Sandhill cranes
(LJS file) Lincoln Journal Star

Nearly 600,000 sandhill cranes visit the Platte River Valley each year, bringing with them thousands of bird watchers.

And each year, those bird watchers spend millions in central Nebraska, eating in restaurants, sleeping in motels and shopping in stores.

Along with conservation centers that offer crane-watching activities, bird watchers pump $10.33 million a year into central Nebraska's economy, according to a University of Nebraska-Lincoln report.

That amounts to about $17 a bird.

"This is the only place in the world where this particular phenomenon occurs, and we're very fortunate," said Renee Seifert, director of the Hall County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

UNL's Bureau of Business Research studied the economic impact of central Nebraska conservation and research centers that focus on the cranes' migration. Economics professors Eric Thompson and Rick Edwards wrote the report.

They estimated the impact of those conservation centers' operational expenditures and tourist spending created a combined economic impact of $5.15 million in 2009.

Then they added the estimated spending by other crane-watchers in the region -- $5.18 million -- for their overall estimate.

Thompson and Edwards said their findings point to new economic prospects in the northern Great Plains.

They cited the Audubon Rowe Sanctuary near Gibbon as an example of "second stage" eco-tourism, where visitors go beyond just viewing to volunteering and paying to volunteer.

Rowe is a private, nonprofit operation supported by donors and grants that focus on conservation research and education.

The report estimates Rowe has an annual impact of $2.08 million on central Nebraska's economy -- mostly from spending on food, lodging and shopping by visitors when they are away from the sanctuary.

"Travelers come not just to see (cranes) but to participate in conservation, education and outreach with the centers," Thompson said.

Bill Taddicken, the sanctuary's director, said nearly 15,000 people a year visit the sanctuary to see the cranes, usually between late February and mid-April.

Visitors typically stay for three days, spending nights at motels in Kearney, Minden, Grand Island and other area towns.

They eat in area restaurants and shop in area stores, Taddicken said.

Last year, the sanctuary's guest list included visitors from 50 states and 46 countries.

They visit because they enjoy the camaraderie and magnitude of the natural spectacle of the crane migration, Taddicken said.

"Everybody has their own reason," he said. "It has an effect in some way on everyone."

Reach Kevin Abourezk at 473-7225 or kabourezk@journalstar.com.

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