way to end her sales pitch. The Nebraska Sandhills are located within an easy 9 hour drive from Galena, IL off of route 20.
http://www.nationalgeographic.com/wildworld/profiles/terrestrial/na/na0809.html National Geographic Article