Kansas is beautiful in spring. All of us who have been here for some time know that, but soon the world will get a chance to see it too.
That's thanks to National Geographic, the venerable publication that has been showcasing natural wonders for decades. The magazine in its April edition will feature a 22-page article and photo spread on the Kansas Flint Hills. Congratulations to Lindsborg-based photographer Jim Richardson for successfully proposing the idea to the editors of National Geographic.
The feature is part of the magazine's ongoing coverage of the nation's great landscapes. That is certainly the correct company for the Flint Hills to keep.
Kansas' Flint Hills are no less of a natural wonder than South Dakota's Black Hills, Missouri's Ozark region, or Colorado's Rocky Mountains. The difference, of course, is that thousands of visitors per year travel to those destinations. Here in Kansas, we get a few of those folks to stop for a fast-food hamburger and a tank of gas.
Despite a state tourism slogan to the contrary, Kansas does not act like a state that is "as big as you think." That's not to say that there are not talented Kansas entrepreneurs - many of them in the Flint Hills - working hard to make a living in the tourism industry. There are, and we owe them our thanks for bringing new dollars into the state. But it seems as clear as a July night in Cottonwood Falls, that the Flint Hills are the most unique natural wonder that the state has to offer to visitors - and it is just as clear that we're not doing enough to promote them.
It is time that we do become as "big as we think." The Kansas Flint Hills, and their exceedingly rare grassland ecosystem, give us what we cannot create - a unique sight for visitors to gaze upon. But visitors want to do more than look. They want to play. They go to Colorado to ski, climb or fish; they go to the Ozarks to listen to hillbilly music; they go to the Black Hills to enjoy the manmade wonder of Mt. Rushmore.
The good news is that the Flint Hills can become a playground too. There would be no better place in the world for visitors to go play cowboy - the most iconic of American images - than in the Flint Hills. After all, the region is still the world's premier cattle grazing land, and that should never be forgotten or threatened by tourism efforts.
But opening the area for the world to respectfully enjoy it, could provide a much-needed boost to the Kansas economy. We cannot expect it to happen, though, by taking a "let it sit there and they will come approach." The state needs to do more to encourage the major national players in the tourism industry to invest in creating a Flint Hills experience. Perhaps Wichita, and its underutilized airport, could become the gateway to the Flint Hills, complete with a Disney-like cowboy amusement park. Perhaps, a world-class resort that takes advantage of the vistas would be in order. Maybe even the world's largest outdoor theater that shows classic Westerns would be a draw. The possibilities are really limitless, if we'll dare ourselves to think of them.
Certainly, it will take money to make money. It would require some outside-the-box thinking like the governor used when proposing an increase in turnpike fees to fund the state's deferred maintenance responsibilities. That's an example of a creative way to raise funds that does not place all the burdens on existing Kansas property owners.
Let's all pick up a copy of April's National Geographic, and see if its awe-inspiring photos can't inspire us in new ways.
After all, the Flint Hills are a awesome sight. They deserve a vision to match.