20 years ago, Lawrence prairie blazed the trail for conservation easements in Kansas

Jerry Jost, conservation director for the Kansas Land Trust, walks through Lawrence's Akin Prairie, the first piece of land protected with a conservation easement in Kansas. KLT marks the 20th anniversary of the easement with a wildflower walk on the 16-acre tract of native prairie Sunday from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.

Wildflower walk

The Kansas Land Trust is celebrating the 20th anniversary of the first patch of prairie ever protected by a land trust in Kansas, the Akin Prairie, 1850 North 1150 Road, by hosting its popular wildflower walk there Sunday from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.

Conducted by local conservationist Kelly Kindscher, the walk gives participants the opportunity to learn about the many species of prairie plants and animals while enjoying the great outdoors. A face and body artist will be on hand to decorate both kids and “kids-at-heart” with images of Kansas native wildflowers. Kansas Land Trust will also hold a drawing for native wildflower plants donated by Kaw River Restoration Nursery.

This event is free and open to the public. Families are encouraged to attend. For more information, visit www.klt.org or call 785-749-3297.

Off a gravel road southeast of Lawrence, on a hilltop behind a gated fence, amid the cropland and country homes, sits a serenely beautiful tallgrass prairie, undisturbed by development, agriculture or time. It’s a glimpse — a small glimpse, but still — into what the settlers saw hundreds of years ago, when all the land surrounding this 16-acre prairie looked just like it does (though there may have been buffalo and antelope on it then).

And it’s all thanks to Tom Akin, or, more accurately, his wife, Dorothy, who loved the prairie and its native plants. “She was always very interested in flowers and birds,” said her son, Larry, who now lives on the farm and manages the prairie. So in June 1994, five years after Dorothy’s death, her husband granted the prairie in her honor to Kansas Land Trust as the state’s first conservation easement, meaning the land will stay a prairie in perpetuity.

His decision 20 years ago paved the way for dozens more Kansas property owners to preserve the natural characteristics of their land. The Kansas Land Trust, based in Lawrence, now holds 54 conservation easements across the state, including 11 in Douglas County, making up more than 22,000 acres.

“When the Land Trust started 24 years ago nobody knew about conservation easements, so volunteers and others had to got out and find people to do them,” said Ginny Moore, executive director of the Kansas Land Trust. “Now it’s so popular and we have so many people coming to us … we have to say it’ll be 2016 before we can get to it.”

Most of the properties held by the Land Trust are private, making the Akin Prairie, which is open to the public, unique. In fact, Kansas ranks 49 out of the 50 states in its percentage of land that can be visited by the public.

The Kansas Land Trust was started in 1990 by environmental activists after a Lawrence real estate developer plowed 80 acres of pristine native prairie because he wasn’t satisfied with the offers he was getting from conservation groups to sell. Two years later, the group helped get the law allowing conservation easements passed in the state Legislature.

Under a conservation easement, the land stays privately owned and can still be bought and sold but must continue to be used in the way wanted by the person who granted the easement. If someone violates the agreement, the Kansas Land Trust has the right to sue (in 24 years, it has yet to come to that).

During the recently finished legislative session, in a move they said would spur economic development, conservative lawmakers introduced legislation that would have limited the duration of conservation easements. Opponents argued that this would defeat the purpose of the conservation tool. The bill was defeated in the Senate.

Located at 1850 North 1150 Road, the Akin Prairie contains 218 plant species, including the federally protected mead’s milkweed, as well as lead plant, compass plant and New Jersey tea. “All of those only survive in quality pastures or prairies that have been around for thousands of years,” said Jerry Jost, conservation director for the Kansas Land Trust. “You can’t recreate this kind of diversity.”

He said one reason it’s important to protect native plant species is because you never know what kind of medicinal remedies or treatments we might one day discover from them. The land also supports different kinds of wildlife, including the regal fritillary butterfly, which relies on native plants for food.

“Ecologically, the Akin Prairie is a remnant of the great North American tallgrass prairie,” said Kelly Kindscher, a founding member of the Kansas Land Trust and environmental scientist with the Kansas Biological Survey. “It’s one of a little over 100 remnants left in Douglas County, which seems like quite a few, but it’s one of the few that’s of high quality.”

As Douglas County continues to develop, the importance of conserving what remains of its natural heritage only grows in the eyes of environmentalists. Let the Akin Prairie, with its serene beauty, its window into the eyes of the pioneers, serve as an example, they say.

“When we describe Lawrence to folks elsewhere, we say, ‘It’s not typical Kansas. It’s not flat and boring. It rains a lot. And we’ve got trees and prairies, that pastoral landscape, that prairie landscape,'” Kindscher added. “It’s what we all like about the place and like to share with others.”