Group envisions future of overlook

From his perch atop the Wells Overlook tower, Jere McElhaney didn’t see Eugene George’s farmstead to the south, Kansas University’s Fraser Hall to the north or the former Sunflower Army Ammunition Plant all the way to the east in DeSoto.

The sights were in plain view, but McElhaney’s focus was much closer.

“I see a lot of opportunities for improvement,” said McElhaney, chairman of the Douglas County Commission and member of a task force to restore the Wells Overlook Park to its original condition. “I see where we can make this park more usable, with a family atmosphere. And I see a lot of hard work ahead of us.”

McElhaney and six other task force members gathered Monday afternoon atop the park’s tower, putting together plans to clear the area’s dense trees and replace them with switch grass, blue stem, side oats grama and other native plants.

The three-year project still needs plenty of assistance if it is to happen  including federal grants, volunteer labor and financial help from area businesses  but task force members say the payoff will be nothing short of rejuvenating.

“Prairie used to be here since the Ice Age,” said Ken Lassman, whose grandfather donated the 17-acre site to the county in 1971. “We’re just restoring it. This hill was a prairie for 6,000 to 10,000 years. It’s just been disappearing for the past 60 or 70 years.”

Dense trees  cedars, elms, hackberries, walnuts and others  have infested the park in recent decades, obscuring views from the wooden shelter and other equipment on the hill 1,006 feet above sea level. Some sights even are blocked from atop the wooden tower.

As trees have grown, so have the park’s problems. Gangs congregate in the secluded area, McElhaney said, and drugs have become a problem.

McElhaney is checking to see whether minimum-security prisoners could be used to help clear trees. Opening the area up to firewood cutters also could work.

In any case, McElhaney said, once the trees are cleared and prairie is restored, the hill once again could become a gathering place for area families three miles south of Lawrence along the south side of Douglas County Road 458, about 7/10 of a mile east of U.S. Highway 59.

“We want to clean this place up,” he said. “We want to make it more usable.”