Kansas wind, grass, hills & meadowlarks

Heading to Nebraska, I drove the Kansas Turnpike (I-35) northeast from El Dorado to Topeka. I loved the serenity of the Flint Hills landscape, and made a plan to see more of it on my way back to Texas. It surprised me not to see any wind farms in this almost vacant, and definitely windy, area.

Kansas Highway 177 heads south through the Konza Prairie Biological Station for Long-term Ecological Research, the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, and the "Heart of the Flint Hills". Part of the highway is designated both a Kansas Scenic Byway and a National Scenic Byway. There's no traffic, the drive is like a cleansing meditation, and it goes through the Prairie Chicken Capital of the World*. What more could you want?

The Konza Prairie Biological Station is a joint effort between The Nature Conservancy and Kansas State University to study interactions of grazing, climate variability, fire, and animals, to put it in very simple terms. The website is intriguing. KPBS is also home to the Konza Environmental Education Program for K-12 students.

The Konza Prairie Scenic Overlook on Highway 177, halfway between Manhattan and I-70, offers a panorama of the hilly tallgrass prairie. The bronze plaques in the shelter provide excellent explanations of the geology, ecology, and history of the area.

Heading on south, I saw lots of meadowlarks on fences, and I wondered again about wind farms. The western meadowlark is a very handsome songbird, the state bird of Nebraska, and the only bird I know that looks like Gordon McRae in "Oklahoma"! It's the bandana, of course. And you know how that wind comes sweepin' down the plain.

Next stop was the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve north of Strong City. This is the only unit of the National Park System "dedicated to the rich natural and cultural history of the tallgrass prairie ecosystem". It's also another cooperative venture. The Nature Conservancy owns nearly all of the land, with the National Park Service owning the tiny remainder. The NPS operates the preserve, while the Kansas Park Trust is charged with enhancing the visitor experience. I arrived too late for tours or an extended hike, but was able to wander around the 1880's buildings of the Spring Hill Farm and Stock Ranch built by cattleman Stephen F. Jones and his wife Louisa.

The limestone just below the surface of the Flint Hills prevented plowing, and preserved this area of tallgrass prairie. Limestone supplied the building materials for everything from fences to the massive three-story 60 x 100 foot barn.

This view looks from Spring Hill toward the Lower Fox Creek Schoolhouse:

Kansas does have a number of wind projects, with more in various stages of planning and implementation. Governor Kathleen Sebelius has worked to ban wind farms from the scenic Flint Hills with arguments of stewardship for this ecological gem. If I didn't have to iron today, I could spend much more time trying to understand Kansas energy politics, but real life makes demands on even the most relaxed of returning bloggers.

*Cassoday, Kansas

© 2008 Nancy L. Ruder

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