For nine months Matt Bain has wandered a seeming endless labyrinth of blonde-colored stone. He’s walked narrow rock ridges with vertical sides, and stared up at free-standing spires that rise more than 100 feet with tops only accessible with wings.
On every hike he’s found things he’s never seen before. Monday evening he spotted a small cave far up a rock wall and many fossilized fragments of giant clam shells.
Bain described the first time he walked out on one of the ledges as a “Holy Cow!” moment, and the excitement he felt of someday sharing one of the greatest natural wonders in Kansas with others.
The special place is Little Jerusalem, about 250 acres of giant rocks that rise and fall from the prairie between Scott City and Oakley, 4 1/2 hours west of Wichita.
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The Nature Conservancy purchased the land last October from a ranching family that had owned it for five generations with a shared goal of allowing the public access to the mile-long chalk formations.
This past spring, the Nature Conservancy said the area could be open to the public by summer.
Little Jerusalem will eventually open. Eventually. No one is sure when.
“The more we get out here, the more we feel the responsibility to do things right, for the land and the public,” said Kris Knight, the group’s director of conservation. “We want to be able to look back, years from now, and know this was all done properly.”
Even though the area is behind locked gates, people already are showing up.
A pilot recently landed his plane on top of crops in a neighboring field, crossed a fence and then walked down into Little Jerusalem.
Just last week, about a half dozen people called the Nature Conservancy wanting to bring tour groups.
“I was really surprised at just how much interest there was and still is,” Bain said.
For now, there’s no timeline for when it will open.
The question is how to let people enjoy the area, while still protecting it.
The landscape is uniquely fragile because it’s made largely of soft limestone, called Niobrara Chalk, the same stone of the Badlands of the Dakotas.
It’s also the same stone that makes up the popular Monument Rocks, rated as one of the eight wonders of Kansas, about 12 miles to the east of Little Jerusalem. Except Little Jerusalem dwarfs those rocks both in size and beauty.
Conserving a fragile terrain
The area dates back 85 million years when it was part of a giant sea. Since the disappearance of The Western Interior Seaway, the soft limestone of the region has been under attack by the wind and rain. It surrenders easily. At the slightest touch, fingers can brush sand from the vertical walls. Thin rocks in place since the days of the mosasaurus flake easily when hit with the toe of a boot.
“That’s one of the biggest challenges, making sure we don’t leave too big of a footprint on the land,” Bain said. “If people created a foot path through here, it’s going to eventually wash out and erode. We can’t help but make a footprint, but we want to take our time and make it as small as we can.”
Knight said they’ve consulted groups with decades of experience working with public lands, including the National Park Service, several departments within Kansas State University, the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, the Kansas Trails Council and the Westar Energy Green Team.
“There’s no need to re-invent the wheel,” Knight said. “We need to get as much knowledge and experience as we can.”
The Nature Conservancy also owns the adjacent 17,300-acre Smoky Valley Ranch. The ranch has only two full-time employees, dedicated to proving that modern ranching, with cattle and buffalo, can co-exist with a healthy natural environment.
As well as protecting the soft stone, Bain said protecting the flora and fauna of Little Jerusalem is of prime importance.
Bain said more than 200 species of plants are within the 250 acres of rocks, and some are found nowhere else within the area. What appear to be stark stone formations holds a lot of wildlife.
The trained biologist has concerns for three nests of ferruginous hawks, the largest hawks in America, sitting atop stone spires or on thin ledges on the sides of cliffs. Shy by nature, the birds could abandon their nests if disturbed, Bain said.
He also is concerned about conserving all wildlife. That includes the bats that passed a few feet above Bain’s head at twilight, tarantulas that occasionally crawl from crevice to crevice and the many prairie rattlesnakes that find the habitat ideal.
Knight said the property will be under the Nature Conservancy’s “no collection” policy. It states nothing, from a freshly bloomed flower to fossilized sharks teeth millions of years old, can be moved or removed.
Bain also wants to insure that neighboring private property is protected.
Plans for the area
The Nature Conservancy plans to include a parking area with a view for those who can’t leave their vehicles and an overlook down a maintained path for those who can walk only a short distance.
Early plans also include an interpretive trail that goes the 2 1/2 miles around the area for photographers and hikers.
A well-established crushed rock road already leads to an overlook that gives one of Bain’s favorite views. It would be an easy round-trip walk of about two miles that most families with children could handle.
Knight wants to have plenty of signs to warn hikers away from the narrow ridges of rock that crumble as easily as stale cake. Native stone may be used for the signs to preserve the pristine feel of the prairie.
While the area will be limited to foot-traffic only, there must be ways for emergency personnel to get vehicles or even medical helicopters into the area.
The area also needs security. Game wardens, sheriff’s deputies or staff at nearby Lake Scott State Park occasionally checking the area could help prevent vandalism.
Knight said they are gathering donations for things like building the parking lot, signs and gates.
Bain is impressed with the number of local people who’ve volunteered to help. Groups like the Kansas Trails Council and Westar Energy’s Green Team could bring experience, equipment and numerous workers. There’s talk of starting a friend’s group of local volunteers. Possibilities for things like Eagle Scout projects are almost limitless.
But all of those things take time.
Bain said work may be on-going after an initial opening, and some things may have to be changed once they see how the natural area and public respond.
As of now, the public is not being allowed on the property.
Several tours were given this spring, but demand has been so high that Knight doesn’t want to allow anymore tours until everyone can be let in.
Knight sees the delay as a cheap investment if it makes things better for the public and the landscape for decades to come. When all’s right, he said, the Nature Conservancy will welcome the crowds.
“Even here in Kansas our people are becoming more and more urbanized every year and being pulled further and further from nature,” Knight said. “It’s going to be so important that we have places where they can get out and make a connection with nature. We need for them to have those connections with nature so they can help conserve what we have years from now.”