Located only a five minute drive west of downtown Olathe is an unassuming, 300-acre natural treasure. Open to the public year round, the Olathe Prairie Center, home to a unique tallgrass preserve, is also an ecological haven for thousands of native flora and fauna.
Over the past 200 years, thousands of acres of native prairies have disappeared, and continue to be endangered.
Preserves, like the Prairie Center, return these habitats back to their native origin and purpose, while also assuring their valuable ecological presence and survival into the future. For more than 20 years, the Kansas’ Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism has provided the Center’s once endangered habitat the protection and nurturing vital to its restoration.
“Parks are made for people to enjoy," said Alaine Neelly-Hudlin, Olathe Prairie Center manager since 1996.. "On the other hand, preserves protect the flora and fauna. Preserves are for the plants and animals first, and we don’t make concessions for the people.”
When visitors step into this flourishing sanctuary today, the serenity and vitality are striking.
Hiking trails wind through the prairie and riparian woodlands found throughout the rolling landscape. Most of the property’s eight ponds serve as intermittent wetlands for wildlife, and a small lake is available for catch-and-release fishing or water studies. At the bedrock creek, visitors can explore aquatic life, as well as discover fossil remains embedded in its limestone bed.
Birds and wildflowers fill the preserve and, according to Neelly-Hudlin, those interested in wildflowers make up the largest group coming to study at the center.
Numerous photographers and artists also find inspiration in the center’s lush, wide-open spaces.
While serving as a preserve for this vulnerable and vibrant ecosystem, the Prairie Center has another mission: to provide educational opportunities for the public. Neelly-Hudlin, a research ecologist and wildlife education specialist, leads these programs and also works with teachers to incorporate outdoor education into their curricula.
Often in conjunction with research partners and environmental educators, including the Johnson County Master Naturalists, the Center’s learning programs include exploratory field trips and stations programming, where students rotate through numerous stations to study mammals, birds, reptiles, soil and water quality.
Neelly-Hudlin also offers opportunities for special-needs visitors to develop physical strength, balance and other attributes as they connect with the land.
When teaching kids, this life-long teacher-scientist believes in making it both fun and relevant.
“Kids go to school to learn and get a job. I tell them that, like us, every plant and animal has an important job in the natural society,” she said. “Kids can start to equate our jobs with those in the natural society and see the connection.
“For example, turkey vultures, water turtles and coyotes are good examples of the natural society’s trash crew.”
Neelly-Hudlin also sponsors between five and seven interns each year.
“Interns explore the different options available for this type of work and there’s a lot here they can explore. I help them discover their passion and how they can turn that into a career,” she said.
Kate Lierz is one of Neelly-Hudlin’s interns this summer.
In May, Lierz graduated from Jackson Heights High School in Holton and will study wildlife ecology at Nebraska’ Peru State College this fall.
“I wanted to do this internship to research and learn about the land and animals in Kansas,” Lierz said.
Of all of the Center’s learning possibilities, Neelly-Hudlin believes citizen science is the heart of these programs.
“We’re really tied to nature and we can’t exist without it,” she said “The more we understand and assist the natural world, the better off we all will be. Citizen science is an opportunity to make that connection and gain that understanding.”
Through its citizen science programs, the public gets involved and assists in research projects that help the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism manage the Center’s natural resources.
Individuals, families, and organizations from schools to corporations a participate and contribute. The Center’s diverse research projects include everything from stream inventories to regal fritillary butterfly or redbelly snake studies.
For Neelly-Hudlin, the Prairie Center’s future means looking back at the past.
“I want it to go backward, not forward. I want this land to continue being restored and go back to where it was. This place reminds us of where we started.”
The Olathe Prairie Center is open to the public year round from dawn to dusk.