Conserving a National Treasure in the Heartland of America
By Jeffrey A. Roets
Buried deep within the heartland of America lays a vital piece of our national heritage, the tallgrass prairie. The Flint Hills of Kansas holds 3.3 million acres of the remaining 4% tallgrass prairie habitat left in the United States. Nearly a year ago, US Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar visited Kansas to announce the creation of the Flint Hills Legacy Conservation Area (FHLCA). On September 28, 2011, the first land easement was donated by rancher Bill Sproul, officially establishing the Flint Hills Legacy Conservation Area as a Refuge, the first created from start to finish under President Obama’s administration.
The FHLCA stands as a monument to conservation working at its best as land owners, private organizations, and the federal government work together with one purpose for the benefit of all.
“Conservation of the Flint Hills Legacy Conservation Area was made possible by employing a landscape-scale, community-based easement model. This model proved tried and true on large western non-traditional conservation projects such the Crown of the Continent, Rocky Mountain Front and Blackfoot Challenge,” said Stephen Guertin, Mountain-Prairie regional director. “Conservation of the Flint Hills working landscape was driven by the local community as well as the science behind Strategic Habitat Conservation (SHC).”
If you were standing in the midst of the tallgrass prairie in the spring, you could see nothing but lush, green, vibrant grass as far as the eye can see. Many people on nighttime flights have mistaken the tallgrass prairie for a large body of water. It is a national treasure that must be seen in person to fully appreciate. Addressing the unique beauty of the tallgrass prairie, former Flint Hills National Wildlife Refuge Project Leader Mike Rich said, “It is a spiritual place, a place where you can get back and feel nature, you can find yourself out there again”.
No two days in the prairie are ever the same as the landscape is constantly shifting and changing with every season revealing new beauty to love and appreciate. The tallgrass prairie once blanketed more than 170 million acres from Texas to Canada. Today, roughly 4% of the original habitat remains and the majority is found in the Flint Hills of Kansas and northeastern Oklahoma. In the 19th Century, the bulk of the tallgrass prairie was converted to farm land to feed America and today parts of the world. Remarkably, during this westward expansion, the Flint Hills tallgrass prairie was left untouched due to its geology as shallow soils and the limestone within one half to a foot of the surface made cultivation difficult.
Ranchers soon discovered the fertile area and provided a second line of defense for the habitat. They purchased the land and their ranches served as working landscapes that preserved the remaining tallgrass prairie. To maintain the habitat, ranchers burn the landscape every one to three years keeping invasive grass, weeds, and trees at bay.
Historically, cattle ranchers trailed their cattle as far as Texas to graze the tallgrass prairie in the Flint Hills and the cattle actually experienced weight gain while trailing to Kansas City. Thanks to the efforts of ranchers and private land owners the tallgrass prairie gives us a glimpse into our past. Preserving America’s ranching history, while ensuring Kansas ranchers could continue to reap the natural resources of the land was pivotal to earning local support for the project.
Today, the threat to the remaining tallgrass prairie habitat comes in the form of fragmentation. As sprawl from the cities north of the Flint Hills bring new development, the need for fire protection arises and works against the natural habitat’s preservation. The ranchettes and secondary homes disrupt and fragment the prairie as the new land owners create fire buffer areas around their homes and out buildings to protect them from fire. This devastates tallgrass prairie which relies on natural and man-made fires to keep evasive grass, weeds, and especially trees at bay. There are a number of tree species that are poised to leap frog into the Flint Hills and the open tallgrass prairie quickly becomes fragmented.
This fragmentation quickly impacts many species of grassland birds breeding in the Flint Hills, which are the fastest declining guild of birds in North America. In addition to the threat to the habitat and grassland birds, fish such as the endangered Topeka shiner that rely on streams that flow through the Flint Hills. If fragmentation continues, the prairie will become more forested and the impact will devastate the habitat, wildlife, and the ranching industry as the last 4% of this National treasure disappears. The urgency to protect the tallgrass prairie originated with the ranchers, private landowners, and private organizations that fought to preserve the habitat that they love. Roughly nine years ago, Partners for Fish & Wildlife biologist Jim Minnerath joined the ranchers and landowners to enhance, conserve, and protect the Flint Hills tallgrass prairie habitat. This new partnership chose to focus on what they had in common versus what they disagreed on and the unifying factor was the tallgrass ecosystem.
As part of a nationwide effort to conserve treasured landscapes, the Region started working on a new proposal to conserve the tallgrass habitat in the Flint Hills. Using the sound principles of Strategic Habitat Conservation (SHC), a scientifically based adaptive management process, the proposal to conserve the tallgrass habitat began to change as new information was gained. The Region identified the east intrusive tool to meet the resource objective: the perpetual conservation easement. Based on the best available science, political climate, and budget constraints, traditional fee title purchase was not feasible.
As the Service identified over 3 million acres within the Flint Hills region of Kansas, SHC planning helped refine how the Service analyzed the opportunities within the boundary. The end result is 1.1 million strategic acres of tallgrass prairie habitat that is targeted for conservation easements within the overall project boundary.
In a state like Kansas, where the land is 98% privately owned, conservation easement acquisitions are more attractive than traditional fee title purchases. In fee title acquisitions, the Service purchases the land and controls all access to the land. With conservation easement acquisition, the private landowner maintains ownership, possession, and control of the land while ensuring the conservation of the natural habitat by selling certain developmental rights that would fragment and destroy the habitat.
There are many benefits to using easements for the Service, State, and landowners. Easement acquisitions reduce overhead and management cost for the Service which is a direct benefit to tax payers. The estimated cost of an easement versus fee lands where the title is outright purchased is approximately one third of the cost. In addition, the land owner maintains ownership of the property and manages its use. The Service and the land owner enter into a perpetual contract which is designed to conserve the natural habitat.
Speaking on the tremendous benefits of land easements over tradition fee lands, Mike Rich added, “The land easements create a partnership between the Service and the land owners where they serve as the Refuge manager. This creates a mosaic of different management styles, different thought processes, different strategies and that is good for our dependent grass land species.”
Throughout the Mountain-Prairie Region and other regions within the FWS, the agency is seeking new ways to conserve habitat while simultaneously conserving a working landscape. Easement programs such as those in the Dakotas, and in the Blackfoot Valley in Montana have been an very effective tool that allows the Service to accomplish its mission of working with the American public for the benefit of the American public to enhance, protect, and conserve fish, wildlife, and habitat. Easements allow for refuges of the future to be working landscapes where a human presence and utilization of the land is sustained as well as plants and animals. “They are cheaper to do, provide more options, include more areas, help sustain the economy in different ways, they help sustain lifestyles, and broadens the support of conservation” adds Dr. Richard Coleman, Assistant Regional Director for Refuges in the Mountain-Prairie Region.