Nature Conservancy seeks to protect the Red Hills of Kansas

The Flint Hills are not the only hills in Kansas.

To the south and west lies another region that is also older than the dinosaurs, and it’s the target of a major new initiative by the Nature Conservancy in Kansas.

The group is launching a $1 million campaign to acquire conservation easements in the Red Hills, an expanse of rugged prairie characterized by the deep rust color of the soil.

“It is absolutely gorgeous,” said Rob Manes, the new Kansas state director of the nonprofit Nature Conservancy, an organization that promotes habitat friendly land use policies around the world.

It is also the natural habitat to many species of wildlife, including the vulnerable lesser prairie chicken, and some of the state’s most pristine waterways.

The Red Hills are primarily used as rangeland and are largely intact, but there is mineral extraction, such as gypsum, as well as interest in wind-energy development. That’s not all.

“The threats we’re concerned about in the Red Hills are multiple,” Manes said. “One of them is development, ranchette development and subdivision. A lot of the trend in land ownership is toward absentee recreational land owners with different management strategies.”

Sometimes those aren’t compatible with conservation, he said.

Another threat is cedar tree encroachment. Without periodic prairie fires that were suppressed after European settlement, the trees proliferate.

“The cedars come in and kind of choke the prairie out,” said Ken Brunson, recently appointed to be the Nature Conservancy’s man on the ground for the Red Hills initiative. “They become so thick in some places they’re called cedar forests, and deer can’t even get into it.”

That’s not good for ranchers, either, and that offers a point of common interest with the Nature Conservancy.

The organization is pursuing voluntary partnerships with landowners to achieve its goals. It hopes to acquire conservation easements over the next three years, either through donation or purchase, on at least 5,000 acres of an area that extends over as much as 2 million acres.

“Five thousands acres I would characterize only as a good start,” Manes said.

A conservation easement means the owner gives up the development rights to the land for subdivision or industrial development.

In addition, the Nature Conservancy hopes to work with landowners on prescribed prairie burns to keep the cedars in check and spur new plant growth for foraging. It also wants to work on stream recovery and preservation as well as influence the regional planning and development of electrical transmission and energy production, particularly wind energy.

Manes said the Nature Conservancy does not oppose any kind of energy development as long as it is not harmful to the environment.

“There is a fair amount of interest in wind energy in the area...and we’ve been able to work with them, for the most part, to keep wind-energy development out of the heart of the Red Hills,” he said.

The Flat Ridge Wind Farm, owned jointly by Westar Energy and BP, is a 100-megawatt installation of 40 turbines over 5,000 acres just to the northeast of the Red Hills in Barber County. According to the Kansas Energy Information Network, the wind farm could expand to 250 megawatts. But Erin La Row, a spokeswoman for Westar, said the company has two wind projects currently under way in Kansas, and neither is in the Red Hills.

Kelly Harrison, the company’s vice president for transmission operations, said in a statement: “It is important to our customers that Westar be a good environmental steward, and that is why Westar works in partnership with the Nature Conservancy whenever Westar chooses a location for an energy project.”

Harrison is also on the board of the Nature Conservancy in Kansas.

Westar has state approval for its Prairie Wind transmission line, which will skirt the eastern edge of the Red Hills south from Medicine Lodge. Manes said the utility was cooperative in minimizing its impact on habitat.

That’s important because lesser prairie chickens and other ground-nesting birds shun verticality — like wind vanes and power poles, Brunson said. They are hard-wired to associate heights with perches for predators such as hawks.

The Nature Conservancy says the Red Hills are one of the continent’s most important strongholds for the lesser prairie chicken, which is close to being listed as an endangered species. But it is not the only wildlife in the Red Hills that the conservancy wants to guard. There are also several reptiles such as the southern prairie skink, the longnose snake and the Texas blind snake.

The Red Hills also has the highest concentration in Kansas of bat caves, home to the pallid bat and Townsend’s big-eared bat. They are important for insect control and agriculture.

The bat caves are formed from the soft gypsum that is abundant in the Red Hills. It is among the deposits along with shales and siltstones that were left when part of a vast inland sea was cut off from the ocean and evaporated during the Permian Period about 260 million years ago. The Kansas Geological Survey says the Permian deposits are also called red beds because of the iron oxide or rust that gives them their striking color.

Kansas has designated a 41-mile section of U.S. 160 that runs east and west through the Red Hills as a scenic byway, but it remains “one of the best-kept secrets of the state,” said Brunson. “Anyone with an interest in the outdoors of Kansas has to visit the Red Hills.”

Streams in the Red Hills also contain calcium and magnesium sulfate (Epsom salts), which reportedly led Native Americans to name the major waterway there the Medicine River. Today that river runs by the town of Medicine Lodge, which was also the home hatchet-wielding, teetotaling crusader Carry Nation of a century ago.

The Nature Conservancy hopes not to run into that sort of ferocity from the landowners it approaches about easements in the Red Hills. The organization has not yet reached agreement with any of them, but Manes and Brunson are optimistic. For one thing, the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service, which has its own lesser prairie chicken initiative, is already a familiar presence in the region.

It may also help that Brunson has lived in Pratt in the next county north since the 1970s and knows the Red Hills well along with many of its inhabitants. He doesn’t think anyone is openly hostile.

“I haven’t run into them yet,” Brunson said.