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Hiking Worlds Largest Tallgrass Prairie

Bison on the Prairie 2

Just north of the tack pin town of Strong City, Kansas awaits seemingly endless prairie hills, wild bison, exotic flowers, and sunsets that are sure to bring a tear to the most rugged of cowboys. Enter the 11,000 acre Tallgrass Prairie Nature Preserve.

The Last of its Kind

What once stretched from Canada all the way to the southern tip of Texas, the tallgrass prairie has been reduced to 5% from that of 200 years prior. What remains of the tallgrass is largely found in the eastern parts of Kansas. While there are many causes for the tallgrass degradation, the evidence overwhelmingly points to human habitation and agricultural development.

Degradation of the Tallgrass Prairie over 200 years

This 200 year transformation shows what remains of tallgrass prairie.

History of the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve

Signs of decreasing tallgrass prairie may have been first noticed by painter George Catlin. He warned that the westward expansion threatened the existence of the prairie. He suggested that the prairie could be preserved by “A nation’s park, containing man and beast, in all the wild and freshness of their nature’s beauty!”

Painting of George Catlin by William Fisk, 1849

George Catlin by William Fisk, 1849

It wasn’t until the early 20th century that scientists began to raise the heat on the matter. Victor E. Shelford, of the University of Illinois, and the National Research Council’s Committee of the Ecology of North American Grasslands had identified four areas in the Midwest that would make ideal locations for a preservational park. However, the attention needed to build such a park was overshadowed much more important matters – such as war.

In 1991 Congressman Dan Glickman introduced H.R. 2369 – a proposal that would require the National Park Service (NPS) to purchase land in Chase County, Kansas, most importantly the Z Bar Ranch, for the purposes of preserving the last of the tallgrass prairie. The proposal was not without opposition. Several farmers and ranchers in Chase County, the county that surrounded the tallgrass area, argued that doing so would create economic hardship for those who had ties to the land.

Ironically, the most significant opponent to the park was the NPS itself. Denis Galvin, Associate Director for Planning and Development of the NPS, argued that the near 11,000 acre track was “not large enough to ensure successful management” and that there had been no “determination of the degree of natural or cultural significance.” Previously published opinions from NPSs’ own top scientists and executives contradicted Galvin’s claim, as Glickman pointed out to congress.

Z Bar Ranch

Z Bar Ranch

It was then a matter of deciding who and how the Z Bar Ranch could be purchased. Opponents of the park argued that the government should not pay for the Z Bar Ranch. They felt that if the environmentalists care so much about it, they should have to pay it. After a long series of political pushing and shoving, Kansas Senator Nancy Kassebaum rallied support alongside Senator Bob Dole to allow the Z Bar Ranch to be purchased by a private party. On November 12, 1996, the bill was approved by congress writing the beginning of the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. The Nature Conservancy now privately owns the land and property while working closely with the National Park Service to manage the property.

Read more about the history of the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve and the Z Bar Ranch below:

We Ought to Have Saved a Park in Kansas

Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve – History, 1920-1996

Ranch Timeline (Z Bar Ranch)

George Catlin

Photo Gallery

Below are some photos I took during a July 2017 jaunt across this beautiful prairie.

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