West of Emporia, just off U.S. 50 on K-177 is one of the wonders of America -- the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. It represents a unique partnership between the National Park Service (NPS), the Nature Conservancy, and the Kansas Park Trust.
Heather Brown, Chief of Interpretation at Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, explained that this part of Kansas was once an inland sea some 250 million years ago. The softer shales eventually eroded away as the sea receded, leaving flint atop the ridge lines (part of the reason this section of the state is known as the Flint Hills).
Only about 4 percent of the native tallgrass prairie remains. Outlining the history of the Preserve, Heather told me that there was a push to preserve tallgrass prairie as far back as the 1920s. The land we were standing on was owned in the 1880s by Stephen F. Jones, a wealthy cattleman. He also built the one room school house that still stands.
The Preserve encompasses 10,894 acres, just 34 of which are owned by the NPS. Much of the land is leased for ranching by the Nature Conservancy who partners with the NPS to preserve the prairie ecosystem.
Heather told me that visitors from around the world have come to see the tallgrass prairie. She said they're often amazed by the "solitude, beauty, and sheer openness." I have to concur. It was a breathtaking 360 degree view from some of the hilltops, with the wind whistling around us.
It was hard to imagine that the Kansas City metro area lay less than a two hours drive to the northeast.
When the Preserve was established in 1996, there was controversy about the federal government coming in and taking land. In fact, there's no eminent domain allowed under the enabling legislation, and no land has ever been taken for the Preserve. The federal government will never own more than 180 acres of the preserve, as stated in the enabling legislation.
Heather, a native Kansan, feels that frictions have gradually started to fade. She makes an effort to visit area events to tell people about the tourists coming to the area as a result of the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, and the economic benefits.
You don't have to sell Heather on the remarkable tranquility of walking through the tallgrass. As she told me while we were standing and looking at the sweeping vistas, "I love to come to work every day."