At one time, the tallgrass prairie was North America’s largest continuous ecosystem, covering 140 million acres from the Canadian border south into Oklahoma. As soon as the pioneers began to lay claim to the soil in the middle of the 19th Century under manifest destiny, the natural balance of the prairie began to change. Today, only 4% of that once vast resource remains and Kansas has a larger portion of the ecosystem than all other prairie states combined. Kansans and tourists alike are waking up to what most Flint Hills’ residents already know: the subtle beauty and natural complexity of the tallgrass prairie is one of the most pristine and important national treasures remaining in our rapidly urbanizing world.
Recent interest in the Flint Hills has pushed the region to the forefront of the public’s consciousness. From proposed wind farms to a growing number of conservation easements on private property, as well as the Kansas City Symphony’s annual performance in the landscape have all raised the profile of the tallgrass prairie landscape. With increased visibility comes opportunity, but also an urgency to act. The Flint Hills must seek to find a balance that honors the intrinsic value of the native landscape while leveraging its environmental, social, cultural, and economic benefits to its communities.
While the Flint Hills’ shallow soil and rocky foundation has protected the native grass from the plow, a variety of development pressures and economic hardships persist. A regional strategy is needed to ensure that local residents, the tallgrass prairie, and tourists can coexist. There are hundreds of organizations and individual champions dedicating their time and support to the conservation and stewardship of the tallgrass prairie. Their collective work is the catalyst for this coordinated planning effort, and is the foundation for plan implementation.