HARRISON – The global COVID-19 pandemic has upset the status quo in all sorts of ways this year, but at Agate Fossil Beds National Monument in Northwest Nebraska, the staff is using the pandemic to expand the park’s offerings.
“2020 has been unique for all of us, but even through all of that, we started the year off very well,” said Superintendent Dan Morford. “The staff here was very resourceful.”
Established in 1965, Agate Fossil Beds National Monument south of Harrison features exhibits and walking trails that detail the ancient mammals that called the region home, ranging from small rhinos and gazelle camels to burrowing land beavers and the large Moropus, an animal that resembled a cross between a horse and a ground sloth. The park is also home to the famed Cook Collection, which showcases the relationship between rancher James Cook and Native American Chief Red Cloud and other Plains Indians.
While the Agate Fossil Beds visitors’ center was forced to close for part of the year during the pandemic, the park remained open to visitors.
“The trails are still wide open from sunrise to sunset,” Morford said, adding that the picnic shelters are also available for use. Rangers at Agate Fossil Beds also set up an outdoor visitors’ center inside a tent that included appropriate social distancing measures, allowing staff to greet visitors and answer questions. The main visitors’ center re-opened in September, though the Cook gallery of Native American artifacts remains closed due to its smaller confines, Morford said.
Agate Fossil Beds National Monument is unique in the National Park system in large part due to its distinction as one of a handful of parks focused on a region’s fossil record.
“You get to walk the grounds where different mammals used to roam, and in that you get exposure to the prairie. And the Niobrara River runs through the park,” Morford said. Agate is the first interpretive stop after the Wyoming-based headwaters of the Niobrara River, where visitors can learn about the river.
Add in wildlife sightings and the ability to sit and hear the breeze through the cattails or a variety of birds singing, along with views of the river, prairie and rock outcroppings, and Agate offers a unique, off-the-beaten-path experience, Morford said.
“It’s a beautiful, quiet (spot),” he added. “We had visitors a few weeks ago that said ‘we did not realize places like this still existed.’”
The COVID-19 pandemic forced the park to cancel its slate of onsite programming this year, which typically includes star parties, writing workshops, ranger talks and artists-in-residence, as well as its Boxing Day celebration. School field trips and ranger visits to schools have also been halted. In their place, however, rangers hosted Facebook Live events and created other digital programming.
“We’re really looking at how to use this whole experience to take us to a widened perspective on what we can offer to visitors and (to followers) on social media,” Morford said.
Staff tested the waters on a small scale in 2020 and will look to expand those offerings in 2021 with You Tube videos and safe, outdoor 5-7 minute “popcorn talks,”, all of which can add to the experience of visiting Agate Fossil Beds even after the pandemic subsides, Morford said.
Online offerings aren’t entirely new for Agate Fossil Beds, as the park implemented distance learning opportunities in 2014. Lead Park Ranger Alvis Mar said the distance learning programs focus on the park’s main themes of geology, paleontology and the culture of the Northern Plains Native Americans. Since its inception, the distance learning lessons have been primarily made available to school groups that cannot visit Agate Fossil Beds in person due to distance.
Schools in eastern Nebraska and from across the country have taken advantage of distance learning lessons, the complexity of which increases with the age of the students. Mar, a former science teacher, has also custom-built lesson plans for schools if they are interested in other topics, such as the region’s ecosystem or career exploration. The recent addition of Education Ranger Jeremy Hoyt, who was a history and English major, will provide a broader variety of programs in the future.
An on-site field trip to Agate Fossil Beds typically lasts three to four hours and includes hikes on either the Fossil Hills or Daemonelix Trails. Distance learning lessons, by contrast, last anywhere from 20-90 minutes. In 2020, Mar has noticed that sessions have been lasting a bit longer as there are more questions, and park staff is willing to accommodate leaving the session open to answer those.
“We want them to understand that fossils are not just dinosaurs. It’s the full spectrum of life,” he said.
To accomplish that goal, the rangers work to make their distance learning activities interactive to increase engagement and retention.
“That’s the key to our success,” Mar said.
Students might play a game of charades to learn about Old Faithful or use the force of their hands pushing against each other to demonstrate how mountains are formed, Mar said.
“Even doing distance learning, we can do a lot to help kids hone in on the concepts,” he noted.
Distance learning requests have stayed relatively stable in 2020, as the park is typically at capacity in teaching the lessons due to staffing levels. Hoyt’s addition to the staff will allow Agate Fossil Beds to offer more slots, Mar said, but 2020 has seen another major change and that is the increased number of requests for home-schooled students.
“Homeschool is a newer audience for us,” Mar said.
Agate Fossil Beds works closely with ESU 13, so its programming aligns well with the Nebraska standards. About half of the park’s distance learning lessons are delivered to in-state students, and half to out-of-state students. Even regional schools who visit the park in person often take advantage of distance learning, providing students with a brief introduction to the park online before their field trip, Mar said.
The park is using the lessons learned during the pandemic to build a catalog of videos that will be available on its website in the future, which will allow teachers to select from short snippets to augment their own lesson plans throughout the year.
“Essentially, we’ll have self-serve opportunities for teachers,” Mar said.
With Hoyt now on board, and expanded digital offerings coming soon, Agate Fossil Beds also hopes to broaden its digital programming reach beyond schools. Mar has worked with summer camps in the past and would also like to make the digital programming available to civic groups, museums, nursing homes and assisted living centers.
To learn more about Agate Fossil Beds distance learning programming, call 308-665-4110 or 308-436-9760.