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Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve soldiers on after brutal year

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Wednesday, June 25, 2014, at 6:49 a.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, July 1, 2014, at 6:36 a.m.

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For more information

For more information on the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, go to www.nps.gov/tapr/index.htm.

It is almost biblical, the troubles that have plagued the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve this past year.

Amid termites, washouts, mold, springs sprouting in inappropriate places, federal budget cuts and surly buffalo, the preserve has seen its share of hardships, officials said.

The preserve will persevere, assures Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve Superintendent Wendy Lauritzen.

“Everything hit at once,” Lauritzen said.

The good news is that hopefully within the next month some of the places on the preserve that Kansans have come to love will be open again, she said. But for now, some of the buildings and roads are closed.

The travails began last summer when heavy rains washed out one of the roads in the preserve, which buses used to carry guests.

Lauritzen said buses and private vehicles are now prevented from traveling within the 10,483-acre preserve near Strong City.

During a three-week period last summer, it was discovered the rains caused springs to sprout in the visitors center parking lot. The flooding caused major mold in the ranch house, and, as the mold was being treated, electrical problems and termites were discovered in several of the 13 historic buildings.

And, as painters were beginning to paint trim on the house, they found boards “so rotten the contractors could stick their fingers through,” Lauritzen said.

“Given all the problems with the house, we closed it down for safety purposes for visitors and employees,” Lauritzen said.

“There are a ton of things that need to be done in the house. We need to lift the foundation because it is sinking. It will take a couple million or more dollars to fix the house.”

And that’s not in the budget yet for the preserve, which has an annual operating budget of approximately $947,000, she said.

“We are barely covering the permanent personnel salaries and fixed utility costs,” she said.

A planned construction project to replace the barn’s floor boards and joists is underway, as is the installation of permanent exhibits in the visitors center.

Handicapped parking by the barn is closed while the construction is ongoing. All access to the park is by walking only.

And now a word about those surly buffalo.

Some of the younger male buffalo have been charging at visitors. Hikers are asked to keep a distance of at least 100 yards from the herd and to stay on the trails and not attempt to pet the animals.

“We think they are teenagers who are charging,” Lauritzen said of the buffalo. “We don’t know yet if it is out of curiosity or truly an aggressive behavior. But it is something to be cautious of.

“These are four to six buffalo that come running up to people. They have always stopped, but it scares people.”

For visitors, it might look like the park is closed to much of the public, but it’s not.

People can still enter the visitors center, walk three nature trails, visit the schoolhouse and come for special activities such as natural resource and cultural history programs.

“With the potential for the (Flint Hills) symphony in the area next year and a national National Park Service centennial planned in 2016, this was the one year to play with so that we can get everything looking right,” Lauritzen said. “It’s just everything is hitting at once.”

Reach Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or btanner@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @beccytanner.

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