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Nebraska's highest tourism award, the Henry Fonda Award, was given to Mike Voorhies, the University of Nebraska paleontologist who discovered, studied and helped develop the Ashfall Fossil Beds site in northeast Nebraska, one of the premier mammal fossil sites in the world.

Nebraska Tourism Director Kathy McKillip announced the 2013 Nebraska Travel Industry award winners at the annual Nebraska Travel Conference in Norfolk.

The Fonda award recognizes an individual who has devoted many years of service to promoting Nebraska on a local, regional and statewide level. "This person loves Nebraska and has made it his life's work to support and promote education, tourism and the preservation of Nebraska's precious historical treasures," McKillip said at the awards ceremony Thursday.

In 1971, Voorhies was exploring the tributaries of the Verdigre Creek valley in search of fossils when he discovered a baby rhino skeleton protruding from a creek bank. It turned out that the rhino was among thousands of animals buried when a volcanic eruption covered parts of what became Nebraska with as much as 10 feet of ash.

"Michael and his colleagues made the decision to excavate the site and leave the animals in their positions, rather than removing the skeletons to the museum so that visitors can visit this time capsule and view what Nebraska wildlife was like long before modern human beings ventured onto the Great Plains," McKillip said.

"Over several decades, Voorhies has been instrumental in seeking out recognition for the site and the support necessary to turn it into what is now known as Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park," McKillip said. "After many years of planning, the park was finally developed in 1991. The park is between Royal and Orchard in Antelope County in northeast Nebraska. In 2012 alone, over 16,000 visitors, students and paleontologists have come to work, study and visit this historically significant site."

The Nebraska Game and Parks Foundation purchased the land in 1986, and the Burlington Northern Foundation supplied a grant for construction. Paleontologists and interpretive staff at the site are provided by the University of Nebraska State Museum in Lincoln.

Voorhies is professor emeritus in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.  

Other awards included:

* The Outstanding Tourism Association Award was given to the Southeast Nebraska Tourism Council. The Southeast Nebraska Tourism Council is comprised largely of volunteers who promote tourism in the 12-county region that includes Cass, Fillmore, Gage, Jefferson, Johnson, Nemaha, Otoe, Pawnee, Richardson, Saline, Sarpy and Thayer Counties. SENTC has dedicated 25 years to promoting the community with travel guides, rack cards, circle tours, a website and other materials. "The council members take great pride in their communities and do a great job of encouraging visitors to take multi-day trips resulting in overnight stays and dollars being spent in the communities," the commission said. 

The Outstanding Website Award went to Lincoln Convention & Visitors Bureau. "The new website is a central landing point for Lincoln residents and visitors to gain knowledge of upcoming events and activities. The site showcases Lincoln's new brand. The site is well-designed to be an online informational tool with easy navigation and mobile capabilities needed for tourists. With all the progress Lincoln has been seeing, the new website is the perfect addition."

* Outstanding Nature-Tourism Entity Award is JK's Pumpkin Patch. JK's Pumpkin Patch is an agri-tourism site in Lincoln with educational resources to cater to schoolchildren, tourists and the general public.

* The Outstanding Event Award for communities with populations greater than 10,000 was given to Lincoln Highway Centennial Celebration. After more than five years of planning, automobile and road enthusiasts converged from all across the globe in Kearney to celebrate the Centennial of the Lincoln Highway. Kearney hosted a two-day celebration, including a parade of more 140 antique cars that arrived from two automobile e-tours, one that began in Times Square in New York City and the other that began in San Francisco. More than 12,000 people attended the parade.

At the same time the national convention of the Lincoln Highway Association was at the Kearney Holiday Inn. The event gained national attention in USA Today, the New York Times and network news shows.

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