Bill Sproul remembers that it wasn't long ago when he wouldn't have listened to any of that environmental stuff. "You couldn't get ranchers and environmentalists to sit in the same room, much less sit down at the table and talk," said Sproul, a Sedan rancher whose land sits in the tallgrass prairie of Kansas' Flint Hills.
But Sproul became one of the most outspoken advocates of the Flint Hills Legacy Conservation Area, announced Friday in Wichita by U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar at the Great Plains Nature Center.
Salazar said the program will purchase easements to save 1.1 million acres of tallgrass prairie in Kansas from the threat of development.
Ranchers and other landowners will maintain ownership and control of their property but will be paid 30 to 40 percent of market value not to develop the land for housing or otherwise disturb the prairie.
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"I can ranch it, and I can graze it, but what I can't do is plow it over or cover it up with asphalt or homes," said Sproul, who has won awards for the stewardship of his ranch.
Salazar said the program will preserve both the economic interests of cattle ranchers and beef producers, and the diverse ecology of plants and wildlife that have been disappearing for centuries.
"I think all of us who are here, especially those who are sons and daughters of the land, and the grandparents and great-grandparents who made a living, eked a living out from these lands, would want our children and grandchildren and generations to come to know that legacy still lives on," said Salazar, a fifth-generation rancher from Colorado.
The perpetual easements, which are voluntary, cover the next 20 years and will be managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department.
Friday's announcement was a culmination of 15 years of negotiations — once the landowners and environmentalists got to the table.
"I thought I was the only one out there who loved the prairie," Sproul said. "I really loved open space and the big grass. But come to find out there were lots of other people who did. We just had to come together somehow. I truly think this neighboring up and partnering up really helps."
That happened in 1999, when the Tallgrass Preservation Alliance formed. Sproul was representing the alliance on Friday.
"I used to just think of the prairie as my ranch," Sproul said. "But I've come to realize there's a whole system out there. It includes the whole Flint Hills, not just my land."
Kansas Gov.-elect Sam Brownback, a Republican, said the preservation program resulted from years of bipartisan support.
It had been pushed for years by former Kansas Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum Baker, a Republican, and former U.S. Rep. Dan Glickman, a Democrat, Brownback said.
"It was a much more difficult discussion in that point in time than it is now, because people weren't neighboring up — they weren't together," Brownback said, repeating Sproul's statement. "But they said this is something that needs to be preserved and they started the discussion."
Only 4 percent of the original grassland prairies remain — a vast expanse that covered most of the U.S. east of the Rocky Mountains.
Today, about 3.3 million acres of the tallgrass prairie remain intact, mostly in the Flint Hills region of Kansas, stretching to northern Oklahoma.