Life in the Flint Hills depends on a healthy prairie. The tallgrass ecosystem has formed rich soils that holds moisture and nutrients, creating soil and protecting against drought, filtering and storing groundwater, producing food stuffs, and creating the conditions for a vibrant ranching and agricultural economy. What can we all do to keep the Flint Hills alive and thriving?
The Flint Hills features one of the best preserved assemblages of tallgrass prairie in the world. The shallow soil of the Flint Hills and the hard limestone underneath prevented plowing of the land and the tallgrass prairie provided a perfect environment for grazing livestock. In addition to nutrients for livestock, the tallgrass prairie provides a wide variety of valuable services and products. From products such as stone, oil, and helium to ecological services such as climate regulation and water purification, the Flint Hills’ natural systems is diverse and rich. Major threats to the tallgrass prairie ecosystem include invasive species such as Sericea Lespedeza and the encroachment of woodlands due to a lack of regular controlled burning.
Conservation: Conserve tallgrass prairie ecosystem through responsible land management and development policies.
Awareness: Spread awareness about importance of the tallgrass prairie ecosystem.
Water: Treat every drop of water as a precious resource.
Air Quality: Promote clean air while managing the tallgrass prairie landscape.
Protect Water Quality & Avoid Runoff: Protecting water quality and avoiding runoff that causes erosion is important to maintaining the health of the Flint Hills. Riparian vegetation can reduce or prevent soil erosion, improve air and water quality, and assist in recharging groundwater and aquifers. This strategy focuses on practices to preserve, repair, enhance, and protect Flint Hills water sources and conveyors.
Encourage Productive Conservation Programs: There are existing programs that both private land owners and public entities can use to conserve prairie land and continue to use it for productive purposes. Private property owners can take advantage of conservation easements to permanently conserve a valued landscape while maintaining ownership.
Noxious and Invasive Species Education & Control Methods: This strategy supports programs and research to control noxious and invasive species. Education and partnerships are key to this strategy and tools include support for research agencies to analyze best practices, advocacy for regional management networks, and support for land owners to implement control programs.
Promote Appropriate Burning of the Prairie: Controlled burning smoke models inform land owners and citizens alike on the impacts fire management practices have on regional air quality. A Smoke Management Plan could continue to be refined through the development of a regional burning model, an advocacy network of trusted landholders, and tools that make using and reporting on the model easier for everyone. In addition, the creation of a Fire Tools Coop could provide small landowners with the guidance to adequately and safely burn their land.
Educate Citizens about the Flint Hills Ecosystem & the Grasslands of the World: Conservation of the Flint Hills’ natural system depends on educating people about the importance of its ecological function. Providing all Flint Hills citizens, young and old, with a better understanding of their place within the region and the importance of the grasslands to the world can create stronger connections, and help all to become productive members of the Flint Hills ecosystem. Regional educational partners, from the Flint Hills Discovery Center, Kansas State and Emporia State Universities, and local USDs could serve as regional facilitators for building educational curriculum modules that bring ecology, food systems, and rural economics into every classroom and cultural center in the Flint Hills.
The rich cultural heritage of the Flint Hills is a treasure to be celebrated and fostered as the region faces tough challenges and seeks to find creative solutions. The people of the Flint Hills are the heartbeat of the tallgrass prairie. The region’s agricultural, educational, and military institutions preserve its heritage while community gatherings and artistic creations are expression of its people. The Flint Hills’ cultural systems are a vital resource for the vision of its path forward. How can we support and create new institutions to preserve and expand our culture?
Cultural systems include the history of people in the region, the current way of life, and the values of the people living in the Flint Hills today. The Flint Hills weaves a long and rich history from the Native Americans who managed the land, to the westward expansion of the United States as exhibited by the many historic trails, the Dust Bowl, the establishment of Fort Riley and State Universities, and the development of the Interstate Highway system. Institutions are the guardians of cultural systems. Supporting cultural institutions will ensure the region’s culture remains strong. Cultural activities are also an important part of the economy. Hundred of businesses and thousands of jobs are related to cultural activities.
Celebrate Culture: Celebrate the culture of the Flint Hills and spread awareness of Flint Hills cultural institutions.
Youth: Retain and attract youth population with expanded opportunities, and increase awareness to attract diversity.
