Something has been missing from the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve - specifically the prairie.
For years, the preserve in the Flint Hills offered short hiking trails, leaving some visitors wanting more.
But that is about to change come Aug. 15.
The preserve will open three new trails from nearly four miles long to more than six miles long that will wind up and down hills, providing hikers with the kind of vistas tourism officials drool over.
"Several people have said to me, I've been through the Flint Hills but I've never actually been in them," said Allan Pollom, director of the Kansas chapter of The Nature Conservancy.
But, he said, the new trails will give people the experience of seeing the land "through the eyes of the early pioneer. It will be dramatically different than now."
A new era
Dan Riggs, a ranger at the preserve, said one of the new trails will lead hikers up to a high spot, while another will pass a homestead site and creek.
"It's quite an experience to walk out on the hilltops," Riggs said.
Park supporters say the new trails represent a watershed moment for the preserve.
"We've kind of turned a page here and are ready to move into the next period of growth in the preserve," Pollum said.
When the park was first proposed, many area residents opposed it, saying they feared government intrusion in their region. But as the years passed, some residents have complained that the park has yet to live up to its potential as a tourist attraction and an economic shot in the arm for the surrounding area.
In 1996, the preserve was established 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.
Tallgrass prairie, a rich and diverse ecosystem that once stretched from Manitoba to Texas, has mostly been destroyed by development. Ninety-five percent of the world's surviving tallgrass prairie is in Kansas.
Last year, a Kansas trust was formed to retire the preserve's mortgage, and in March that trust conveyed ownership to the Nature Conservancy.
More improvements are scheduled for the near future.
More trails proposed
Riggs, who also is mayor of nearby Cottonwood Falls, said there are plans for repair of the historic Cottonwood River bridge, which will become part of a hike and bike trail that will extend to Strong City and then the preserve.
Next year, the Paul Winter Consort with the Kansas City Symphony and Chorus is scheduled to play an open-air concert at the preserve.
John Stambaugh, a board member of the Kansas Prairie Packers, said he looked forward to the new trails since so much of the Flint Hills is privately owned and inaccessible.
"When you actually go out and see the wildflowers and some of the animals, it is just a great experience," Stambaugh said.
"The more people you open up that experience to, the better it is for the park and the citizens," he said.