Kansas drops $50 park fee to make Little Jerusalem more ‘public friendly’

Kansas dropped a $50 fee it approved for Little Jerusalem Badlands State Park last year to make one of the state’s newest parks more “public friendly.”

The Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism Commission rescinded the fee before the park has even opened. Scheduled tours will be free to the public when the park opens this fall. An opening date has not been announced.

“Our goal is to make it affordable for all,” State Parks Director Linda Lanterman said at the commission’s August meeting.

Little Jerusalem is a 330-acre area near the Smoky River Valley in western Kansas, about four hours west of Wichita between Scott City and Oakley.

The park 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. It has fossils, giant chalk formations that rise, fall and swirl into towers and caves. It’s a fragile environment that dates back 85 million years, when much of Kansas was covered by a giant sea.

Called a “backcountry access pass,” the permit would have restricted access at the park, allowing only those willing and able to pay $50 to walk through the fragile rock formations.

That would have made the pass more expensive than a weeklong pass for an entire family at the Grand Canyon.

The parks department said it needed the fee to deter visitors from damaging the fragile rock formations that make the park special. But backlash from the general public and The Nature Conservancy — the park’s landowners — drove the decision to drop the fee.

“When we put this in, we really didn’t know exactly how we were going to manage that property,” she said. “As it continues, and as we finalize all of our construction out there, I think we can manage this in a little bit better way that’s more public friendly.”

Vehicle permits will still be required at the state park. A naturalist has been hired to “tell the story of Little Jerusalem,” Lanterman said.

The Nature Conservancy refused to approve the $50 fee after it was reported by The Wichita Eagle in December.

At the August meeting of the commission, The Nature Conservancy supported the state’s decision to drop it entirely. The nonprofit bought the Little Jerusalem land in 2016 and agreed to let the state manage it.

“We wouldn’t be in a position to get it open to the public this fall without (help from the park department),” Laura Rose Clawson, director of marketing and outreach for The Nature Conservancy, told the commission. “That said, we are also very committed to making it an affordable experience for everyone who visits (and) fully support rescinding the backcountry pass.”

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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.