STRONG CITY — Efforts to turn a large cattle ranch in the Flint Hills into a national prairie preserve has pitted neighbor against neighbor in Chase County.
Holding a half-inch wrench in one hand, Ace Schroer stood in front of a large tractor, crossed his well-muscled arms and stared out to the west.
The scent of hot motor oil percolated through the morning air as the 44-year-old farm equipment mechanic glared across the road at the Spring Hill/Z-Bar Ranch.
When asked what he thought about turning the 11,000-acre cattle ranch into a prairie preserve to be run by the National Park Service, he shook his head.
"If you depend on the government to make your living for you and bail you out, you're a parasite, you're on welfare," Schroer said. "If it's not good enough to put in private hands and run on its own, it's not good enough to do it."
Schroer has developed strong feelings against a plan for a non-profit organization, the National Parks Conservation Assn., to buy the ranch property and turn it over to the National Park Service to manage and operate as a national preserve.
Supporters of the plan envision the ranch's 17 square miles becoming a natural prairie monument. It would feature animals that once inhabited the land, including pronghorn antelope, buffalo and elk. It would also feature a working cattle ranch to showcase how ranches were run when the Old West was young.
Supporters also talk about what the tourist dollars could do for Chase County and for Strong City and Cottonwood Falls, two small towns just south of the Z-Bar Ranch.
But Schroer is tired of the talk. He's worried that once the government gets control, surrounding land could be swallowed up, including his 20 acres. His parents, Dean Schroer, 77, and Ella Mae Schroer, 72, own a section of land bordered by three sides of the ranch.
Government officials have said they wouldn't condemn and acquire nearby land. But for years environmentalists and prairie enthusiasts trying to establish a prairie national park have said it would take a much larger area to develop a proper ecosystem, about 100 square miles.
"They don't want to stop with 10,000 acres. They already said it wasn't big enough," Schroer said. "They want to get it all."
Consequently, Schroer and others don't trust the Washington, D.C., bureaucrats
And he says environmentalists have lied to him: First they said about 300,000 people a year would visit the site; now they're saying 20,000.
A longtime supporter
Schroer's views aren't held unanimously. Spirits are also running high in favor of the preserve, including those of Charles Stough, a Lawrence attorney who has been a longtime supporter.
Stough, a former state legislator, served on the National Parks Conservation Assn. board of trustees for 12 years. Dolph Simons Jr., editor and publisher of the Journal-World, now sits on the NPCA board.
Stough said he was totally committed to the NPCA buying the Z-Bar property from Boatman's Trust Co., Kansas City, Mo., and turning it over to the National Park Service, with congressional approval.
"I'm one hundred and one thousand and one million percent for it all the way," Stough said.
Stough has pushed for a national prairie park in Kansas since the idea came up some 40 years ago. But since the 1950s, most of the original 54 prairie sites throughout the Plains considered for the site are gone, he said. The only ones left are the Chase County ranch and a few spots in Oklahoma, Stough said. Most of the remaining prairie are patches of land on school sites, graveyards or railroad right of ways, he said.
Opposition from farm and cattle interests has always managed to stifle the project, he said.
" I think if Strong City had a secret ballot, there would be a majority in favor of it," Stough said. "There are a few very, very large ranchers who influence the Farm Bureau leadership and others who oppose it and who can afford to put up the signs and lobby against it."
Stough admits that he would like to see a much larger site.
"But the government's policy has never been to condemn for parks, except by a special act of Congress," he said. "In recent years they have only acquired land from willing sellers."
Tempers run high
The Z-Bar Ranch issue seems to have Chase County on edge.
Schroer and his wife, Debbie, who runs an art gallery on their property, say they've lost friends in their fight against the ranch.
Debbie Schroer has painted signs opposing the government acquisition of lands and posted them on the family's property across the road from the Z-Bar Ranch.
"It looks OK from Washington," she said. "You're in Washington and you see things and you think this would be wonderful. But they're not in the real world. They're up there with a blank check and can do anything they want. They're not thinking of the little guy that's out here supporting that blank check."
The couple has lived on the property since 1980, although Schroer's family has lived on the land since 1929. The couple would like to be able to pass the land on to their four children.
"On a large map, we're just a little speck that's easily rid of," Debbie Schroer said. "As far as tourists, they say it would be good for my trade. But when it comes right down to it, that's not important compared to the big picture."
Her husband said it's difficult for neighbors not to take sides on the issue. Those who try to remain neutral anger both sides, he said.
"It's devastated the town; there's no two ways about it," Schroer said. "I've got real hard feelings about it. I stopped buying parts from the store. "
Other Chase County residents agree.
Outside the Wagon Wheel Cafe in Strong City, Dean Keyes, whose father worked at the ranch for 16 years, said he has tried to remain neutral.
"It's tore things up. A lot of feelings have been hurt over it and a lot of businesses have been hurt over it," Keyes said. "I hope whatever they do, it's for the best."
It's also pitting city against city in the quest for tourist dollars.
Leslie Mayer, a Strong City resident, said she was surprised to read in the Chase County Leader-News that Emporia in Lyons County had put together an organization to capitalize on the tourism, setting itself up as the tourist stop on the way to Chase County's Flint Hills and the prairie preserve.
"It makes me mad because our county is not going to get the revenue," Mayer said. "That's what I'm upset about. If it was going to benefit our county, I would be in favor of it. People will do their shopping and eating and lodging in Emporia or Council Grove unless we get busy and upgrade our downtown."
Over in Cottonwood Falls, which is about a mile south of Strong City, Charles Rayl, an attorney, sat beneath a painting of the house and main barn of the Z-Bar Ranch on his office wall.
Rayl is strongly in favor of the project. He sees a national prairie preserve as a great opportunity for the county's residents.
Visitors are already coming from all over the United States, Canada, he said. And he even had someone from New Zealand stop by to inquire about the area, he said.
Rayl said those involved in the cattle business could set up a visitors center that would show the life cycle of a calf on a ranch and how the prairie is always changing, with wild flowers and different grasses coming into bloom almost every month.
He said the beef industry could also seize the opportunity to showcase its products at the ranch. He also sees a chance to help re-establish native prairie wildlife.
Rayl, who lives on "five acres of heaven on Fox Creek" just north of the Z-Bar Ranch, says he's not worried about his property being acquired. He said worry about government acquisition of land has been seeded by farm organizations opposed to taking the ranch out of private hands.
"There is some divergence in the points of view in the community," he said. "Some are in favor and some are opposed, like most issues."