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State hopes nature trail lures visitors
By Chad Love
The Oklahoman

WOODWARD-Birds, Wildlife, Open spaces. Ecotourism experts say western Oklahoma has plenty of what out-of-state visitors want.

Now, the state Department of Wildlife Conservation and rural communities are hoping a proposed nature trail through the western counties not only will give the state an image boost, but an economic boost.

The Wildlife Department recently awarded a $30,000 grant to Fermata Inc., an Austin Texas-based nature tourism development company, to form a master plan to create the Western Oklahoma Wildlife Heritage trail.

The trail is a driving loop through the Panhandle and western counties designed to showcase the region's natural beauty.

Wildlife biologist Melynda Hickman said nature trails have had great success in Texas, and she sees no reason it couldn't work in Oklahoma.

"The market is there, and I think it has a lot of potential to bring money into rural communities," she said. "We've seen that firsthand in Texas."

Texas' system began in 1994 with the Coastal Birding Trail. It stretches more than 500 miles along the Texas coast, with numerous loops along the main route. It has pumped an estimated $2 billion in nature tourism revenue into the south Texas economy.

Texas Parks and Wildlife is building a second trail starting in Laredo and making its way north along U.S. 83 to the Texas-Oklahoma border north of Perryton.
Oklahoma trail organizers hope to continue that route up to the Panhandle and across the northwestern and western counties.

"Forty percent of the tourists visiting the Texas trail system come from the north," said Tom Lucas of High Plains Resource Conservation and Development in Buffalo. "Oklahoma is in a unique position to attract some of that traffic.