ELMDALE — Hoping to make the Kansas Flint Hills "the tallgrass prairie playground of the world," Gov. Sam Brownback welcomed about 200 people to his Flint Hills visioning summit Tuesday morning.
Gathered at Camp Wood were tourism representatives from most of the region's 22 counties, small towns, several colleges, state officials, conservation groups and Flint Hills ranchers.
It was the second of several summits Brownback has planned to help increase communication and cooperation among involved groups of several industries.
Since the early days of his campaign he's stated a desire to promote tourism in Kansas, especially within the Flint Hills, where many small communities are struggling financially.
Tuesday, he predicted success.
"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, quoted studies that showed travelers are seeking new, affordable destinations closer to home that help them connect with their families and the land.
She said the allure is already there. In 2009 visitors spent about $2.8 billion in the region, though that study included Topeka and Wichita.
Brownback championed making the Flint Hills a major destination for equestrian trail riders. State tourism officials said it is the fastest growing of all horse-riding events.
Guided horseback trips on three Flint Hills ranches should begin in early 2012, according to Tom Warner, a Kansas State University professor who has been working on the idea for several years.
Warner and Brownback hope a trail system can eventually be designed from just south of the Nebraska state line to Oklahoma.
Warner said surveys he sent to horse-riding groups across the nation show the interest is there.
"More than 97 percent said they'd be interested in a trail ride through the Flint Hills," Warner said. "About 70 percent (of out-of-state riders) said they'd be interested in attending some weeklong horseback rally in the Flint Hills. Think what that could do."
Warner said landowner involvement would be voluntary.
Some ranchers could lease access to trips conducted by local guides. Other landowners could serve as guides or furnish meals, horses and equipment.
He said many of the multi-day rides could include trips to small towns for meals and lodging.
Several of the group of about a dozen speakers talked of the potential of Manhattan's Flint Hills Discovery Center.
The 35,000 square-foot facility, scheduled to open next April, could encourage thousands of visitors to explore the region after seeing the center's educational dioramas and exhibits.
Robin Jennison, Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism secretary, said the most important thing the region needs is promotion.
The natural beauty of the area, he said, will bring people to 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."
Lyon County rancher Jan Jantzen said some people are already paying to be out in the Flint Hills, especially if they can participate in ranching activities.
For about 12 years he has operated Kansas Flint Hills Adventures.
What began as taking friends of friends on trail rides and to springtime prairie burns evolved into a business that drew tourists from most states and several countries.
"The demand so exceeded my imagination," he said. "These people really want the Flint Hills experience. They want to ride a horse through the tallgrass and not see it from the road. They want to be there when the fire's lit and help out instead of staying far away and taking a picture."
But some attending warned that getting landowner support in a region that's almost exclusively privately owned could be a challenge.
"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."
Ferrell suggested the state promote Flint Hills beef as a special brand that's raised on tallgrass, butchered, cooked and sold in the region.
That way the meat would be healthy, fresh, flavorful and all the profits would stay in the region.
"We need to make our beef something special," he said. "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."
About a week after designating a huge area of the Flint Hills to be free of wind power development, Brownback and others stressed the importance of preserving the ecological health and ranching heritage of the Flint Hills.
"Let's not kill the golden goose. Let's be careful we don't kill the prairie," said Rose Bacon, a Morris County rancher. "It doesn't matter if it's the Scottish Highlands, the Grand Canyon or the Flint Hills, people come to see the natural wonder. It has to stay a natural wonder."