To many motorists on Interstate 70, Konza Prairie in northeast Kansas is viewed with only passing interest.
But Rob Manes, executive director of the Kansas Nature Conservancy, has a far different look.
He has waded into that sea of grassland south of Manhattan and has discovered a fascinating world.
“There isn’t a single person I have taken here who hasn’t found Konza to be fascinating,” said Manes, whose conservation group, along with Kansas State University, owns the land. “When you come here, you get a look at true Kansas — the way our state looked years ago.
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“It’s a perfect example of a disappearing ecosystem — the prairie.”
Indeed, much of the land that makes up the 8,600-acre native tallgrass prairie has never been touched by a plow. It is dominated by shallow limestone bedrock that is unfit for farming practices or development.
But what was bad for the agricultural community has been great for nature lovers and scientific interests. Now protected by the Nature Conservancy and the site of the Konza Prairie Biological Station run by Kansas State, the prairie gives the public and researchers alike a rare glimpse at what Kansas looked like when the settlers arrived.
Prairie once stretched from Canada to the Gulf Coast of Texas. Now only 4 percent of those grasslands remain, and three-quarters of that is in the Flint Hills where Konza Prairie sits.
To Manes and others, that is why it is so important that Konza Prairie has been preserved. Though it is primarily a research station, attracting scientists from across the nation and even the world, portions of the grasslands are also open to the public.
Konza has 7 miles of hiking trails, open to foot traffic only. Hikers can travel along a pristine creek, climb to vistas where they can view miles of unbroken prairie, go through grasslands where big flocks of wild turkeys roam and pass timber where big bucks and does stare at human visitors.
They can also see raptors soaring over the grasslands, looking for their next meal. They can watch prairie chickens flush from the prairie and head to food plots. In the distance, they can see Konza’s captive bison herd grazing in the distance. And in the spring, they can view the color show put on by the prairie’s wide array of wild flowers.
“Sometimes in spring, it looks like there are more flowers out there than grass,” Manes said. “It’s just beautiful.”
The land has a rich history. It once was inhabited by the Kansa Native-American tribe. Parts of that land were homesteaded, and turned into ranching operations. In fact, the large limestone ranch house and barn that were built in the early 1900s, were renovated and still stand, serving as the headquarters for the Konza Prairie Biological Station.
The concept of buying a tract of native prairie for research started in the late 1950s and early 1960s when faculty members at K-State began looking for suitable land. When it was determined that federal funding was highly unlikely, the Nature Conservancy, a private organization devoted to preserving natural diversity, stepped in.
Funds from an anonymous donor helped the Nature Conservancy buy much of the land. Upon her death in 1979, Katharine Ordway was revealed as that donor, and her contribution was recognized when a plaque honoring her was placed at the Konza Prairie headquarters.
Today, long-term studies at Konza give researchers a better understanding of the prairie ecosystem.
“From a conservation standpoint, the prairie is one of the most endangered ecosystems in our country,” said John Briggs, a director of the Konza Prairie Biological Station and a professor at Kansas State. “Researchers will do studies at Konza on everything from the use of controlled burns, to grazing and whether the principles we use here can apply to other ecosystems, to the possibility of converting agricultural land back to tallgrass prairie.
“It’s a special place.”