No, my title is not an oxymoron. There ARE hills in Kansas. There are actually quite a lot of hills in Kansas and many of them are quite picturesque. If, however, the only path you take through the state involves primarily interstate highways, you won't see too many of them. This is truly a case of taking "the road less traveled."
Last Friday I had the pleasure of being invited along on a Nature Conservancy field trip to the Red Hills, also known as the Gyp (as in gypsum) Hills, of Kansas. The photo above is from the TravelKS.com website, for reasons which I will explain shortly. The Red Hills region, located in south central Kansas, is the site of The Nature Conservancy's newest initiative in our state, the purpose of which is to build partnerships with landowners to help them in their management of this important area of mixed grass prairie. One of the most pressing issues they hope to address is the return of cyclical burning to the range, helping to remove the overgrowth of red cedars which has occurred in the last 50 years and thereby improving the health of the grasslands overall. The Nature Conservancy is also hoping to help preserve the landscape and ranching way of life through voluntary conservation easements.
Note: the photos I took last Friday were the single most over-exposed series of photos that I remember having taken in years. Consequently, I have "salted" the photos in this post with the photo above and a couple photos I've taken in prior visits to the Gyp Hills - which I will identify as such when I use them.
During this expedition, we followed the scenic drive loop near Medicine Lodge, visited the Z-Bar Ranch, and talked with another rancher in the area whose range management techniques over the last 30 years have resulted in returning excellent mixed grass prairie to his land.
First, the scenic loop southwest of Medicine Lodge....
Free and open to the public, this drive is beautiful and it is a rare opportunity to see true open rangeland first hand. All you have to do is follow the signs, which clearly mark the route. (At times, though, you are likely to wonder if you are really supposed to be driving where the signs direct you!) If you do take this drive, please remember that the roads are public - but the land is private.
The scenery along the route ranges from serene to spectacular. After crossing cattle guards and realizing there are no fences along the road, it registers to you that the cattle have as much right to be on the road as you do, which is a rather unusual feeling in this day and age. The road is dirt and it can be rough; speed is neither advised nor the point of traveling these byways.
Ken Brunson, the Nature Conservancy's project coordinator for the Red Hills Initiative, shared many details of the regional biology, geology, and culture with us throughout the day.
Our education on the Red Hills and its ranching community continued on the 40,000 acre Z-Bar Ranch, owned by Ted Turner. One of the most thrilling sights for many of us was the small bison herd grazing and resting right beside the road in one of the pastures we drove through. There was no fence between us and them, which is both exciting and a little nerve-wracking!
In the center of the photo, note the dust coming up from the bison's feet - this individual was busy creating a buffalo wallow to roll in.
According to the ranch manager, Keith, the Z-Bar generally runs about 3000 head of bison, many of which eventually end up in the restaurants that Ted Turner owns. The ranch hasn't gone totally "nontraditional" though; cattle are still part of its operations too. Grazing of both species is managed for the health of the grass and of the prairie, as well as for the production of meat.
It is not only possible to manage an area ranch for both a healthy grassland and for meat production, in the long run it is more beneficial for the economic health of both the landowner and of the community. This was the message that rancher Ted Alexander wanted us to hear when he spoke to us. His lands illustrate his message very well. Mr. Alexander took over the management of his family's 7000 acre ranch almost 30 years ago. At the time it was covered with red cedar trees, like so much of the rest of the Red Hills landscape then and now. Since the cedar trees outcompete the native grasses by shading them, eventually the result is a cedar scrub forest that supports little diversity of plant or animal life. Back when he took over the ranch, Mr. Alexander knew that it was vitally important to get rid of the cedars and return his grasslands to better health. Over the years he has been able to do this through a variety of management techniques including mechanical cedar tree removal and prescribed burning of the range.
Fire is frightening, even when it is being managed as a "controlled burn," but it is an absolutely essential component of the prairie ecology. Burning releases nutrients back into the soil and it reduces the area covered by trees and shrubs, making for healthier, more productive grasslands. The dead trees in the photo below were actually killed in a wildfire that occurred several years ago, beginning accidentally at a bridge construction project and spreading for miles. Wildfires illustrate another important reason to do prescribed burns: prescribed burns reduce the overall fire load and thereby reduce the chance of a truly destructive wildfire getting a strong hold.
Having just suffered through a prolonged drought which may not be over yet, a vital point that Mr. Alexander made was about the effect that good range management has on the water in the region. Noting that the area only gets an average of about 20" of rain each year, he said that with excellent range (very good to excellent native grass and forb cover, no cedars in the uplands), about 4" of that annual rainfall is stored each year in the natural aquifers below ground, totalling about 100,000 gallons/acre. This stored water supplies the area's groundwater, which in turn feeds the streams and rivers and provides the water for the wells on homes and ranches. Under a poor quality range filled with a cedar scrub forest, only about 20% of that potential 100,000 gallons (or about 20,000 gallons/acre) is stored annually in the aquifer, which can have dramatic, negative impacts on the economic and ecological health of the area.
Economically, this region has suffered for years, if not decades. Ecologically, it is an important and diverse region whose health is important to humans, plants, and animals alike, locally and beyond. I've barely scratched the surface of all there is to learn and know about the Red Hills region of Kansas, but I hope The Nature Conservancy's new Red Hills Initiative is supremely successful and that the Red Hills natural beauty, viability and diversity improves dramatically with each passing decade.