Monday, May 07, 2012

The Red Hills of Kansas

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 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.

Depending on the time of year you visit, the wildflowers along this loop are amazing in both their variety and their abundance.  Generally they can be seen and photographed quite safely and readily from the roadside.  The pale echinacea, Echinacea pallida, shown to the left and in the landscape photo below, was just beginning to bloom.  These photographs, though, are actually ones I took in early June 2 years ago.

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. 

While keeping our ears open to what Ken was saying, several of us were roaming during stops, trying to get photos of the wildflower blossoms that we rarely get to see in our "real" lives.  I saw and photographed great flowers:  purple ground cherry, lemon paintbrush, blue false indigo, scarlet globe mallow, yucca, serrate-leafed evening primrose, green antelopehorn.  Unfortunately, the photos weren't as great as the flowers, being basically all terminally overexposed and not worth sharing.  (I'm hoping that Ruth had better luck and skill than I did!)

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.


Melanie said...

You were so close to my area!! One of these days when I am looking for something to do. .I intend on doing some flower finding and bird watching in that area. .there is supposed to be an incredible number of mountain bluebirds that come to the red hills for the winter. .I suppose primarily because of the cedars. .I also have seen how they can become such a huge issue!! I'll bet you thoroughly enjoyed your trip. .and I am really excited that you saw false indigo blooming there. .I noticed it everywhere at my moms' last weekend, but I have NEVER seen any growing around here. .I planted some last year from HCG. .and am still hoping it will bloom for me!! I LOVE that plant!

Ken Brunson said...

Great article, Cynthia! Come back anytime.

Gaia Gardener: said...

Melanie, give the false indigo some time - mine took about 2 years to reach blooming size and 2 more years before they put on a really good show. This year, though, was wonderful! (I hadn't put 2 and 2 together to know how close we were to your stomping grounds. Maybe sometime we can meet down there for a birding and/or wildflower expedition!)

Gaia Gardener: said...

Thanks, Ken!

greggo said...

Back in the day....I used to go to Kiowas in to drink beer when I was 17. I lived in NW Oklahoma. My in laws live just south of there in near cherokee. Yes those red roads get nasty when wet. ha. Gload you went, you should come to the cowley county wildflower tour June 11, the last couple of years it has been on the 9000 acre synder ranch. Very few attend. I'm sorry your photos didn't turn out, but I can envision the landscape quite well. Thanks!

Gaia Gardener: said...

Greg, I'll keep the Cowley County wildflower tour in mind and see if I can make it. Are there reservations required?

Gardener on Sherlock Street said...

I read about TNC working in this area and have it in my list of places to explore sometime. Driving in areas with cattle guards on the roads won't phase us! Sounds like you got some good info and up close opportunities with those wild flowers. Sorry about the photo issues. Thanks for sharing your adventure. Did you see any road runners? I hear they're in the area some.

Gaia Gardener: said...

GonSS, We looked for roadrunners but didn't see any. Maybe next time!

Melanie said...

We should definitely do that sometime!! Wondering if Greg had his date right for the Cowley county tour? June 11 is a Monday. .that would be fun. .but I wouldn't be able to get there on the Monday. .now if it were on Saturday. .hmmm!

Michael - Plano Prairie Garden said...

That looks like it would be an interesting field trip. The photo of Echinacea pallida looks like a flower in my garden that I call Echinacea angustifolia. I have always thought my plants were possibly pallida.

Gaia Gardener: said...

Bluestem, Your comment made me question my I.D., so I went to the USDA plant profiles where I learned that E. angustifolia appears to have been classified under E. pallida at one point, along with another Echinacea, E. sanguinea. My very rough impression of the difference has been that pallida has longer, thinner petals which droop more.

By that description, this appears to be pallida to me. By the range maps on the USDA plant profile site, it's probably angustifolia, since pallida is shown as only occurring in the Flint Hills region in our state.

I have never compared the foliage after which "angustifolia" is I guess I need to do some more digging! Glad you stopped by (and are keeping me honest)!

David Watkins said...

My original home (1941) was Medicine Lodge. Grew up in the area between Nashville, Sharon, and Medicine. We farmed at the eastern edge of the Red Hills. Over the decades I've migrated to Pennsylvania. I'm the oldest of eight and we have a family reunion in Kingman and Zenda every year on the 4th of July. On July 3rd (2015)four family vehicles took the Scenic Drive west and south of Medicine. Two vehicles went on to Busters. It was a great time.

David Watkins said...

My original home (1941) was Medicine Lodge. Grew up in the area between Nashville, Sharon, and Medicine. We farmed at the eastern edge of the Red Hills. Over the decades I've migrated to Pennsylvania. I'm the oldest of eight and we have a family reunion in Kingman and Zenda every year on the 4th of July. On July 3rd (2015)four family vehicles took the Scenic Drive west and south of Medicine. Two vehicles went on to Busters. It was a great time.