Kansas’ tallgrass prairie has long been an underappreciated jewel. To his credit, Gov. Sam Brownback aims to change that, turning the Flint Hills into a major tourism draw.
“This is it, the last stand of the tall-grass prairie, and it’s now being discovered by the rest of the country and the world,” Brownback said at a visioning summit last week in the Flint Hills. “I think this place is ready to pop.”
Brownback’s vision is to transform the Flint Hills into a destination for day trips and extended stays.
“I want people out of Wichita, on any weekend, to be able to know where 50 miles of hike biking, horseback trails are within the Flint Hills,” Brownback said. He wants Wichitans to be able to “get on 10 miles of a horseback trail within 30 minutes of leaving town” or be able to mountain bike for 20 miles where “they’re looking out over vistas and seeing cattle and no people.”
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He eventually hopes to have a trail system from just south of the Nebraska state line all the way to Oklahoma.
Brownback also wants more events, such as the annual Symphony in the Flint Hills concert. “I’d like to see us have a month of Friday and Saturday night symphonies in the prairie and let people come from around the world,” he said.
Tourism currently contributes about $3 million to the region, Brownback said. He wants the total to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
That won’t be easy. The Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in Chase County hasn’t attracted the crowds that officials had hoped. And some landowners and county officials contend that there is more economic development potential in harnessing wind — which Brownback is blocking — than in harnessing tourism.
Another big challenge is lack of land access for trails and places to park. Some landowners may be uneasy about having people hiking or riding across their land and possibly disturbing their cattle.
Brownback acknowledged that access problems had to be addressed. “But you’ve got to do it the Kansas way, which is not the government purchasing the land,” he said. “Instead, it’s gonna have to be an easement for a period of time, purchased from a landowner. And there are landowners willing to do that.”
The biggest challenge might be low self-esteem.
Robin Jennison, secretary of the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, said at last week’s summit that Kansans have focused for too long on what we don’t have — mountains and beaches — and not on what we do have.
And what we have, Brownback proclaimed, is “the tallgrass prairie playground of the world.”
“People are looking for more tourism experiences closer to home and authentic,” he said, “and I think that fits us to a T.”
“T” as in tallgrass.
— For the editorial board, Phillip Brownlee