Approaching 20 Years, Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve Looks Forward To Future
Next year marks the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service. The agency looks after more than 400 protected sites across the country, including Kansas’ Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. Tucked into the Flint Hills near Strong City, it too will celebrate an anniversary in 2016.
KMUW’s Sean Sandefur drove an hour north of Wichita to the 11,000-acre preserve to learn about its history and its future.
A small, two-lane highway sits up close to the visitor’s entrance of the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. Cars and semis barrel down the road. A large mound, with a boardwalk leading to its summit, acts as a natural barrier. Beyond it, visitors are enveloped in 360-degree views of rolling hills set against massive, blue skies. It’s seemingly unchanged by time.
“When you’re here in the early morning hours, or even late evening hours, seeing the shadows coming across the hillsides, it’s just breathtaking," says Heather Brown, chief of interpretation for the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. "It will really capture you.”
The preserve will celebrate its 20th year of operation next November. Brown is an expert when it comes to the site’s history and ecosystem, and educates the visitors who stop by.
She says grassland once covered much of the middle third of the U.S. It started in eastern Kansas, with taller varieties.
“At one time, the Tallgrass Prairie section was about 170 million acres. It’s less than four percent of that today. It’s just the evolution of the United States moving further and further west. Farms were created, cities were created and it just eventually became snipped up by that," she says.
As more and more of the landscape in Kansas turned into crops, the Flint Hills were protected by--fittingly--flint. Brown says the rock sits so close to the surface of the earth, even poking out in some areas, that tilling this land was very difficult. But any shortfalls in farming were made up in grazing.
“It was kind of well-known fact that the Flint Hills were really great for grazing," Brown says. "Because when they were bringing cattle up from Texas up to the markets here in Kansas, they noticed that when they made it to the Flint Hills, the cattle were actually gaining weight.”
The Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve includes land once owned by the Jones family—Stephen and his wife Louisa came to the Flint Hills from Colorado to run a feedlot. For over a decade, the family sold cows fattened on their land to companies in Kansas City. The 7,000 acres they owned have changed hands many times over the last century, but their three-story home and large barn, built in the late 19th century, still sit on a hill near the entrance to preserve.
The home is a stately building with a limestone exterior and a red roof. It has reopened to the public after having been closed for renovations for more than a year. Also on the property is a massive barn, which once housed the family’s animals, equipment and cattle feed.
Visitors can walk through the barn and experience life in 1885. Looking out through a large barn door and out onto the plains, Brown mentions a fixture of America’s prairies that were absent from Kansas wildlife for more than a century: bison.
“We have a herd of bison. We started that in 2009," she says. "We started out with 13 head from Wind Cave National Park, and they’ve progressed each year. Last October we added 30 more to the herd. It’s right at 70, maybe even more. I’ve kind of lost track.”
The American bison was killed off en masse by settlers moving west. The last of the wild herds in Kansas were killed near Elkhart in 1879. After 130 years, Brown was able to be experience the very moment when bison feasted on Kansas tall grass once again.
“I think a few of us shed a few tears. It was just a pretty spectacular moment. To realize, gosh, I’m seeing something that hasn’t been on the landscape in over a hundred years. It was pretty neat," she says.
The Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve is young when compared to many other National Park Service sites. It will celebrate its 20th anniversary next year as the agency as a whole commemorates its centennial. The timing is good, as celebrations are happening just as the America’s historic sites are rebounding from the recession.
According to a report from the U.S. Department of the Interior, 2012 saw 10 million fewer visitors to national parks when compared to 1998. Brown says the preserve wasn’t immune, either. Not only did the recession keep people from visiting, but weather factored in as well.
“In 2013, we had a lot of rain. It washed out our bus tour road. So we were without doing bus tours for about a year and a half," she says.
Severe droughts in recent years have also taken their toll. But Brown says support from the National Park Service and the Nature Conservancy has helped them over the years. She says the preserve is looking to the future.
Brown says a variety of events and concerts, including the annual Symphony in the Flint Hills, have brought more attention to the preserve, and visitor numbers are slowly building to levels seen prior to the recession.
Follow Sean Sandefur on Twitter @SeanSandefur.
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