Lecompton — Landowners need to think 150 years ahead to preserve what's left of Kansas' natural habitats, the state secretary of wildlife and parks said in a speech Saturday night.
In doing so, said Mike Hayden, a Lawrence resident and former Kansas governor, the state just might become a worldwide tourist draw.
Hayden told about 150 people that years ago Kansas land was divvied to homesteaders in 40-acre plots. For that reason, Kansas today ranks last among states in the amount of publicly held land. Ninety-seven percent of land in the state is owned privately. In Alaska, which ranks first in publicly held land, just 3 percent is privately held.
Coincidentally, Hayden said, the reason Kansas ranks last for tourism is its lack of publicly owned land.
"Because when people come to our state, where would they go?" Hayden said, rousing laughter from the audience.
His solution: Preserve the tallgrass prairie in Kansas.
Much of the country's tallgrass prairie, which once covered most of the Midwest, has given way to cornfields in states like Iowa and Illinois. Some of the only tallgrass prairie left is in Kansas and parts of Oklahoma, he said. Once those habitats are altered, they can never be brought back, he said.
"It took millions of years for the tallgrass land to develop," he said. "We could destroy it in an eyelash."
Hayden said that if Kansans protected the land now -- instead of converting 15,000 acres of prairie and farmland annually to urban sprawl -- people from around the globe would travel to the preserved prairie in the future.
One way to ensure preservation of the land, the former governor said, is to grant a permanent conservation easement to the Kansas Land Trust.
The permanence of a conservation easement, he said, has deterred many landowners who are concerned about what they pass on to their children as an inheritance.
But Hayden said landowners should consider the future for all Kansans, not just their own progeny.
"Is to turn it into a highway or a wind farm or a cornfield -- is that in the best interest of Kansas?" he asked. "That's a hard decision to make."
Hayden cited the history of his family farm, which has been in the family for about 90 years. In 1960, 16 people made their livings from the farm. Now, four people use the money from the same land. And three of them are more than 80 years old, he said.
It's an anecdote of the changing landscape and changing standards, he said.
Bev Worster, Land Trust treasurer and organizer of the event, said more people needed to adopt Hayden's mindset.
"Mike Hayden is a jewel in this state," she said.
She said preservation was important because people perceive Kansas as a state of open space, with its aging farmers who think of their land as a retirement plan and break up plots to sell them piece by piece.
The Kansas Land Trust held 15 easements in eight counties after 2002, according to its annual report, released this winter. That accounted for about 2,850 protected acres. Eight of those easements are in Douglas County.