Gov. Sam Brownback says he wants more tourism and outdoor opportunities in Kansas but doesn’t want the government to pay for it.
With the beautiful backdrop of the Flint Hills behind him, Brownback recently said the area is ready to “pop” for tourists looking for the next big thing.
He said he wants hiking, biking and horseback riding trails with easy access. He envisions folks in Wichita hitching up a horse trailer and being in the saddle within 30 minutes, enjoying the rolling hills and Tallgrass Prairie.
“They’ll have this kind of experience where they are on hilltops and they’re looking over vistas, and seeing cattle and no people,” Brownback said during a break at his Flint Hills tourism economic summit this month near Elmdale.
But, he said, “You have to do it the Kansas way, which is not the government purchasing the land.”
The Kansas way has produced the lowest percentage of public lands of any state in the nation.
Kansas Wildlife and Parks Secretary Robin Jennison said access to land is a challenge when trying to lure tourists to experience the outdoors of the state.
“Landowners must be involved,” Jennison said. “The department stands ready to work with landowners to develop a strategy that works for all of us.”
Brownback said he would like to see easements being purchased from private property owners so that a person could come to a certain point on a certain date and experience the great outdoors.
The state does have programs where it leases private land and sites for hunting and fishing. The Walk-In Hunting Access program costs about $2.8 million per year, and the Fishing Impoundments and Stream Habitat program costs about $177,000 during the current year to open privately owned fishing areas, according to the Wildlife and Parks Department.
Both programs are funded through federal funds — excise taxes on hunting and fishing equipment distributed to states — and fee funds from the sale of licenses and permits, the agency said.
But Tom Warner, a professor at Kansas State University, who has been working for several years on putting together equestrian trails in the Flint Hills, agrees with Brownback that the key to unlocking the region’s potential is working with private landowners.
Warner said he believes the Flint Hills are about to take off.
“Horseback riders would come from around the world to ride in the Flint Hills,” he said. “This could be a very successful operation.”
Horseback riding is one of the fastest growing forms of recreation in the country, and private landowners in the Flint Hills are warming to the idea of marketing what they have as a way to keep the land in their families for their children and grandchildren, he said.
“The Flint Hills are gorgeous and deserve to be preserved,” said Warner. “It’s in the hands of private landowners, and only if private landowners see an economic return to stay where they are and keep it the way it is, will they do that.”
He said some ranchers will start trails next spring with guided tours, and he expected that to generate more enthusiasm. “If you know horse people, this is their lives. They spend money and they want to ride,” he said. “They are always looking for a place to ride.”