The National Park Service turns 98 today

Today the National Park Service turns 98! Some of our favorite national historic sites in Kansas include: Brown v. Board of Education, Fort Larned, Fort Scott, Nicodemus, and the Tallgrass Prairie.

From the National Park Service site on Kansas:

  • 5 national parks
  • 91,930 visitors to national parks (in 2013)
  • $4,100,000 economic benefit from national park tourism (in 2013)
  • 1,341 National Register of Historic Places listings
  • $349,318,392 of historic rehabilitation projects stimulated by tax incentives (since 1995)
  • 22,394 hours donated by volunteers
  • 1 National Heritage Area
  • 5 National Natural Landmarks
  • 25 National Historic Landmarks
  • $51,398,596 in Land & Water Conservation Fund grants (since 1965)

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.

Kansas trails you can’t access with the government shutdown

We’re not here to get into politics, but we want to keep Kansas trail lovers updated on the current situation as to how it applies to them. Most of the trails in Kansas are on state, city, or private property, but there are some federally controlled sites.

So while the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks, and Tourism is state-run and the state parks are open for business during the government shutdown, there are a few places in the state that you can’t get to right now.

A flock of Red-winged Blackbirds flying into the sunset. Quivira National Wildlife Refuge. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Cimarron National Grassland
Two major trails pass through the Cimarron National Grassland, a region reclaimed by the government after the disastrous Dust Bowl years: the Turkey Trail and the Companion Trail, so named because it runs parallel to or occasionally on the path of the historic Santa Fe Trail.Both trails will be included in the upcoming book and the region will be one of our top historic trails.

Quivira National Wildlife Refuge
While the birds pay no mind to government shutdowns and are flying through the area on the fall migration, the shorter, family trails in the refuge are not currently open. This region will be included in the book as one of our top wildlife/wildflower trails.

Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve
A total of 41 miles of hiking trails cross one of the nation’s only remaining stretches of original, native tallgrass prairie. A few of the best of the trails will be mapped out in our book as featured trails, and all additional trails will be mentioned.

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.

Discovering the Flint Hills Discovery Center

“The Flint Hills don’t take your breath away; they give you a chance to catch it.”

Entrance to the Flint Hills Discovery Center

Entrance to the Flint Hills Discovery Center

This Jim Hoy quote is included in an exhibit at the Flint Hills Discovery Center in southern Manhattan, Kansas, and I couldn’t have expressed it better myself. The subtle beauty and the quietness of the space in the Flint Hills can be difficult to describe.

Having gone to school in Manhattan, coming back to the town to research the bike trails by the river, I figured that I knew all the city had to offer. But the Flint Hills Discovery Center opened in April 2012, and it’s a great place to go and get lost in the history and lure of the Flint Hills for an hour or two, especially for those with kids or who have any interest in Kansas, history, geography, biology, or ecology.

What’s special about the Flint Hills? Once 250 million acres stretching from Canada to Texas, the tallgrass prairie is now 95% gone – plowed under and turned into farmland.

Thanks to the rocky soil, mostly limestone, in the Flint Hills area, the prairie here was saved. This rare and delicately balanced ecosystem is home to all kinds of flora and fauna from grasshoppers to bison and snakes to butterflies.

Looking through the first floor exhibits at the Flint Hills Discovery Center, you see the prairie from all angles: formation of the rock layers and the rolling hills over thousands and millions of years, the plants and wildlife that make the prairie what it is – including beneath the soil’s surface, the importance of fire to keeping the prairie healthy, history and culture of the Native Americans who called the prairie home or hunting ground and were then relocated with the European influx, the cowboys and ranchers who have driven cattle to and from the grassland for grazing.

Native American exhibit

Native American exhibit

What stands out is the mix of exhibits like the rolling video of interviews with people of the Flint Hills and the interactive activities. While appealing for kids, they’re also interesting/entertaining for adults – like the Auctioneer’s Karaoke (I couldn’t keep up!).

You can also see how you’d do keeping a section of prairie healthy with a touch screen simulation – balancing the amount of cattle or bison with the number of burns over a 7-year time span with a luck-of-the-draw amount of rain. My first try ended poorly with my bison hungry and with non-native, invasive species encroaching on the prairie. Whoops! I tried it again with better results. I’ll let you see how you do!

Also on the first floor is the auditorium for the multi-media “immersive” program: “Tallgrass Prairie: Tides of Time.” The 15-minute presentation takes you to the prairie throughout its seasons, including blowing wind and falling snow. I’ve never been in a museum presentation quite like it, and I’m sure that it’s a hit with kids who might find other “educational” presentations boring. It’s also got some pretty great cinematography and photography that really show off the prairie at its most beautiful and dynamic.

While much of the downstairs area is kid-friendly, upstairs is primarily the kid’s area, and, bonus, it’s actually ideal for kids of all ages. A lot of museums or centers like this one include activity zones that are better for older kids and leave nothing for younger ones. This has a 30lb and under section where kids can crawl and explore. Then there’s a dress-up area, a reading spot, a “prairie pipe organ” and even a slide.

Flint Hills Discover Center

Flint Hills Discovery Center

Also upstairs is the temporary exhibit space. Until September 8, 2013, the exhibit is Conservation Quest. All about how to save energy, it also has plenty of interactive stations. The building itself is energy efficient and sustainably designed.

To commemorate your visit, there’s a little gift shop with many items made in/from Kansas with a mix of books, jewelry, candles, and toys.

I was lucky to be staying in the Fairfield Inn, which is right next door; otherwise, since I hadn’t heard about this spot before, I might have missed out. Don’t risk making that mistake!

If you go:
315 South 3rd Street

Adult: $9.00
Youth: $4.00
Military, College Students & Seniors (65+): $7.00
Children under 2: FREE

Monday through Thursday: 10 a.m. – 8 p.m.
Friday and Saturday: 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Sunday: Noon – 5 p.m.

Monday through Wednesday: 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Thursday: 10 a.m. – 8 p.m.
Friday and Saturday: 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Sunday: Noon – 5 p.m.

Konza Prairie annual wildflower walk – Sunday, June 2

Konza Prairie wildflowers

From 6:30 to 9:00pm on Sunday, June 2, the Kansas Native Plant Society will be hosting its annual wildflower walk. Naturalists will take visitors along the Butterfly Hill Trail, which isn’t normally open to the public, and they will point out and identify the wild variety of native wildflowers that can be found in the prairie. Bring bug spray and comfortable walking shoes and, of course, your camera as you learn more about the native plants of Kansas and marvel at the vistas of the Konza Prairie (which will be highlighted in our Kansas Trails guidebook).

Cost: $10 per person. All proceeds go to Konza Environmental Education Program, whose mission is to: “enhance the understanding of the ecology of the tallgrass prairie ecosystem; increase understanding of the process and value of science; and increase public appreciation for the importance of scientific research as a foundation for sound grassland conservation and management.”

Where: Meet at Konza Prairie Biological Station, 100 Konza Prairie Lane

Kansas by numbers

8 feet – the height grasses can reach in the tallgrass prairie

Author Jonathan Conard with his daughter.

Author Jonathan Conard with his daughter at the highest point in Kansas

11 physiographic regions

14 mph average wind speed in Dodge City, Kansas’ windiest city

24 state parks

24 endangered species

65 feet – the depth of Milford Lake, the state’s largest lake

300 bison (approximately) in the herd on the Konza Prairie

467 recorded bird species

680 feet above sea level – Verdigris River, the lowest point in the state

4,039 feet above sea level – the height of Mount Sunflower, the highest point in  the state