Our Only Privately-Owned National Park Celebrates a Birthday and a Vital Conservation Easement

Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. Photo by Nationalparks via Wikipedia.

Today’s 12th anniversary celebration is extra special at Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, America’s only privately-owned national park. A newly arranged conservation easement now protects three miles of the border, providing a big boost to the park’s prairie preservation efforts and helping to solidify the park’s reputation as a good neighbor.

Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in Chase County, Kansas, encompasses nearly 11,000 acres of rare tallgrass prairie in the Flint Hills region of east-central Kansas about 120 miles southwest of Kansas City. The park exists mainly to preserve and interpret the natural history of the tallgrass prairie, the cultural history of Native Americans, and the legacy of cattle ranching in the Flint Hills.

To see Jeremy Sullivan's "video postcard" (podcast) from Tallgrass Prairie, visit this Traveler site.

In 1989 the Audubon Society purchased an option on the Spring Hill (Z-Bar) Ranch and began working to have the National Park Service assume ownership of the ranch’s historic buildings and create a monument to the ranching history of the area. Soon the idea morphed into a larger scale proposal to create a tallgrass national park on the property as well. Every major environmental group in the United States backed the park proposal. The Park Service was very interested, since there was no national park that preserved a reasonably large and representative sample of this historically important ecosystem.

Chase County residents were against having a national park in their locale when the idea was broached in the 1970s. By the late 1980s, however, the majority had a change of heart. In 1994 the National Park Trust finally bought the Spring Hill (Z-Bar) Ranch for future management as a national park. The deal was sealed by the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve Act, which was signed into law on November 12, 1996.

A key provision of the enabling legislation is that federal ownership of land within the authorized boundaries of the new park cannot exceed 180 acres, with the remainder to stay on the county tax rolls. Today, Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve is unique among America’s national parks, being the only one that is almost entirely (99.7%) privately owned.

Under a unique three-way arrangement, the National Park Trust (NPT) purchased the Spring Hill (Z-Bar) Ranch, the NPT and the Park Service arranged to jointly manage the preserve, and a Texas cattleman donated $1 million to the trust and agreed to graze cattle on the land under the terms of a pre-paid, 35-year grazing rights lease.

The National Park Trust retained ownership of nearly all the land, though it did deed to the National Park Service the 32-tract containing the core historic buildings. The NPT subsequently sold their land to the Kansas Park Trust, which sold it to The Nature Conservancy in 2005. TNC then bought out the original cattle grazing lease and negotiated a new one, thereby gaining control of a vital managerial tool.

TNC now owns 10,862 acres within the park’s authorized boundaries, while the Park Service has retained ownership of just the 32 acres it acquired from the NPT. The Park Service continues to manage Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve for public access and education. All of the core historic buildings are under park management.

The park has had to very carefully manage its relationship with its Chase County neighbors. In the early 1970s when the tallgrass national park campaign got underway, cattlemen associations, local residents, and their elected officials had strongly opposed the establishment of a national park in Chase County. In March 1973 – less than three months after the pro-park Save the Tallgrass Prairie group was created – these anti-park elements established an NGO called the Kansas Grassroots Association (KGA). The KGA coalition cited various objections to the park, but the core argument was that the federal government might use the park, other land acquisitions, and related regulations to “take over” the Flint Hills.

Locals believed that federal ownership and management of a big chunk of the Flint Hills would deprive them of income and tax revenues, attract undesirables to their community, and saddle them with all sorts of burdensome regulations intended to protect park resources. This latter concern is a very pervasive one in this region of the country, where landowners tend to be fiercely independent. Some locals distrusted the federal government almost to the point of paranoia, believing that federal officials could not possibly respect their concerns, deal with them honestly, and keep their promises.

Against this background, the park’s success stands as a monumental achievement. During its 12-year existence, the park has become a good neighbor, banked a lot of good will, and settled rather comfortably into the landscape. Locals can see that the NPS-TNC public/private partnership has worked extraordinarily well at Tallgrass Prairie. As promised, the Tallgrass Prairie property has been kept on the tax rolls, used for a commercial activity (cattle grazing), and operated in a way that reinforces rather than threatens local values and lifestyles. It’s been a win-win deal for the NPS and Chase County.

A recent landmark event at Tallgrass Prairie offers proof that good things can happen when the groundwork is properly laid. The Kansas Chapter of The Nature Conservancy recently closed on a nearly 2,000-acre conservation easement bordering the park. The new arrangement provides a buffer that precludes – in perpetuity – incompatible development and use of the land along nearly three miles of the park’s boundary. Having this buffer in place greatly increases the likelihood that the park will achieve its long-term goals for prairie restoration and management.
Locals see this conservation easement as a prime example of the public/private partnership model operating the way it should. The property providing the vital buffer functions remains in private ownership and all other property rights remain intact. It continues to provide jobs, property taxes, and other economic benefits to Chase County.

Post Script: The land on which the conservation easement was granted was originally part of the Spring Hill (Z-Bar) Ranch. It’s been in the Birch Family for over a century, and the heirs consider the granting of the conservation easement as something that will help preserve their ranch and keep it in the family.

Comments

I wonder if this or a National Herritage model would have worked better for Steamtown, even though it would have made a great State Park not a National one for which it is unsuited.

Chris, I honestly don't know what ought to be done with Steamtown, or what might have been done to make it viable. I just know that it shouldn't have been made a national park.

How is this privately owned if the natonail park trust owns it... is it for personal profit??

The National Park Trust is not a government agency or a commercial entity. It is a private, nonprofit organization that the National Parks Conservation Association created in 1983 for purposes that include helping to establish new national parks.