Interpretation on the Tallgrass Prairie
On a recent trip, my wife and I decided to explore Kansas, being fascinated by the horizon to horizon of open sky and low population density of this State. We drove off of I-70 taking major highways from Hays, KS to the Sante Fe Trail and US 56 to Strong City and the Tallgrass Pairie National Preserve.
This part of the National Park Service is only 10,861 acres, most of which is owned by the Nature Conservancy and the Kansas Park Trust. The NPS is in control of 32 acres, which were donated by the National Parks Trust. The small percentage of land managed by the US Government appears to have been part of the plan to preserve this portion of the Flint Hills of Kansas while keeping it taxable. There are no bison grazing in this area (yet), only cattle.
I found the views to be spectacular. Horizon to horizon of semi-natural grassland. Few human intrusions other than wire fences, remnants of stone fences, dirt roads, a few artificial ponds, and some grazing cattle.
We took the guided bus tour led by an NPS uniformed interpreter at a cost of $5.00 per person. The interpreter was a former local cowboy who spent 30 years in the military and then retired and returned home to reside locally among the Flint Hills. Rangering, as he described his duties, was now part of his retirement life.
Our guide described the preserve, its current vegetation cover, its active management for grazing of cattle, rotational burning of the plains (once every three years) to favor the tall grasses of the natural plains ecosystem. He pointed out aspects of the geology of the area, and the grazing patterns of cattle versus bison. He also pointed out the importance of stone walls that were used as fencing prior to the use of barbed wire. Narration aboard the bus was somewhat compromised by a dismally substandard sound system, but the best interpretation was given during the stops when we got off the bus and walked out onto the rolling landscape of the prairie. Some questions, that I would put in the "frequently asked" category, were beyond our interpreter's reach.
The region is known as the Flint Hills of Kansas. The prairie remains preserved in a semi-natural state because the rocky soils make mechanical plowing quite difficult. Our interpreter showed us erosional gullies and the layering of limestone and flint rock.
"What's the difference between flint and limestone?" he was asked. "I really don't know," was the answer.
As a former park ranger-naturalist, I expected a uniformed NPS interpreter to know the answer to this question. I say this, based on my past training and experience, but also on the fact that this interpreter had been giving near-daily bus tours since this past May.
I'm sure he's been asked this question before. I thus became curious as to how much NPS supervision, training and auditing are given to those whose primary assignment is public contact and interpretation at the preserve.
Fortunately, there's a detailed description of this issue on the preserve's NPS web site. So, I now know from having researched the answer to this question on the web that flint has a higher silica content than does the surrounding layers of limestone (which is nearly pure calcium carbonate). The source of the silica in the flint remains a mystery, but some geologists hypothesize that it deposited onto ancient shallow seas in the form ash fallout from distant volcanic eruptions.
"If and when bison are eventually reintroduced to the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, how many bison will this preserve support?" "Gosh, I really don't know the answer to that either..." was the response. Unfortunately, there's no mention of this fact on the TGPNP NPS website either.
Yet, one would think that visitor curiosity about the number of bison that the preserve could eventually support would make this question among the most common asked. Another visitor said, "We should Google it!" Well, I did, and there's no answer immediately available. My suspicion is that 10,861 acres might not be enough to support many bison at all (without supplemental feeding and extensive fencing). And the fencing required to keep the bison within the preserve while facilitating rotational grazing might be prohibitively expensive.
I asked my wife how she would have rated the quality of the interpretation. She said that she enjoyed his demeanor with the visitors aboard the bus, but that the over-all quality of interpretation merited a solid 'C'. I think I would agree with that. I wonder if this is the current NPS standard for front-line performance of its uniformed personnel?
Our guide, however, was quite eager to point out a small depression in the elevated prairie where the Kansas City Symphony Orchestra performed classical music to 6,000 park visitors last year. Symphony on the Prairie it was called. This is scheduled to be an annual event. It reminded me of continuing discussions about appropriate park events and the incentives for such events to become magnets promoting local tourism.
On the other hand, the low humidity, with horizon to horizon of clear skies combined with the relative remote setting of this preserve immediately brought to mind the excellent opportunity this preserve has for night sky interpretive programs. Unfortunately, the park closes at 4:30 PM. The gift store, although officially closed, stayed open until 5 PM to cater to the last bus load of people who completed the final interpretive bus tour of the day. We were told, however, that if we moved our car outside of the gated parking area, that we could stay as long as we wanted, but not beyond sunset.
In the evening hours, I did some more reading about the preserve, and learned that a much larger park was envisioned by Stuart Udall back during the early 1960's. He and Conrad Wirth landed by helicopter to oversee the proposed 35,000 acre national park area, but were told to leave by gunpoint by local cattlemen. Local cattlemen associations and their elected representatives in Congress have opposed the US Government's take-over of the Flint Hills prairie ever since. Perhaps for this reason, the Tallgrass Prairie remains as a private preserve. Cattle still have grazing rights. Only 32 acres currently belonging to the NPS, all donated by the National Park Trust. At present the NPS is allowed to own up to 180 acres.
When will the present cattle on the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve be replaced by bison and how many bison will there be, eventually? These remain unanswered questions. The side trip to explore this relatively small piece of semi-preserved ecosystem of the Flint Hills plains was definitely worth the journey. I highly recommend it.