Brownback defends wind farm-free zone decision for Flint Hills

ELMDALE, Kan. | Gov. Sam Brownback is defending his decision to make 11,000 square miles of the Flint Hills off-limits to wind farm expansion as part of his push to make the Kansas tallgrass prairie a premiere tourist destination.

Brownback this month expanded an existing "Tallgrass Heartland" area of the Flint Hills from Riley and Pottawatomie counties in the north to the state's southern border. That more than doubled the off-limits area that former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius established in 2005.

During a Flint Hills summit Tuesday in Elmdale, Brownback said he wants the area to become the "tallgrass prairie playground" of the world.

"We are focused on long-term economic growth. And I believe this opportunity for us in the Flint Hills and tourism represents significant near-term and long-term economic growth," Brownback said.

Cowley County commissioners had been working with BP Wind Energy to build a wind farm in the northeast corner of the county. They and other county officials from the region were upset that Brownback did not consult with them before announcing the expansion, which they said likely kills the project.

Brownback said BP Wind Energy already had said it was considering ending the Cowley County project before his decision was announced. Karl Pierce, BP's business development director, has said that the company was having trouble finding a utility partner for the project.

Three state legislators sent a letter of protest to Brownback, saying that excluding them from his decision "appears to fly in the face of the concept of open and transparent government."

Brownback said he would keep working with Cowley County "in any way" and that he hoped to announce soon a potential expansion of BP operations elsewhere in Kansas, The Lawrence Journal-World reported.

The summit was the second of several such gatherings Brownback has planned to discuss increasing tourism Kansas, particularly the Flint Hills, which has been one of his top priorities since taking office.

"This is it, the last stand of the tallgrass prairie, and it's now being discovered by the rest of the country and the world," he said. "I think this place is ready to pop."

Becky Blake, state tourism director, said visitors spent $2.8 billion in the Flint Hills in 2009, although that includes Topeka and Wichita, The Wichita Eagle reported.

One suggestion was making the Flint Hills a destination for equestrian trail riders. Guided horseback trips on three Flint Hills ranches should begin in early 2012, according to Tom Warner, a Kansas State University professor. Warner and Brownback hope a trail system can eventually run from just south of the Nebraska state line to Oklahoma, with voluntary participation by landowners.

Other speakers said Manhattan's Flint Hills Discovery Center, set to open next April, would likely draw thousands of visitors to the region.

Robin Jennison, Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism secretary, said promotion is the most important need because visitors will be attracted by the natural beauty of the area.

"You look at the most popular destinations in the country and they're natural attractions," he said. "If we focus on providing a good outdoor experience in Kansas I know we can make this a major destination."

But some warned that Flint Hills landowners might not be enthusiastic.

"I know for a fact the last thing a lot of ranchers want is extra tourist traffic," said Pete Ferrell, a Butler County rancher. "You're going to have to give the farmers and ranchers some kind of economic incentive."

He suggested the state promote Flint Hills beef as a special brand that's raised on tallgrass, butchered, cooked and sold in the region.

"If you're a rancher and you've got an old cow that had been worth $500 but now she's worth $600 because it's premium Flint Hills beef, you're probably going to be a lot more tolerant of tourists," he said.