Arts: Promote a strong arts culture in the Flint Hills.
Amenities: Promote cultural and recreational amenities and destinations in the Flint Hills.
Develop National Recreation/Cultural Destinations: Create well-known outdoor recreation programs and marketing that attracts a national audience to the rare and beautiful ecological treasures of the Flint Hills.
Connect Arts Organizations and Resources: Create opportunities for Arts Organizations to work together to seek funding for the arts, to share facilities and resources and to offer arts incubators, educational programs, and generally to attract more artists and creatives to the landscape, the sky, and the lifestyle of the Flint Hills region.
Develop Tribal Cultural Assets: Support local tribal efforts to preserve and promote a better understanding of tribal languages, historical events and figures, belief systems, and environmental conservation practices through cultural tours, events, and other educational programs.
Support and Connect Civic Leadership Organizations: Engaged community members taking responsibility for the betterment of their communities are a key ingredient to a healthy region. Develop various forums for individual citizens, business owners, institutions, and organizations to connect on shared concerns across the great distances of the Flint Hills region in order to provide ways to share best practices, resources, and a structure for accountability.
Celebrate the Cultural Impact of Fort Riley: Fort Riley has long had a major economic, environmental, and cultural impact on the region. Its history, military culture, current initiatives, and environmental protocol have wide spanning implications for the future of the region. Cultivate a wider awareness of this culture, past and present, to build stronger bridges between the Fort and its surrounding communities.
Flint Hills’ social systems, the knowledge and support that come from neighbors, family and friends, and institutions, are the foundation of the region’s health and well-being. Before devoting energies to expressing culture and lifting up communities, the Flint Hills needs to be able to put food on the table, clothe and educate its children, and save for the future. The health and wellbeing of residents and nature of the Flint Hills are key to a vibrant, sustainable future. Kansans have a long history of strong self-sufficiency, but even with the worst of the recession behind us, real disparity and hardships persist, particularly in rural communities. How can we help create a supportive network of programs that can creatively collaborate and pool their limited resources to more efficiently help maintain an acceptable standard of housing, education, and health care for everyone?
Social systems refer to the health, education, and wellbeing of the people living in the Flint Hills. Poverty is below the national average of 13.8% in most counties. Riley and Lyon counties have the highest poverty rate. There is educational disparity across the region in terms of both high school and college educational attainment rates. The region is higher than the national average in number of people with high school diplomas, but the region is below the national average in terms of people with a college education. In the entire United States, all age groups are increasing. In the Flint Hills only the 40-59 age group is increasing. Children, youth and young workers, and seniors are decreasing in population across the region. These trends also differ dramatically across urban and rural areas.
Health: Improve quality of life by promoting a healthy and active lifestyle.
Education: Strengthen the education system in the Flint Hills region.
Civic Engagement: Strengthen the education system in the Flint Hills region.
Service: Strengthen the education system in the Flint Hills region.
Strengthen Public Schools: Public schools are central to ensuring the youth of the Flint Hills have opportunities in the future and become wellrounded citizens. This tool supports funding public schools, strengthening core curriculum, and updating programs to include traditional 4 year college preparatory work and technical career pathways.
Provide Efficient Services in Rural Areas: In rural areas, delivering governmental services through separate facilities has a high cost and low convenience. Transforming government facilities into multipurpose service hubs, one-stop shops, could reduce costs and increase convenience. Accessibility to government services in rural areas is critically dependent on mobility. The sick, the elderly, the disabled, and those without access to transportation have limited access to these services. Trained mobile service agents should travel and deliver needed services to such persons, and clients should be screened to establish eligibility for the services provided. Mobile service agents should provide additional services related to voter registration, driver’s license / identification, social security, property tax, and motor vehicle registration.
Improve Public Health and Wellbeing: Improving health and wellbeing in the Flint Hills includes support for physical and mental health programs, making goals for improvement, and measuring progress. Kansas University is working to improve health in the rural parts of the state by training doctors, offering incentives, and developing technology, such as telemedicine.
Improve Opportunities for Aging in Place: This strategy encompasses developing neighborhoods, housing, and services to support “aging in place.” This tool includes local communities adopting aging in place design guidelines for both housing units and neighborhood design standards, and enhancing city services, such as public transit, with the elderly in mind.
