Topeka The grass just got greener at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve.
The Fred C. and Mary R. Koch Foundation on Tuesday presented a $1 million grant to The Nature Conservancy to help with acquisition of the 11,000-acre preserve in the Flint Hills. Officials said the donation was one of the largest private contributions for conservation in Kansas history.
"It's a treasure that represents not only a piece of our history but represents a great future," Gov. Kathleen Sebelius said.
Sebelius and former U.S. Sen. Nancy Kassebaum Baker, R-Kan., were on hand as the gift was presented by Liz Koch, president of the foundation, which was started by the founders of Wichita-based Koch Industries, the largest privately owned company in the nation.
The money will go toward an $11 million fundraising effort by The Nature Conservancy, a private nonprofit group that acquires land worldwide to preserve ecosystems. The fundraising, including the $1 million gift, is necessary to help complete the purchase of the preserve, officials said.
The Conservancy also is working on several projects in Kansas, but the major one is enhancement of the tallgrass park.
"We have something really special - the prairie heritage of Kansas," said Alan Pollom, state director of the Conservancy's Kansas chapter.
Located in Chase County, the park has been seen as a potentially major draw for tourists lured to the wide-open spaces, solitude and rolling landscape of the Flint Hills. But its development has been slow.
Carved out of the former Spring Hill/Z-Bar Ranch, the park was established through legislation in 1996 by Kassebaum Baker and former U.S. Rep. Dan Glickman, D-Kan. It was 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 prepaid a 35-year grazing lease.
In 2004, a Kansas trust was formed to retire the land's mortgage. Later, the Kansas trust conveyed ownership to the Conservancy, which started its fundraising to retire the land debt and grazing lease and reacquire mineral rights.
Pollom said the Conservancy wants to make recreational activities possible throughout the preserve and that someday bison could be reintroduced to the land.
Steve Miller, the park's superintendent, said about 17,500 people visit the park each year, but that so far this year, the number of visitors has increased 15 percent. He credits the increase to several new hiking trails.
The Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve headquarters is two miles north of Strong City on U.S. Highway 177. The historic ranch headquarters is open from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily. Bus tours led by National Park Service rangers are offered three times daily from the last Saturday of April through the last Sunday of October. Fees are $5 for adults, $3 for children 5-18. For more information, call (620) 273-8139 or go to www.nps.gov/tapr.
Jane Koger, a rancher whose land is near the park, said she was "ecstatic" about the gift from the Koch Foundation and thought it eventually would enhance tourism.
"So often you don't appreciate what's in your own backyard," Koger said.
She said word is getting out that the Flint Hills are more than a good place "to produce Quarter Pounders."
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, primarily in the Flint Hills, according to the National Park Service.
The Conservancy also is working on projects to preserve shortgrass prairie in the Smoky Valley Ranch in western Kansas and the Cheyenne Bottoms wetlands near Great Bend. Officials said the Conservancy has received $6.7 million in private contributions toward its $11 million goal in Kansas.