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Preservationists at Odds With Farmers on Prairie Park Plan

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A plan to turn a chunk of prairie land in eastern Kansas into a first-of-its-kind national park has sparked opposition from ranchers and farmers who fear that they eventually will be pushed off their land by the federal government.

The plan, which won approval by the U.S. House of Representatives last month and now will go to the Senate, would create the first-ever national park to preserve tallgrass prairie.

Proponents say it would fill a gaping hole in the national park system which does not now have a federally protected area dedicated to such terrain.

Much of the American heartland once was dominated by the stark, barren beauty of the prairie. But because of farming and development, prairie land has shrunk from its original 150 million acres to 15 million acres. The largest swath is a 5-million-acre strip that stretches through northern Oklahoma and eastern Kansas.

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Fearing further erosion--and hoping to bring jobs and tourists to a sparsely populated and declining part of Kansas--supporters have fought for years for a federally protected park.

The first effort to create a national park in Kansas was made in 1957. The idea has resurfaced periodically since, and each time it has been met with fierce opposition, primarily from rural landowners who did not want the federal government as a neighbor.

The park proposal also has been met with some skepticism. Despite the vast historical and cultural importance of the prairie, some opponents doubt that there are enough people who appreciate its subtle beauty to justify the creation of a national park.

“I personally would much rather walk in the prairie than walk out in Yellowstone Park,” said Clenton Owensby, a professor of range management at Kansas State University who dedicated his life to the study of prairies. “But the history of this area is that people dread the drive from Kansas City to Denver because they can’t stand the prairie landscape. They want to get to the mountains.”

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The plan to buy an 11,000-acre ranch about a two-hour drive southwest of Kansas City and turn it into the Flint Hills National Prairie Monument was sponsored by Rep. Dan Glickman (D-Kan.). The National Park Service recommended against the park earlier in the year, saying that the ranch is too small to support the bison and wildlife required for an authentic tallgrass preserve.

Ranchers fear that if the park is created, the government would move to acquire more land through eminent domain. Despite their opposition, the House approved the plan.

The House vote was lauded in the Wichita Eagle, which disputed the argument that the site is too small to be an effective wildlife preserve, noting that buffalo currently roam on four smaller wildlife areas in the region. “Still,” the paper editorialized, “the sad fact is that bison and other prairie animals will never be free-roaming again. The prairie is gone. That’s the point of the Flint Hills monument: to save a tiny, but magnificent, fragment of the heritage of the American West.”

Even Owensby, who is opposed to the park, says the site is a perfect example of the tallgrass prairie system that once covered the Midwest. But he argues that it is not in danger of being paved over or plowed under and so does not need the protection of a designation as a federal monument.

Unlike prairie land in Iowa, Illinois and eastern Nebraska which succumbed to farming in the early part of this century, this soil is too thin and rocky to sustain crops. Grazing is all that it is good for, he said, and the ranchers who have lived there for generations have been “extremely good stewards.”

Another argument made against the park is the cost. Rep. Dick Nichols (R-Kan.), who represents the district that includes the proposed site, contends that the $4.5-million to $6.5-million first-year cost is too much given the federal budget deficit.

Furthermore, Owensby argued that while national parks capture the physical nature of a place, “there is a culture of the prairie as well.”

“We have a tremendous ranching culture in the hills here. I find that’s more important to preserve. . . .”

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