Develop a Flint Hills Volunteer Hub: The dispersed nature of rural populations means that access to people and skillsets for addressing common problems and opportunities is limited. At the same time, rural societies have a tradition of helping each other. Volunteerkansas.org is a website that connects volunteers with various opportunities. Investigate expanding this opportunity and its reach to all communities of the Flint Hills.
Farming and ranching are the bedrock of rural communities and the stewards of the tallgrass prairie. Of the 4% of the tallgrass prairie that endures, over 75% resides in the Flint Hills. This is primarily due to the working farms and ranches that have served for generations as the economic engine of Kansas. Farming and ranching form the basis of human life in the Flint Hills. How can we continue to support farming and ranching while adapting practices to a changing market and ecological condition?
Farming and ranching is one of the pillars of the economy and a way of life of the Flint Hills. Between the years of 1997-2007, the amount of land devoted to pastures and cropland decreased, whereas woodland increased. Over the same time period, the number of farm and ranch operations decreased while sales increased. This suggests a consolidation of farming and ranching operations.
Stewardship: Continue farming and ranching practices that enhance conservation of the prairie ecosystem.
Local Food: Increase the amount of locally produced foods that is available to local consumers.
Family Farms and Ranches: Promote smaller, family sized farms and ranches. Improve quality of life for farmers and ranchers.
Marketing: Market Flint Hills products nationally.
Promote Agritourism: Coordinated tourism events are beneficial for individual farms and ranches and for the community. Local and regional events can attract tourists, encourage repeat visitors and heighten regional awareness. They celebrate local treasures and help build a cultural identity, and support increased development improving the overall economy.
Explore Innovative Farm and Ranch Practices: This tool is about recognizing and promoting all of the innovative farming and ranching practices happening regionally that result in conservation of energy, water, and the land’s many other natural resources. Working with existing organizations with a conservation mission to create an inventory of strategies and other tools will help to creating a stronger network of farmers and ranchers to discover what works both in terms of protecting the land, and the economics of farm and ranch businesses. Developing a robust dialog regionally about what works and what implementation challenges are to overcome is an important aspect of this tool.
Market Flint Hills Farm and Ranch Products: This tool supports the development and growth of a brand for Flint Hills products that furthers the Flint Hills’ status as a home for high quality products. Work with producers and buyers to refine the Flint Hills brand, and connect it with the “From the Land of Kansas Brand” being developed by the Department of Agriculture. Regional jurisdictions and partners should fund a regional branding campaign and develop a coordinated marketing strategy that puts a ‘face’ to the region for the outside world.
Enable Youth to Continue and Start Farming and Ranching: Conduct a longitudinal study that tracks youth interests in the future of rural America and agricultural practices. Encourage farm incubators, typically one or more parcels of land, that are set aside in a trust or easement specifically dedicated to controlled-lease operations that encourage small-scale and innovative agricultural practices that might otherwise be discouraged by large scale farm economics. Connect new, young farmers seeking to develop their own enterprise to technical assistance programs and other services at these incubators in exchange for some form of “rent”, such as fresh farm products or other services donated to communities in need. Work with local businesses to develop a regional ‘entrance’ and ‘exit’ survey for employees to capture feedback on local assets and area deficiencies for future economic development planning. Develop a similar survey for high school and college students in the region to understand what it takes to keep youth in the Flint Hills or win them back.
The Flint Hills Frontiers is invested in expanding, creating, and attracting meaningful jobs, relationships, and places that allow the region to flourish into the 22nd Century. In the Flint Hills, these opportunities range from age-old ranching practices on the tallgrass prairie to the latest research advances at Kansas State and Emporia State Universities. From international companies to the most local of businesses operating on Main Street, Flint Hills Frontiers reaches across a dynamic landscape. How can we expand economic opportunity for all people of the Flint Hills?
Opportunity and community includes the things this region provides and makes, as well as the continued growth of urban areas and stagnation of rural areas. The largest industry by employment is government, such as local municipalities, counties, and state universities. Employment has not grown in this sector for a decade. Retail trade, which includes everything from boutique shops to Walmart, is the second largest employer in the region. Whereas the US military is the third largest employer, followed by manufacturing and farm employment (including ranches). Military employment nearly doubled after the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure Act. Manufacturing employment only decreased during the recession starting in 2007, whereas farm employment has been steadily decreasing for the past decade.
