Endangered ecosystem: Kansas prairie

Konza Prairie. Photo by USFWS Mountain-Prairie

Konza Prairie. Photo by USFWS Mountain-Prairie

Along with individual species, ecosystems themselves can be at risk. One of the rarest is the prairie in Kansas.

Once it spread over 170 million acres from north into present day Canada and south into Texas and east of the Mississippi to the Rockies. 1% of that prairie is left, much of the tallgrass prairie is in the Flint Hills, since it was too rocky to plow under, it was protected.

It’s a uniquely North American ecosystem, and from the shortgrass prairie closer to the western edge of the state to the tallgrass prairie in the eastern edge, the prairie is home to dozens of types of grasses, hundreds of types of flowers, and these grasses once fed hundreds upon hundreds of bison, antelope, and deer.

Fire helps form the prairie by burning out the woodier vegetation, and burns were started naturally by lightning or by Native Americans. Today, conservationists still work to preserve the prairie by burning it.

One of the success stories of prairie conservation is the Kansas tallgrass prairie. 80% of the world’s remaining tallgrass prairie land is in Kansas, and the Tallgrass Legacy Alliance brings together private landowners, government agencies, and conservationists to help learn more about, protect, and expand the resource that is the prairie ecosystem.

For more information on the tallgrass prairie, visit the Flint Hills Discovery Center in Manhattan. To check out the shortgrass prairie, visit Smoky Valley Ranch or Cimarron National Grassland in western Kansas.

Or consider making your yard into a prairie. It takes less water and it provides the natural beauty of swaying grasses and wildflowers.

What’s so special about Kansas: Interview with William Least Heat-Moon

Whatever else prairie is—grass, sky, wind—it is most of all a paradigm of infinity, a clearing full of many things except boundaries, and its power comes from its apparent limitlessness; there is no such thing as a small prairie any more than there is a little ocean, and the consequence of both is this challenge: try to take yourself seriously out here, you bipedal plodder, you complacent cartoon.

William Least Heat-Moon, PrairyErth

We have to admit, that we have used this series on the site as an excuse and reason to reach out to some of our favorite authors. We heard back from Rolf Potts and Marci Penner, and now, we’re honored that we got some face time, or rather Facebook time, with William Least-Heat Moon.

To start with, yes, we know he lives in Missouri, but he spent a great deal of time in Kansas researching his book PrairyErth: A Deep Map, and he’s an advocate for the prairie and the small town.

He’s written extensively about America and its landscapes in books like Blue Highways: A Journey into America, where he writes of checking out the back roads of the country after his divorce and in River-Horse: The Logbook of a Boat Across America, sets off aboard a small boat named Nikawa (“river horse” in Osage) from the Atlantic at New York Harbor in hopes of entering the Pacific near Astoria, Oregon.

His work isn’t just about travel within America; his most recent book Here, There, Elsewhere: Stories from the Road is a collection of his selections of his best shorter travel stories.

His insightful, thoughtful writing paints the pictures of lives and places that may be far beyond our own experience, but he brings them close and takes us with him on his journeys. His writing is intensely good and will stay with you.

Deep in working on his own book, and not knowing us beyond our cautious request that he write the foreword for our book, he graciously answered a few questions for us.

Kansas Trail Guide: You wrote PrairyErth, an in-depth book on Chase County, Kansas, which is situated in the Flint Hills. Part of the area has been set aside as a national preserve. Why do you think that the Flint Hills ecosystem is an area worth protecting?

Heat-Moon: It’s the American uniqueness of the tallgrass prairie and its rarity today.

[Kansas Trail Guide: The tallgrass prairie is at 4% of what it once was, and one of its largest intact swathes is in the Flint Hills. Thanks to the underlying rock, it’s a landscape that is unfarmable, and so was saved from being plowed under, but there has been a switch, it seems, from seeing the land as useless to a unique ecosystem.]

Kansas Trail Guide: What do you think is the appeal of a landscape like the Flint Hills that some may think is uninteresting or uninspiring compared to mountain or beach landscapes?

Heat-Moon: The tall prairie asks people to look more closely and deeply (hence the subtitle of PRAIRYERTH–“A Deep Map.”)

Kansas Trail Guide: In our upcoming trail guidebook, we’re focusing on the trails that can be accessed on foot, on a bike, or on a horse as compared to any highways or byways, forcing people to slow down to experience the area.

What value, if any, do you see in getting off the paved sidewalks and onto trails through the woods and the prairies?

Heat-Moon: Our human origins do not lie along sidewalks and paved surfaces; rather they lie where living things arise from soil and water.

Kansas Trail Guide: Your writing has focused around traveling, often more slowly than most people travel. Do you have another big trip in the works? Or one that you’re working on writing up?

Heat-Moon: My days of writing about long travels are likely at my back now. I hope now to look more closely at what I find on the little place in the woods where I live.

[Kansas Trail Guide: We’re looking forward to reading more from him.]

Family Day 2013: Free day at the Flint Hills Discovery Center

Flint Hills Discovery Center

Flint Hills Discovery Center

From noon to 5pm on Sunday, September 29, 2013 at the Flint Hills Discovery Center, there will not only be free admission to all the exhibitions but there will be fun family activities.

The day will include live entertainment, food, games, prizes, arts & crafts, and a brand new exhibition.

The latest temporary exhibit is titled “Looking at the Flint Hills of Kansas Through Artists’ Eyes.” From the website:

In the second-floor gallery Sept. 21, 2013 – Jan. 5, 2014. Looking at the Flint Hills of Kansas Through Artists’ Eyes demonstrates the truism that we all see our tallgrass prairie environment through the lens of personal experience. What differentiates these seasoned, skilled artists is their ability to share those personal visions with the rest of us.

The exhibit includes artists who are Kansas natives and those who immigrated to the Flint Hills from as far away as China—those who depict the Flint Hills in both realistic and abstract styles—and artists as different in age as 40 years. In addition to demonstrating the diversity of visual experience in the Flint Hills, the exhibit also serves as a broad history of the tallgrass prairie as subject matter, beginning with the “father” of plein air – outdoor painting – in the region, Robert Sudlow, to the most contemporary artists basing their work on these local prairie images.

Besides the purely pleasurable aesthetic experience of art depicting the Flint Hills, the growing appreciation of its beauty has helped to heighten our awareness of the need to preserve the endangered tallgrass prairie ecosystem.

Crooked Knee Horse Trail at Melvern Lake

Today on the schedule for trails was the Orange Loop of the Crooked Knee Horse Trail, and it couldn’t have been a better day for it. Temperatures didn’t get over the mid-80’s, and there was a slight breeze. The trailhead is at the Eisenhower State Park on the north side of Melvern Lake, and it’s maintained well, has good signs, and since much of it is exposed, it has some great views out over the prairie, and some pretty beautiful wildflowers. Here are some of the photos I got along the trail: