The military wants to keep making loud noises. Kansas environmentalists want to ensure the tallgrass prairie doesn't die. The two problems may have one solution.
Officials with Fort Riley and the Lawrence-based Kansas Land Trust on Wednesday announced plans to create a "buffer" around the Army base, a 10-year program that would permanently preserve up to 50,000 acres of prairie and farmland.
"We'd like to keep that land use the way it is," said Jeff Keating, a civilian biologist who manages the buffer program for Fort Riley.
Federal officials in August said the Big Red One infantry division would return this year to Fort Riley. The additional soldiers and their families could swell the population of the base and environs by as much as 25,000 people.
Fort officials fear that population explosion could trigger a big demand for new residential developments near the base, potentially creating unwanted conflicts between the Army, with its firing ranges and helicopters, and any new neighbors.
"We do activities that make noise, that make smoke," Keating said. "Not every land use is compatible with that."
Fort Riley would work with the Kansas Land Trust to use federal money from the Army Compatible Use Buffer Program to buy conservation easements from neighboring landowners, keeping the land in the hands of its current owners, in use for farming and grazing, but forever off-limits to development.
"Many farmers and ranchers have a difficult time making a go of it today," said RoxAnne Miller, director of the Kansas Land Trust. "So the ability to use the land for farming and ranching ... and be paid for that is really a good situation for the landowner."
Miller said 45 percent of the buffer area was endangered tallgrass prairie. New housing developments around Fort Riley might force prairie species to take shelter on base, officials said, further complicating training missions there.
The buffer program would be voluntary; no farmer or landowner would be forced to sell the conservation easements.
Greg McClure, a Riley County extension agent, said some farmers would take the one-time payment to keep development off their land. But most, he said, will want to keep full control over the future of their land.
"My expectation is they wouldn't want to be tied to that (conservation easement) - if you live close to Manhattan, you'll want to be free, when the time comes, to sell out," McClure said.
Neither Keating nor Miller knew how much federal money would be made available for the buffer program. The price of each easement would be determined by an appraiser.
Since its inception, the Kansas Land Trust has secured preservation of roughly 3,300 acres of property across the state, including more than 370 acres in Douglas County.
Miller said that the buffer - combined with undeveloped land at the fort, as well as the nearby Konza Prairie and reserves at Milford and Tuttle lakes - would create an open-space haven of more than 200,000 acres in northeast Kansas.
"It's a surprising oasis for species," she said. "It's a huge swath of land that will be preserved."