Entrepreneurship: Create and strengthen systems through infrastructure and strategic density.
Jobs: Create sustainable career opportunities in the Flint Hills.
Tourism: Champion initiatives to increase visitors to our region and promote a positive image of Flint Hills cultures around the world.
New Models: Develop innovative business models to allow businesses to thrive and create new resources and opportunities for growth. Share economic information throughout the region.
Improve High Speed Internet Connectivity: The future of rural America may actually be more dependent on access to the information super highway than any transportation system. As the American workforce ages, and employment landscape shifts to a more entrepreneurial-driven culture, rural America will be faced with a growing digital-divide. Kansas rural communities should form a rural congress to devise rural plans and platforms to develop solutions for the future.
Boost Entrepreneurship: Communities throughout the country are coming up with new ways to spread the risk and encourage start-ups and entrepreneurs through local angel investment funds and other innovate approaches. One technique is competitive and crowd funded business plan competitions. Often coordinated with business and economic training and with business or technical schools these competitions can spur innovation and develop local partnerships that build future economies.
Promote a Flint Hills Brand: Support the development of a new regional certification that would promote the integrity of the beef or livestock grown in the Flint Hills to set a new standard and fill a niche in this quickly expanding market. The research, investigation, and institution of certification procedures could open new avenues for local producers, distributors, and marketers of Flint Hills beef products. Flint Hills branding could also expand to other, non-food based market sectors and provide a broad umbrella for culture and tourism opportunities.
Expand and Improve Succession Planning and Training: Rural America faces a growing challenge, as population continues to decline and towns and economies shrink, many of the businesses that came to be the cornerstones of many communities now face closure due to a failure to find someone to continue their practices. KU’s Red Tire succession planning and partnering system is one example of how succession training might be developed to help rural communities in the future. It currently serves a certain sector of the economy, but expansion could help rural communities adapt and thrive in the future.
Map Regional Assets and Resources: The Flint Hills Regional Council (FHRC) currently supports planning for a five-county region immediately surrounding Fort Riley. The seven-county FHRC is currently working to coordinate GIS modeling of this region, yet, the Frontiers project has brought new networking opportunities to the table, which, if coordinated to the Regional Hub, could provide a centralized place for mapping regional assets, from heritage and tourism to industry and leadership.
Whether riding a bike down Main Street, walking on the Flint Hills nature trail, or in the stands at a Kansas State Wildcats victory, there are endless things to see and do in the Flint Hills and endless frontiers to explore. To travel the Flint Hills, one is taken deep into the heart of America, through nationally-designated scenic byways and meandering country roads that while beautiful are not always easy to reach. Getting from point A to point B sounds simple enough, and yet it can be challenging. From work to play, parties to faith, how can transportation systems and expanded mobility options connect the region to the many things that are vital to its way of life?
Mobility is about how people and goods move around the region. It includes infrastructure, modes of travel, and proximity of houses and jobs. Flint Hills residents drive a long way to work. Many counties exceed the Kansas and US averages for percentage of people driving more than 30 minutes and an hour to work. The Manhattan Metropolitan Statistical Area has much higher commuting distances than even nearby metro areas. This results in a much higher transportation cost as a percentage of household income in the Flint Hills than the national average. Transit ridership is also increasing as the cost of driving continues to rise.
Multi-Modal Transportation: Pursue innovative multi-modal transportation system opportunities, including transit, carpooling, car-sharing, bicycle, pedestrian, waterway, trail, and automobiles.
Technology/Modernization: Improve the transportation system through technology and modernization.
Movement of Goods: Increase the efficiency of the movement of goods and freight throughout the region.
Economic, Environmental, and Social Impacts: Plan responsibly for the transportation system’s economic, environmental, and social impacts and interdependencies.
Improve Regional Transit: With the aging rural population and changing economic landscape, regional transit systems are becoming more important for transporting greater proportions of our ‘at-risk’ populations to basic services and daily needs. Regional transit can help economies and the health of communities by filling the transportation needs for segments of the population with decreasing alternatives.
