TALLGRASS PRAIRIE NATIONAL PRESERVE — For the past dozen years, this unique park in the Flint Hills has averaged about 20,000 visitors annually.
That's far short of the 100,000 that was projected in 1996, when Congress established the nearly 11,000-acre site as a national park.
But those who own and manage the park say recent expansion of public access to the preserve and establishing a visitor center by 2012 will boost attendance.
"Its brighter days are ahead," said Alan Pollom, the Kansas director of the Nature Conservancy, which is the preserve's primary landowner.
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An impressive lineup of federal and state officials are scheduled to attend next Friday's groundbreaking for the visitor center and administrative offices, including Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar, former Kansas governor and now Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, and Gov. Mark Parkinson.
Construction won't begin until next spring, but Friday happens to be the preserve's 14th birthday as a national preserve. So officials figured now was a good time to throw a party with shovels.
The $6 million price tag for the new facilities is split evenly between the state and the National Park Service. The state and the conservancy shared the $450,000 cost for development of the plan.
Officials are hoping the visitor center will help people get off on the right foot on the trails as they explore the prairie's vastness — where bison once again roam — and the area's cultural history.
With a better exploring experience, they're also hoping the preserve will attract more visitors.
"We've been holding kind of steady," said Wendy Lauritzen, the National Park Service's superintendent for the preserve.
The park service is the primary manager of the preserve, although it shares that role with the Nature Conservancy, a nonprofit conservation group that owns 3 million acres nationally and 48,000 in Kansas.
"With the visitor center and opening new trails, we could get it up to 35,000 a year pretty easily," Lauritzen said. "But then it's going to take a little bit more work to catch on."
Pollom was even more optimistic. While he thought 35,000 was attainable in the short term, he said, "With more things going on, 50,000 should be easily doable."
The peak attendance year for Tallgrass was 2006, when more than 27,000 visited. But about 6,500 were drawn by the sold-out Symphony in the Flint Hills, which was held that year at the preserve.
Lauritzen, Pollom and others agree that the original projection of 100,000 was too high.
"This is a young national park," Lauritzen said. "When the park was first proposed, a lot of people were imagining there would be millions of people coming from day one. It takes a while to build up numbers.
"It's about building up the infrastructure, which is what we're doing with the visitor center. It takes time."
Plans to draw visitors
Suzan Barnes opened Cottonwood Falls' Grand Central Hotel and Grill in 1995 in anticipation of attracting customers who visit Tallgrass.
She said she hasn't been disappointed, noting that her 10-room hotel is usually booked well in advance during the preserve's peak season.
"The 100,000 was unrealistic," she said. "I think what we're getting is appropriate for the Flint Hills."
Pollom said that the preserve's location presents "a little bit of a problem" for attracting large numbers.
While Tallgrass is only two miles north of U.S. 50 and Strong City on K-177, it is 16 miles west of the Emporia turnpike exit, 25 miles north of the Cassoday turnpike exit and 45 miles south of I-70.
"The vast majority of the public is shooting through Kansas on I-35 and I-70 at 70 miles an hour," Pollom said. "Trying to get them off the road is a bit of a challenge."
Nothing can be done about the location of the preserve, which is situated on a former ranch that was established in 1878.
But changes have been made to help get people there.
The preserve stopped charging admission fees in 2009. Over the past two years, trails expanded from less than 15 miles to 41 miles, taking advantage of all the old ranch roads.
Two years ago the preserve began opening to the public 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
"I don't know that we have visitors out here at all hours of the night," said Heather Brown, the park service's chief ranger at the preserve. "But it gives them another chance to see the night sky."
And the round-the-clock hours certainly creates a more relaxed time for hikers, who don't have to explore in the heat of summer days. The preserve also has recently opened its ponds to catch-and-release fishing.
Plans call for more trail signs to help direct hikers, plus other signs so people will know there are four other access points to the trails besides the main one off K-177.
Building the visitor center and adjacent administrative offices will allow the park service to move its headquarters from Cottonwood Falls and set up more exhibits in the new space. The center will also free up the old limestone farmhouse to be returned to more of the home setting that it once was, Brown said.
Finding the funding
Of course, it takes funding to build things and protect the prairie.
The conservancy spends about $80,000 yearly on salaries for two employees who help at the preserve and various expenses such as fencing.
It raised $5 million to buy the property, grazing lease and mineral rights in 2005. The Koch Foundation kicked in $1 million of that amount, plus provided about $30,000 to the conservancy for the preserve after specific attendance goals were met.
"We know that if the public fails to connect with what we're doing, if they don't see the value of the preserve, we're not going to get contributions," Pollom said. "So attendance is important to us."
The park service allots Tallgrass an annual budget of a little under $1 million. But the preserve is a youngster in the system of nearly 400 national parks and has to stand in line to get its budget requests, said Lauritzen, the superintendent.
Plus, Washington takes a look at the preserve and sees that the conservancy owns all of the land except the 34 acres where the farmhouse and outbuildings sit and sometimes is reluctant to fill those requests.
"The entire park service budget is based on assets that we own," Lauritzen said. "Why would the park service pay for doing work on a park they don't own?
"So when it comes to competing for money, quite frankly the partnership causes us some difficulties."
At the same time, she said, the conservancy is "dream of a partner to work with because their mission is so in line with the park service."
Pollom said someone once told him that "partnership can be the toughest ship to sail."
But while there has to be give and take in the preserve partnership, he said it has worked well.
"It really boils down to the personalities you have there on the ground," Pollom said. "If you have people who understand where everyone is coming from and their needs, you can work through issues that come up.
"Our experiences has been that's the kind of relationship we have."
Not just prairie grass
There is more than grass to see at the preserve.
Like more than 140 species of birds. Not to mention a wide variety of animals: deer, badger, fox, raccoon, coyote and more.
Cattle graze during the spring and summer.
The bison herd, which was brought in from South Dakota a year ago, now totals 14 head. It grew by one when the first calf was born this past Mother's Day.
Just don't come expecting to see 6-foot-high Bluestem grass year-round. It gets that high only in September and October.
Once visitors are in the preserve, Brown, the ranger, said the prairie will do the rest to hold their attention.
"It takes a while to appreciate the grass," she said. "It's not going to overwhelm you like the ocean or mountains. It's more subtle.
"But once a person is hooked, they keep coming back. The prairie is very powerful."
Jim Zeiner, a retired teacher from Wichita who bought Cottonwood Mercantile in Cottonwood Falls in 2004, said Tallgrass hikers regularly visit his store.
"People tell me they enjoy it because they can come and see nothing," he said. "What they mean is that they just look and it's just hills. No buildings, no interstate.
"Like the song, a 'Peaceful Easy Feeling.' "