Wichita A group of high-profile Kansans is working to raise $4 million in private donations to keep the state from losing its premier national park.
In a deal unique in the nation, a private charity bought 11,000 acres of tallgrass prairie in 1994, to be operated as part of the National Park System.
That group -- the National Park Trust -- essentially mortgaged its future on a bet that Kansans would help raise $6 million to help pay for the land.
That never happened.
Now, the national group is strapped for cash and some of its members have questioned whether it should sell the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve to the state, or even to a private developer.
Late last week, after nearly a year of negotiations, a group of high-ranking Kansans agreed to try to take over the mortgage and save the park near Strong City and Cottonwood Falls.
The future owner would be the Kansas Park Trust, a private group whose board includes Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, former Gov. Mike Hayden, former Kansas Sen. Nancy Kassebaum Baker and former congressman Dan Glickman.
The group still is negotiating with the National Park Trust, which will consider its offer Friday.
If the plan works, the state trust could take title to the land as soon as Feb. 1 and begin paying off the preserve's mortgage with $500,000 already raised.
The state trust hopes to raise at least $2 million in private donations within two years. No tax money would be used to pay for the project.
The National Park Service would continue to operate and manage the preserve.
A financial strain
Kassebaum and Glickman pushed the original legislation through Congress to create the national park. Because of opposition from local landowners, Congress decreed the federal government would never own more than 180 acres of the more than 10,800 acres of prairie. So far, it owns 32 acres.
That meant the rest of the land had to be owned and paid for privately.
"If it were federal land there would be no debt against it," said Hayden, secretary of the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks. "The National Park Trust believed when they bought the land a decade ago that they could raise enough money to pay off the mortgage. They have not been able to do it."
The park has strained the finances of the National Park Trust.
"The trust is hemorrhaging," said Paul Pritchard, its founder and president. "It's been a terrible time for charities. Tallgrass, 9-11, the state of the economy -- it's been a demand that's exceeded our expectations."
The National Park Trust has more than 100 projects throughout the nation, Pritchard said, but the Tallgrass preserve has taken more than half of its time and money.
"Folks in New York, California and Colorado don't want to give money to a national park in Kansas," Pritchard said. "If it doesn't come from people with a vested interest locally, it isn't going to come."
Preserving the prairie
Originally the trust saw the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, which includes a historic ranch house and barn, as a place visitors could go to learn about early Kansas history and cowboy culture and to experience the prairie uninterrupted by power lines, highways or fences.
It also preserved an important part of the nation's natural heritage. The prairie was the only ecosystem not represented in the National Park System.
The sea of grass and wildflowers, which once stretched from northern Texas to Manitoba, largely has been plowed up, paved over or built upon. Less than 5 percent of the nation's prairie remains.
But grass -- even grass that grows 10 feet tall -- hasn't proved enough of a tourist attraction.
Fewer than 20,000 people visit the park each year. By comparison, the Sedgwick County Zoo, one of the state's biggest tourist attractions, draws as many as 500,000 visitors in a year.
Because of money problems, the park hasn't been developed as planned, with buffalo, numerous hiking trails and a visitor center.
Since the park opened in 1996, it also hasn't been the economic boost Chase County residents had hoped for.
"I think if this goes through as planned, it'll be a good thing," said Deb Zeiner, director of the Chase County Chamber of Commerce. "This may open it up for hunting, fishing, camping and horseback riding. There's a real agritourism push, and the county is jumping on the bandwagon."
Land for the public
Hayden said the acquisition would boost the public's access to the land.
"Kansas has the smallest percentage of public land of any state in the nation -- 3 percent is public acreage as opposed to Alaska, which has 97 percent of its land as public," Hayden said. "That's why they are one of the leaders in travel and tourism."
Hayden said he was optimistic that enough private donations could be raised within two years to pay off the mortgage and then quickly retire whatever other debts remain.
Westar Energy and SBC Communications have each donated $250,000. Hayden hopes more Kansans will step forward.
The prairie is one of the state's most treasured jewels, said Doug Wildin, a ranch broker from Hutchinson who two decades ago introduced state officials to the idea of the Z Bar Ranch near Strong City as a tallgrass prairie preserve.
"I am hoping Kansans can do this," Wildin said.