Add Scenic Bikeways to the By-ways Program: The Flint Hills is home to beautiful scenic byways that act as conduits of commerce and culture to and through the region. The growth of experiential tourism and adventure tourism demands that states and local governments plan for a more ‘embedded’ experience in transportation, welcoming hikers, bikers, and new modes of travel. Kansas and state and regional partners should develop new scenic bike-ways, trikeways and hike-ways that encourage residents and visitors alike to experience the Flint Hills.
Improve Transportation Infrastructure: Providing additional options and better connectivity throughout the region is an important issue to residents, business owners, and officials throughout the region.
Encourage Alternative Transportation Choices and Mixed Use Development: Just as America has seen the benefits in investing in Safe Routes to School, America’s communities must also face the growing challenges of equipping America’s transportation systems with ‘age appropriate’ solutions for an aging population. Building “complete streets”, roadways that are built to promote all forms of transportation, from walking to transit and bicyclists to drivers, will allow communities to transition to a more efficient and mobile future.
Develop a RideShare Program: Investigate public-private partnerships and other means to provide rideshare capability to areas outside the current operations to bridge identified service gaps. Utilize the latest technologies to connect transit to riders locally and regionally.
The built environment has a major impact on our quality of life, economy, and natural environment. The kind of structures we live and work in, the proximity of home and work, and whether we have access to parks and trails are all built environment issues that have wider impacts on the cultural heritage, health, and well-being of the region. Is there the right amount of retail space? Are factories located in the most efficient space relative to their needs? How do we revitalize traditional downtowns and attract tourists?
Built environment considerations include the preservation of the region’s historic Main Streets, housing, land use, infrastructure, and urban design. There is less affordable housing around the Manhattan Metropolitan Statistical Area than in the less populous counties in the region. Manhattan, Junction City, and Emporia also have higher percentages of renters versus homeowners.
Downtowns: Revitalize historic downtown and “Main Streets.”
Housing: Increase housing options and flexibility to meet changing housing needs.
Communities: Plan for infrastructure and development that strengthens existing communities and improves the appearance and functionality of the built environment.
Services: Increase local access to vital government, retail, and recreation services in the Flint Hills.
Revitalize Historic Downtowns: This tool supports revitalizing historic downtown through a variety of options that aim to organize communities around identifying physical investments and revitalization initiatives that can improve a downtown and make it more attractive for tourism, more viable for businesses, and a more vibrant community center.
Use Incentives to Finance Redevelopment: Communities that expect to grow and increase the value of their real estate should consider using incentive programs to jump-start investment. There are a number of incentive programs based on the existing fabric of the community and the outcomes desired.
Conduct Comprehensive Planning: Comprehensive plans document a vision and goals for a municipality and translate that vision into a plan for infrastructure improvements and land use plans. Topics covered in a comprehensive plan may include land use, transportation, utilities, housing, recreational needs, public facilities and services, and natural resources. Comprehensive plans provide direction and can provide a basis for changing ordinances through the legislative process.
Align Housing Stock with Housing Need: A Housing Needs Assessment collects and analyzes housing information to determine the need for affordable housing in a community. Issues include rental housing, affordable homeownership, senior housing, special needs housing, blight, foreclosure, and seasonal housing. The needs assessment identifies gaps in the current housing stock where certain demographics may have a hard time finding appropriate housing, and acts as a jumping off point to develop strategies to address these needs. The assessment may also provide a framework for evaluating development proposals to see if they address community needs. Amending zoning ordinances to allow a diversity of housing types to be built in the same neighborhood can allow families to locate in the same neighborhood as they move through different life stages.
Use Zoning, Ordinances, and Plan Review Process to Direct Development: County development review process for evaluating new development in the county can provide a mechanism to prevent inappropriate development from encroaching on ranch land. The review process can provide county staff and elected officials with a uniform and objective rating of how well a proposed development follows the county’s adopted policies and regulations and helps inform decisions related to development. The process can also guide a property owner through the development ordinances and guidelines set expectations. For example, a county could publish a set of criteria that assigns a point value for how well a proposed development aligns with adopted policies and goals such as building contiguous to existing towns and cities, ability of providing water and sewer infrastructure, and conserving valuable prairie. In addition, organized seminars could center around commissioners and administrators from zoned Flint Hills counties, covering zoning advantages & disadvantages. Question and answer sessions could help officials learn about zoning as an option for their communities.