GARDEN CITY, Kansas — Tens of millions of years ago, an inland sea covered parts of western Kansas. Today, chalk columns measuring 70 to 100 feet high tower above the arid terrain in Kansas’ newest state park.
Little Jerusalem Badlands State Park opens Oct. 12. Ron Kaufman, director of information at the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, said he expects a good number of visitors on Opening Day. But, overall, the number of state park visitors declined this summer, which resulted in a loss of approximately $1 million in visitor fees.
“Some of the parks still have portions of them underwater — at the reservoirs where water is still being held or being released slowly — and as we can, as the water recedes and we can actually get in and assess the damage and make repairs we are,” Kaufman said.
In 2013, the parks department lost funding from the state general fund, and now most of the park’s department budget comes from visitor fees, but that depends on good weather. From 2016 to 2017, state park visits fell from 7.4 million to 6.8 million, but last year the numbers nudged up to 6.9 million visits.
“Even though we may have a hot, dry summer, even drought will affect some of the visitation because maybe the water levels are down and the boat ramps aren't usable or it's just too hot to be outdoors,” Kaufman said.
The state agency will manage the 332-acre Little Jerusalem, which is owned by the Nature Conservancy. Rob Manes, director of the Nature Conservancy in Kansas, said the nonprofit had been interested in the land for 15 or 20 years before purchasing it.
When microorganisms died and fell to the old seafloor during the Cretaceous period (145 million years to 66 million years ago), Kansas Geological Survey geologist Tony Layzell said, “these chalks and limestones were deposited.”
That distinctive geology is home to giant clam fossils, Manes said, and rare wildlife and plants.
“The ferruginous hawk (is) just really representative of that kind of landscape — they prey on rodents, and there's a fairly robust rodent population in the crevices and in the rock formations.” Manes said.
Before opening the park, the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism designed and managed construction — which was funded by The Nature Conservancy — of trails, restrooms and a parking area. The trails are an important part, with Kaufman imploring people not to leave them, or to dig for fossils.
“The rock formations are so fragile that too much foot traffic or if people were climbing on the rocks or digging or whatever they may do that could damage the formations and cause long-term problems,” he said.
Also, the park will only be open during the day, and will have just one naturalist.
Although Kansas state parks see millions visitors each year, the department also gets money from economic development incentive funds it receives from the state lottery.
“The fees by themselves without any other input would generally not cover all of our needs,” Kaufman said.
Plus, the state has to do more than have staff at the parks. In ones that permit camping (Little Jerusalem will not), some visitors leave trash, which can put a strain on staff.
“It's a challenge to keep up with that,” he said. “Our state parks have a pretty small maintenance staff that are also involved in things like mowing and trimming and doing repairs.”
Corinne Boyer covers western Kansas for High Plains Public Radio and the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @corinne_boyer or ror email cboyer (at) hppr (dot) org. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on the health and well-being of Kansans, their communities and civic life.
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