For Bill Sproul, fall is the most beautiful season on the tallgrass prairie of Kansas. He relishes how grasses change “back to brown with a red tint getting ready for winter,” sumac turns yellow and the sun’s low angle lights the landscape. For Jack Bohannan, spring is the prairie’s best time “because everything is vibrant green with new growth—bright and fresh with the blue sky.”


While Bohannan and Sproul are seasonally out of sync, they agree that the tallgrass prairie and ranching culture of eastern Kansas should be preserved.


Together, they are helping do that through the 2½–year–old Flint Hills Legacy Conservation Area, which is gaining momentum after a slow start. Because of cultivation, tree encroachment and development, only about 4 percent of North America’s tallgrass prairie remains—most of it in the Flint Hills of eastern Kansas and northeastern Oklahoma. The mission of the conservation area, which is administered for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service by the National Wildlife Refuge System, is to preserve up to 1.1 million acres of prairie within a 3.3–million–acre project boundary.


“There is no place like the Flint Hills, standing high on top of the rolling hills with nothing but a sea of grasslands as far as you can see in every direction, the wind in your face, feeling a calming peace,” says Bohannan, project leader for the conservation area. “Even though I know I won’t see a herd of wild buffalo coming over the horizon, I still expect to every time.”


Bohannan is committed to conserving habitat for grassland–dependent birds, such as grasshopper sparrow, upland sandpiper, Eastern meadowlark, dickcissel and greater prairie chicken, and for the endangered Topeka shiner minnow. “Another important goal,” he says, “is to help ensure that the ranching heritage continues. It is important to the protection of the Flint Hills.”


That’s where Bill Sproul comes in. He is a private rancher. Sproul, his wife and son run cattle seasonally on about 11,000 acres near Sedan, KS. Sproul cherishes “that open vista. The absence of people, absence of human presence, absence of roads; no powerlines, no cellphones, no houses. The absence of everything” on unbroken tallgrass prairie. “It’s hard to hold onto that,” he says. “It’s important that we preserve at least a little bit of it.” Sproul admires Aldo Leopold’s idea that “we abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”


To Sproul, “commodity” means money; “community” means restraining the commodity impulse for the greater good. “I practice community conservation,” he says. “But I have to remind myself of that because I’m a capitalist.”


The Sprouls donated the first perpetual easement—on 4.25 acres—to the Flint Hills Legacy Conservation Area in September 2011. Then, two years later, in October 2013, the conservation area’s first purchased easement—2,450 acres—closed. Two more are pending. “As word of the easement program is spreading, so is the interest from landowners,” says Bohannan.


A key to future success is the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, which pays for easements and is up for reauthorization in 2015.


Photo of Kansas prairie grass
GREG KRAMOS/USFWSS

A key to getting this far, Bohannan says, has been partners—including the state of Kansas, National Park Service, The Nature Conservancy, Kansas Land Trust, Ranchland Trust of Kansas, the Tallgrass Legacy Alliance and private landowners like the Sprouls.


“Everybody has a little bit different agenda, but in the end the goal is to save the Flint Hills and their culture,” Bill Sproul says. “No one outfit can do it all. We have to neighbor–up and help each other.”