Some notes and observations after having spent parts of four days at Little Jerusalem, the 250 acres of gorgeous rock formations between Scott City and Oakley. No date has been set for making it open to the public.
The McGuire family, who’d ranched the canyons and buttes for five generations, deserve sincere thanks for parting with part of their legacy, and making a condition of the sale the rock formations be open the public. Kudos, too, to the Nature Conservancy of Kansas for raising the private funds to make the purchase, and taking on the responsibility of caring for such a natural treasure.
New No. 1
From now on this will be the place I recommend when people ask where they should go to spend a day outdoors in Kansas. I’ve been to all 105 counties and Little Jerusalem has more “Whoa, look at that,” moments than anyplace I’ve been. I’ve loved wandering the maze-like chasms, walking beneath towering spires and out to the tips of the 100-foot tall buttes that offer 300-mile views. Every step offers a different view. The amount of fossils scattered about puts some museums to shame.
A big attraction
Barely a half-hour south of I-70, and no doubt the eventual subject of thousands of photos online, Little Jerusalem is going to be a big deal and attract a lot of people. It will become the cornerstone attraction in an area that already has a lot to offer. The legendary Chalk Pyramids are about 12 miles to the east. Lake Scott State Park, often ranked as one of the most scenic state parks in the nation, is 10 miles to the south. The area has several reputable art galleries and museums. Many businesses in Scott City and Oakley will benefit once Little Jerusalem opens.
A big challenge
What makes Little Jerusalem so special, the soft sandstone carved and crafted by ions of wind and rain, also makes it vulnerable to abuse. Walking the same narrow trail a few days in a row could lead to water erosion. The knife-like tops of some ridges could crumble and start a rock slide under the feet of a child. Major damage, and physical injury, would probably come to anyone who tried to scale any of the scores of vertical rock walls or cliffs.
The Nature Conservancy paid the entire bill to purchase Little Jerusalem and is raising more funds for getting things ready for a public opening. They’ve also done a great deal of research, but they’re going to need help from the state. Some additional funding would be nice but what’s really going to be needed is manpower and experience. Little Jerusalem is part of the Nature Conservancy’s 17,300-acre Smoky Valley Ranch. Its two full-time employees already have their hands full with the many conservation and ranching projects at the ranch.
Kansas state park officials have said they’ll supply some park rangers to help patrol Little Jerusalem, and other assistance. First, they need to make sure that’s possible considering how understaffed our state parks are these days. Then, they need to come up with a firm list of what they will do to help the Nature Conservancy so planning can move forward. One of those things could be answering e-mails and phone calls about the property, and possibly taking reservations if needed.
Just about every state park owes much of it’s quality to a group of supportive citizens. Such groups do everything from raising funds to volunteering labor for special building projects. Lake Scott State Park has a great friends group. Maybe they can also start helping at Little Jerusalem or, better yet, maybe another group can be formed.
As well as supplying labor and materials for some projects, some retired friends group members could make excellent tour guides when requested. Having the occasional member walking through the rocks, making sure people aren’t breaking the Nature Conservancy’s “no collection” policy could help keep things like fossils in place for years to come.
One of the greatest things someone within a friends group could do would be to be a go-between between assorted volunteers and the Smoky Valley staff.
As they prepare things like parking areas, interpretive signage and crushed rock walkways for those with mobility issues, Little Jerusalem has a nearly endless supply of Eagle Scout projects. There are also plenty of chores an entire troop of Girl Scouts or Boys Scouts could accomplish on a weekend. Camping at the nearby state park, then spending days working at Little Jerusalem would make for a great scouting trip.
Rather than just tossing the gates open, it might be better to open Little Jerusalem in stages to see how things go. First could be guided tours only. Then could be always having someone on hand to make sure the area is getting its due respect, and regulations are being followed. There’s a chance it’s never possible to totally trust the public to roam amid the rocks with no volunteers or staff members on site.
The time may be now
There’s no question the Nature Conservancy is right in taking time in planning how Little Jerusalem will be offered to the public. They get one chance, and need to do things right. Most people understand that and are waiting patiently. Some, unfortunately, are not.
Interest has been high in Little Jerusalem since the Nature Conservancy released a drone video on the property shortly after it was purchased last fall. Several features in the media, with additional photos and videos, have helped to keep interest high. That’s led to some trespassing problems.
A few weeks ago an airplane landed on a neighboring field of young milo, parked, and the pilot crossed the fence into Little Jerusalem. The farmer that works the field has seen as many as five cars parked at one gate, the occupants trespassing down in the rocks.
It may already be time for some volunteers to start patrolling Little Jerusalem, at least on weekends. It would be a shame if trespassers in the rocks did serious damage before those who followed the rules are allowed access to Little Jerusalem.
It’s one of Kansas most beautiful treasures. We need to make sure it stays that way.