A tallgrass prairie preservation effort grows in Kansas

A conservation initiative seeks to preserve up to 1 million acres of tallgrass prairie in the Flint Hills of Kansas — some of the last stands of tallgrass in the nation.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering buying voluntary conservation easements in 14 Kansas counties. Participating landowners would have control over day-to-day operations on their land, and be able to pass it on or sell it.

The easements would prevent landowners from developing the land for residential or commercial use. The plan, still being developed, also might govern how much or where wind-energy operations could be placed, said Amy Thornburg with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Denver.

"We want to end up with an intact tallgrass prairie. And although intact is a hard thing to describe, you know it when you see it," Thornburg said. "The tallgrass region includes ranching, fire, grazing and prairie chickens. They are all dependent on each other. If it wasn't for the ranching heritage of the area, we wouldn't have a prairie."

The sea of grass and wildflowers, which once stretched from Northern Texas through Manitoba, largely has been plowed up, paved over or built upon. Between 2 and 4 percent of the nation's prairie remains, and much of it is in the Flint Hills.

"The prairie is shrinking every day through invasion of trees, homes and roads," said Flint Hills rancher Bill Sproul. "I like to think of the easements as preservation of the horizon. The horizon is important to me because it is one of the few things that you can only view from afar."

The idea for the program came about six years ago when the Tallgrass Legacy Alliance was formed by landowners, nongovernment organizations and governmental agencies.

"They were looking for ideas on how to protect the Tallgrass prairie and the Flint Hills," said Vic Elam, legacy project coordinator for the Flint Hills National Wildlife Refuge near Hartford.