The Niobrara River, one of Nebraska’s most scenic features, is among the 12 U.S. rivers featured in 2019 Forever stamps by the Postal Service. The series also includes the Upper Missouri River in Montana. The announcement provides an occasion to note the Niobrara’s unique characteristics and the great value of the many Nebraskans who have worked over the decades to preserve it.
The 76-mile section of the Niobrara that Congress declared a national scenic river in 1991 stands out as “a source of geological and biological instruction and endless pleasure,” writes Paul Johnsgard, a biology professor emeritus at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who has written extensively about the Niobrara’s ecology.
The designated Scenic River section is a major recreational amenity for the many who enjoy the river via canoe, kayak or tube. That section of Nebraska stands out for its remarkably rich diversity in plants and animals — more than 200 species of birds and more than 70 mammal species, plus nearly 100 species of state-listed sensitive or rare plants.
The area has an abundance of identified sites with fossils and other evidence from deep in Nebraska prehistory — more than 160 mapped sites, of which 15 are classified as world-class.
The Niobrara’s course “cuts through nearly 30 million years of time,” Johnsgard writes. In some areas of the river, “a canoeist can pass directly over the Pierre Shale, the shale bed deposited by the great Cretaceous inland sea of 70 million years ago.”
The nearby Smith Falls, at 60 feet and accessible via a footbridge across the Niobrara, is the highest in Nebraska. The river, at its deepest and widest, reaches down 300 feet and stretches almost two miles wide.
“The Niobrara River is a national treasure,” writes Duane Gudgel, a business owner in Valentine, Neb., and keen student of the river. “Relatively remote and in a lightly populated area, the Niobrara Valley has remained a microcosm of the western United States as it once was.”
The individuals and organizations that collaborate to protect the Niobrara and balance the various needs of stakeholders along the river provide an enormously important public service. As Gudgel notes, “maintaining the Niobrara’s solitude and wild beauty is a great challenge … and the best result will be a compromise.”
The Niobrara “is easy to love,” Johnsgard writes. The river “has uncounted shady canyons decorated by trickling brooks and hidden lacy waterfalls; exposed vertical bluffs whose layered bands of sand and clay have written the Earth’s recent geological history as clearly and as logically as the chapters of a book; and just enough rapid water to prevent a canoeist from falling asleep at the paddle.”
It’s fitting indeed that the Postal Service is saluting this precious Nebraska resource as one of our country’s best-preserved rivers.