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Get out and play: A look at the Nature Conservancy's Kansas lands

A herd of about 15 bison is usually seen from hiking trails.
A herd of about 15 bison is usually seen from hiking trails. The Wichita Eagle

TALLGRASS PRAIRIE NATIONAL RESERVE — The Nature Conservancy's Kansas lands are true places "where the buffalo roam and the deer and the antelope play."

So can the public, on portions of its nearly 47,000 acres.

The conservation group has opened more than 50 miles of hiking trails, world-class wildlife-watching areas and some good fishing opportunities in Kansas.

"We don't buy land with public access in mind. We look for land that fits our model and addresses our goals of ecological integrity," said Rob Manes, the Nature Conservancy's director of conservation for Kansas.

"But we also want to help create an awareness and passion in people. We need people to be excited about things we're trying to protect."

Alan Pollom, Kansas state director, said the national group got started about 60 years ago to help preserve natural areas in America.

The group's first Kansas purchase was 80 acres in western Harvey County in 1965. It was given to Bethel College and named the Sand Prairie Natural History Reservation.

Since then, the Nature Conservancy has purchased and transferred more than 10,000 acres of Kansas land to federal and state groups.

It has helped enroll about 40,000 acres of private Kansas land into conservation easements, arrangements that financially reward landowners to set up conservation restrictions that are in place on that property forever, no matter who owns the land.

Less than 5 percent of the land in Kansas is open to the public, which is the lowest percentage of any state.

That's one reason why Manes, a life-long Kansan who worked for the state Department of Wildlife and Parks, wanted the Nature Conservancy to create more chances for the public to get outdoors.

Here's where the Nature Conservancy allows public recreation in Kansas.

Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve

The preserve is about 11,000 acres of pristine Flint Hills near Strong City.

The conservancy owns the land at the preserve; the U.S. Park Service owns and operate the buildings.

Public hiking is allowed on 41 miles of graveled ranch roads, trails and mowed paths that can lead to scenic Flint Hills vistas.

Most of the preserve is owned by the Nature Conservancy and operated with the National Park Service.

Wildflowers, butterflies and prairie songbirds are plentiful.

Several trails lead within sight of the reserve's herd of about 15 buffalo.

Binoculars and bug spray are highly recommended.

Fishing opportunities exist east of Highway 177. Three pasture ponds offer good possibilities for bass.

The crown jewel for anglers is access to about 4 miles of Fox Creek, a rare prairie stream open to the public.

Unless muddied by recent rains, Fox Creek is clear and cool.

It's Kansas' version of a mountain stream, but instead of rainbow, brown and brook trout, fishermen find spotted and largemouth bass and sunfish.

Fishing is catch-and-release with artificial lures and flies on ponds and the stream. No bait is allowed, and single, barbless hooks are recommended.

Anglers can access Fox Creek only from a parking lot at the southern boundary of the reserve. Those who hike the farthest may find the best fishing.

The Tallgrass Preserve is open 24 hours a day, every day. It is located two miles north of Strong City on Highway 177.

Konza Prairie

The Nature Conservancy and Kansas State University own about 8,600 acres of well-managed Flint Hills prairie south of Manhattan.

Hiking trails are from 2.5 to 6 miles long. Some sections are steep with uneven footing.

To reach the main entrance from I-70, exit on McDowell Creek Road, Exit 307. Travel north about 4 miles until you reach a sign reading Kansas State University, Konza Prairie.

The area is open dawn to dusk, all year.

Smoky Valley Ranch

The Nature Conservancy's largest property in Kansas is about 17,000 acres of short-grass prairie, bluffs and chalk outcroppings south of Oakley, in far western Kansas.

The ranch lies in the heart of lands once hunted by the Cheyenne and patrolled by Custer and his cavalry.

The ranch has scattered prairie dog towns, whitetail, mule deer, buffalo and antelope. Coyotes, swift foxes, golden eagles and black-footed ferrets are around but secretive.

Up to 5.5 miles of managed trail is open to hikers or horseback riders. The trail goes through nice stretches of prairie, chalk outcroppings and canyons.

The best chance to see prairie dogs is from the public road that leads to ranch headquarters. To get there from Oakley, take U.S. 40 west to the western edge of Monument, Kan. Turn south on 350th Road for approximately 15 miles.

A limited number of youth and adult mentors are allowed to hunt whitetail does to help control the deer population. Special permits are awarded in a summer drawing. For details, go to the state Department of Wildlife and Parks' website, www.kdwp.state.ks.us. Type "special hunts" in the search box.

Cheyenne Bottoms Preserve

The Nature Conservancy has purchased about 8,000 acres northwest of the state-owned Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area northeast of Great Bend.

The conservancy's property lies largely in a natural state, with no dikes or water control structures.

During drought years it could be dry. This year tall cattails ring some of the marshes making viewing difficult in some areas.

Driving or walking the roads can offer good birding opportunities and there is an observation tower.

Prime time is October to enjoy the annual fall migration which includes whooping and sand hill cranes, and thousands of ducks and geese.

In April and May, ducks, geese and shorebirds stop at the wetlands to rest and refuel.

To get to the Nature Conservancy's land from Great Bend, drive 8 miles north on U.S. 281 from the intersection of Highways 56 and 281.

Pollom asks the public respect the public opportunities on Kansas lands owned by the Nature Conservancy.

People are asked to stick close to specific trails and not enter other areas.

"Almost all of our properties have some grazing associated with them and it's important we stay mindful and respectful of the livestock owners," he said. "We also have a lot of land involved in research. Someone in the wrong area could inadvertently compromise several years worth of data."

If all goes well the nation's largest conservation land owners could open more of their Kansas property to the public.

"It was not that long ago we'd have seen providing recreational access to our lands as a mission drift," Manes said. "But we're increasing our role in increasing public awareness. I think you'll see us doing more of this."

For more information about the Nature Conservancy, go to www.nature.org. Type the name of the property in the search box for information on the Kansas properties.

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