There's going to be a lot more tall grass in the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in the Flint Hills.
Officials on Thursday announced the purchase of lease rights that will remove cattle grazing on 1,100 acres of the preserve and allow the grass to grow.
They also announced the development of other long-awaited improvements, including hiking trails and preservation of a historic bridge in nearby Cottonwood Falls.
"This will be a major new expansion," said Alan Pollom, state director of the Nature Conservancy.
By August, he said, the trails should be in place, and the grass should be more than 4 feet tall.
Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, former U.S. Sen. Nancy Kassebaum Baker, who represented Kansas, and federal Interior Department officials were on hand to note the planned improvements.
"The Flint Hills have always had a special importance to Kansans and to me," Sebelius said. "We must preserve this land, so we can tell the stories of the people who lived here and who continue to make this home."
With the help of Baker, the preserve was established in 1996 through a unique arrangement in which the National Park Trust purchased nearly 11,000 acres around a 32-acre park owned by the National Park Service. Part of the purchase price was provided by Texas billionaire Edward Bass, who donated funds to the trust and pre-paid a 35-year grazing lease.
In 2004, a Kansas trust was formed to retire the land's mortgage. Last month, the trust conveyed ownership to the Nature Conservancy.
Pollom said the long-term plan was to repurchase the entire grazing lease, so the 11,000 acres could be developed and bison could be reintroduced to the land. He said some grazing would always occur on the land.
Currently, most visitors are confined to the 32-acre park site, where there is a historic ranch and schoolhouse.
Pollom said three trails would be added that would range from two to six miles.
In nearby Cottonwood Falls, the Kansas Department of Transportation announced plans to do $486,000 of repairs to the historic Cottonwood River bridge, which is currently closed.
The bridge, which was built in 1914, will become a pedestrian and bicycle crossing and also serve as the start of a trail that extends to Strong City and then to the preserve .
Tallgrass prairie, a rich and diverse ecosystem that once covered 400,000 square miles of North America, has been gobbled up by development and agriculture. Now, less than 4 percent of the original ecosystem remains, according to the National Park Service. Ninety-five percent of the world's surviving tallgrass prairie is in Kansas.