Kansas will charge $50 a day for ‘backcountry access’ to this new state park

Public access to some areas of the state’s newest park would cost more than a weeklong pass for an entire family at the Grand Canyon, under a plan approved by the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism.

Anyone who wants to walk through fragile rock formations in Little Jerusalem Badlands State Park would have to buy a $50 permit, the Kansas Wildlife, Parks and Tourism Commission has decided. The park is expected to open sometime in 2019.

But the landowners of Little Jerusalem said they haven’t approved the “backcountry access” permit fee and want to keep it affordable.

The permit, which was approved by the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism Commission on Thursday, would restrict access to areas of Little Jerusalem, allowing only those willing and able to pay $50 to walk through the fragile rock formations. Officials said the permit price would help protect the rocks from deterioration from “unfettered access.”

But The Nature Conservancy in Kansas, who bought the land from a private owner in 2016, said Friday it did not approve or agree to the permit.

“The Nature Conservancy is committed to keeping access to Little Jerusalem Badlands State Park affordable,” the group posted and pinned to the top of its Facebook page on Friday night after The Eagle ran a story on the permit prices.

“We have not yet agreed to special access permits or associated fees and plan to continue to work with the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism to ensure all fees are reasonable,” the post says.

An official with the state’s Parks Division said she plans to meet with leaders from The Nature Conservancy in the next week to discuss the permit fees.

The Nature Conservancy, a Virginia-based nonprofit charity focused on conservation, bought a 330-acre tract of land that includes Little Jerusalem in 2016 from the McGuire family after at least five generations of keeping the hidden gem in the family.

At the time of the sale, owner Jim McGuire told The Eagle part of the reason he was selling the property was to make it open to the public — including access to the area around the rocks that would require the permit.

“It’s such a unique piece of property, we wanted it open to the public and not turn (it) into a four-wheel drive park or a hunting resort someday,” McGuire said in 2016. “I wanted it so people could walk down in those rocks and enjoy someplace special.”

After the purchase, The Nature Conservancy agreed to make Little Jerusalem a part of the state park system, while retaining ownership of the land. Kansas’ parks department would manage the park and help protect the unique attraction expected to open to the public in 2019.

Little Jerusalem is a more than four-hour drive west of Wichita, between Scott City and Oakley. Trails around the park would be open to the public without the permit and children 16 and under would get the access permit for free under the regulation that passed Thursday.

The park is expected to open sometime in 2019.

Using price ‘to really regulate’

Little Jerusalem, 330 acres near the Smoky River Valley in western Kansas, is a rare geological jewel that features chalky spires and buttes jutting as high as 100 feet in the air. It is home to the largest Niobrara chalk formation in Kansas.

The permit is aimed at preserving the rock formations, which hold fossils and unique ecosystems.

“The problem is that part of the park can’t withstand unfettered access,” said Gerald Lauber, chair of the commission that voted to approve the fee Thursday. “It’s fragile, and I don’t know what else we can do.

“What we’re doing is we’re basically using price to some extent to really regulate. We’d like to have everybody be able to afford to go, but if you’re going to go, there has to be a cost for us to have a guide or something,” Lauber said.

The Little Jerusalem access permit would be the first of its kind at a Kansas state park. It would cost an adult $50 a day and be free for children under 16.

All visitors with access permits will be monitored by staff to make sure there’s no damage to the rocks.

It’s not clear exactly what areas would require the permit.

“It’s a guided tour that will go into the belly of the badlands,” said Linda Craghead, assistant secretary for Kansas’ parks and tourism department.

“If they want to just come in and walk around and see the broad view of the badlands, no extra cost,” Craghead said in a presentation to the commission Thursday night.

Visitors could use an approximately 2-mile trail around the perimeter of rock formations without buying an access permit. They would have to buy a $5 daily state park vehicle permit.

Many national parks that are home to the United States’ most prized natural wonders charge entrance fees. As a comparison, Grand Canyon National Park costs $35 a week for a family vehicle. A person entering the park by foot, bike or shuttle must pay $20.

Badlands National Park in South Dakota costs $20 a week for a family vehicle. A person entering the park by foot, bike or shuttle must pay $10.

Kansas is among states with the least public land. The Nature Conservancy of Kansas, a nonprofit charity based in Virginia, bought Little Jerusalem from private owners in 2016. It will join the state’s park system when it opens.

The state has plans for Little Jerusalem and Historic Lake Scott State Park, both more than four hours west of Wichita, to “fully launch economy in western Kansas from a tourism perspective,” according to commission minutes.

Craghead, the assistant secretary of the parks department, said a lack of state funding for the department contributed to the need for the fee to pay staff who will monitor park visitors.

“We receive no state general tax dollars ... ” Craghead said. “We have to pay for those costs (for staff).”

The wildlife division of the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism is funded primarily by money collected through hunting and fishing license sales. Kansas state parks are funded primarily by assorted fees paid for by park users. The agency also receives federal grants and about $5 million from the state’s lottery system.

The department expects to issue no more than 40 permits a day to Little Jerusalem. Assuming the park can draw that many visitors a day an entire year, the permits could bring in $730,000 a year to the state’s park fee fund, an economic impact statement says.

Craghead said park staff will act as guides for visitors who pay the access fee. Most tours are expected to last two hours. Since the groups will likely be small, the tours will be “very intimate,” Craghead told the commission.

“I think the thing that’s important to remember is this is a very fragile park,” Craghead said. “We only have one chance to open it, guys, so we’ve got to do it right.”

What’s next?

Linda Lanterman, director of the Parks Division of the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism said if the permit price is to be changed, it will have to go back through the commission, which voted unanimously to approve it on Thursday.

The committee that considered the permit — called a “backcountry access pass” — told the commission before the vote that it had concerns that it was too expensive, but it didn’t make any suggestions for a different price, Lanterman said in a phone interview on Saturday.

She also said no one from the public voiced any concerns about permit price when it came up at multiple commissioner meetings in the past. No one spoke about the permits during the open public comment period of Thursday’s meeting, which was at Great Plains Nature Center in Wichita.

“The public has an avenue to voice their concern at the commission meeting. We presented it three of four times and didn’t have anyone from the public say that they had a problem with it,” Lanterman said.

“It never came back with the change (from the committee),” Lanterman said. “We didn’t hear any controversy at the commission,” Lanterman said.

She said Little Jerusalem is new territory for the state’s parks system. Because the park’s chalky rocks are so fragile, it has to be carefully managed to make sure it doesn’t get destroyed.

“We’ve never had such a fragile piece of land under our stewardship, and we want to do it right,” Lanterman said.

Chance Swaim won the Betty Gage Holland Award in 2018 for distinguished service to honor and protect the integrity of public dialogue on America’s college campuses. He has been a news reporter for The Wichita Eagle since 2018. You can contact him at 316-269-6752 and cswaim@wichitaeagle.com.