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 suns low angle lights the landscape.
For Jack Bohannan, spring is the prairies best time because everything is vibrant green with new growthbright 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 2½yearold 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 Americas tallgrass prairie remainsmost 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 3.3millionacre 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 wont see a herd of wild buffalo coming over the horizon, I still expect to every time.
Bohannan is committed to conserving habitat for grasslanddependent 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.
Thats 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. Its hard to hold onto that, he says. Its important that we preserve at least a little bit of it.
Sproul admires Aldo Leopolds 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 Im a capitalist.
The Sprouls donated the first perpetual easementon 4.25 acresto the Flint Hills Legacy Conservation Area in September 2011. Then, two years later, in October 2013, the conservation areas first purchased easement2,450 acresclosed. 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.
A key to getting this far, Bohannan says, has been partnersincluding 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 neighborup and help each other.