Arriving at the Nebraska Nature & Visitor Center just off Interstate 80, information and opportunity is around every corner.
Down one hallway is an art gallery displaying images of nature ranging from sandhill cranes in flight to Brazilian wetlands.
Across from the gallery, a room opens up to maps, stuffed birds and other animals, handouts and the smell of warm cinnamon buns for sale, tempting the sweet tooth of nature enthusiasts. Another glass door leads into a gift shop.
A short trail leads away from the center past a small cattle lot toward the Platte River. A pair of rust-colored pedestrian bridges affords good vantage points for viewing the natural beauty of the river and surrounding farmland.
From these bridges, observers can see the invasive phragmites, a common reed that’s consuming natural habitat for cranes and other birds. Red-winged blackbirds perched on the reeds vocalize to establish their territory.
Beyond the riverbanks, sandhill cranes float down in small flocks. In their awkward majesty, the cranes come and go as part of their 5,000-mile migration.
Brad Mellema, director of the center, said the center closed in 2007 due to a lack of funds. It reopened in September with a new business plan.
Mellema estimates that 12,000 visitors have passed through the center since it reopened. “I see this building educationally as dynamic, not static,” he said.
In the early morning this time of year, staff members lead guided tours for $30 to blinds along the river for viewing the cranes. In the evenings there are $8 tours to the bridges to watch the cranes come in to roost.
“For the visitor, this place is all about nature,” Mellema said. For us it’s all about people.”
— Morgan Ledermann, Margaret Berglund, Kurt Heine and Rebecca Lewis contributed to this report.