The upcoming official opening of the new visitor center at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve reminds me of the first time I visited the preserve. I still recall back to 1997 driving to a new national park in the Kansas Flint Hills called the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, wondering what the heck it was and what I would find there. As I approached the nearby sleepy town of Cottonwood Falls I was greeted by this sign voicing opposition to the formation of the preserve. I didn’t have a clue what the controversy was about when I first saw it. A new national park seemed like a good idea to me. While I didn’t know it at the time, less than four percent of the original 140 million acres of tallgrass prairie remains in North America. Most of that remaining tallgrass prairie is in the Flint Hills in Kansas.
Initially, the Flint Hills communities surrounding the proposed park were supportive, but then opposition developed. According to National Park Service document “Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve Legislative History, 1920-1996” most local business owners were supportive but many ranchers had overall concerns about federal involvement and federal land ownership with some ranchers specifically concerned about land being lost by eminent domain. The park proposal became a divisive and heated issue between the two community groups.
In the end, an unique compromise was reached with a public/private partnership between the National Park Service and The Nature Conservancy. Today, the 10,894-acre Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve is the only unit of the National Park Service dedicated to the preservation of the tallgrass prairie ecosystem.
A lot has changed since 1997 when I photographed that sign. Now Flint Hills ranchers work with The Nature Conservancy to implement pro-conservation policies like patch burning to protect prairie chickens and other native species. Ranchers have developed agritourism opportunities for tourists to visit their ranches. Local restaurants, lodging and retail establishments have obviously benefited with the increased numbers of tourists.
According to a National Park Service press release, 22,047 visitors in 2010 fueled $1,048,000 in spending at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve and in communities near the park. “Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve is clean, green fuel for the engine that drives our local economy,” said Park superintendent Wendy Lauritzen.
For me, driving past that sign was the start of a life long fascination and love for the tallgrass prairie and the Flint Hills. It was also a new start for the communities near the park.
ABOVE: This 1997 photograph of a sign just outside Cottonwood Falls on Kansas Highway 177 is an example of the controversy that surrounded the formation of the nearby Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. Initially, the Flint Hills communities surrounding the proposed park were supportive, but then opposition developed. According to National Park Service document "Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve Legislative History, 1920-1996" most local business owners were supportive but many ranchers had overall concerns about federal involvement and federal land ownership with some ranchers specifically concerned about land being lost by eminent domain.
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