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Nature Conservancy acts to protect 5,000 acres of Red Hills  

Credit:  By Carol Bronson, The Pratt Tribune, www.pratttribune.com 17 January 2012 ~~

Pratt, Kan. – The Red Hills of Kansas, also known as the Gypsum or Gyp Hills, present a rugged face to the world. Characterized by high, flat-topped buttes of a deep red-orange color, often with white outcroppings of gypsum, steep, craggy canyons and tough native grasses that survive climate extremes, the land and wildlife that populates it face environmental threats on several fronts.

The Nature Conservancy, based in Virginia and with a Kansas chapter headed by Rob Manes, former assistant director of Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, has launched a $1 million initiative to secure conservation easements, either by purchase or donation.

Ken Brunson, recently retired KDWP wildlife diversity specialist, is the project coordinator.

As a first step, the Conservancy hopes to acquire 5,000 acres of easements that would preserve the land as grassland. A landowner would be paid a percentage of the appraised value for signing a perpetual easement and retain grazing rights, under a reasonable management regime, Brunson said.

Signing an easement would prevent the owner, and subsequent owners, from developing the land for housing, drilling for oil, mining for gypsum, leasing the land for wind energy, or converting it to cropland.

The target area in Kansas includes Barber, Comanche and Clark counties and part of Kiowa County. The Red Hills extend into Oklahoma, and a similar initiative is underway in that state.

The Conservancy is not opposed to any type of energy development as long as it does not harm the environment, Manes said.

Barber and Comanche counties are currently experiencing an upswing in oil drilling and there is a great deal of interest in wind energy. If those activities present a sense of urgency for the Conservancy, it is to work cooperatively with the major company players in the area, Brunson said.

“It’s an obvious situation where our desires can’t compete with the financial gains from other interests, but a lot of landowners in the hills have interest in maintaining the natural integrity,” he continued. “We’re interested in working with landowners that share our interest.

“I fell in love with the Red Hills when I first moved to Pratt in the mid-70s,” Brunson said. “There are lots of very interesting creatures out there.”

The lesser prairie chicken does not do well with any kind of development, including wind towers, transmission lines, or subdivisions for housing, he said. They will evacuate an area where those activities are occurring.

So far, the group has been successful in keeping wind developers out of the heart of the Red Hills, Manes said.

“We try to work cooperatively with the industry and bring the best science to bear on the siting of towers,” he continued. “If you look at even the most ambitious wind energy build-out goals (20 to 30 percent of electrical production) and the amount of land where wind resources are adequate and where current usage, such as tillage agriculture, have already negated the ecological aspects, there are many, many more acres available. There is no reason to look at places like the Red Hills.

“Most wind developers have recognized that,” he added.

Manes would like for the group to identify the first landowners and get 5,000 acres in easements, in one, two or three large chunks, within three years.

That’s just a start, and easements are only a portion of the project.

Brunson said that half of his job is trying to promote specific conservation practices – like following approved grazing recommendations, using fire as a resource to control the encroachment of red cedar trees and establishment of additional watering facilities and wildlife habitat.

“A lot of excellent efforts are already occurring and we’re hoping to be part of that,” he noted.

Manes said the initiative in the Red Hills is similar to a Nature Conservancy project in the Flint Hills, which has been underway for about a dozen years. Nearly 40,000 acres is in conservation easements and could reach 100,000 acres in the near future. He is optimistic for success in southern Kansas.

“The people who have owned land in the Red Hills for generations have done a really good job of stewarding it,” he said. “I have a great deal of confidence in the people who own and manage that land. We hope to be a partner in that effort.”

The Red Hills

•The region includes 2 million acres in Kansas and Oklahoma.

• It is the state’s only remaining mixed-grass prairie landscape.

• It is the second largest intact grassland in Kansas, second only to the Flint Hills.

• It may contain the highest concentration of undisturbed natural creeks and rivers.

• More than half (400 of 700) of all caves in Kansas are in Comanche and Barber counties.

• The region is considered to be Kansas’ most important region for bat habitat.

• The Red Hills are one of the continent’s most important strongholds for the lesser prairie chicken, a grassland bird that is a candidate for Endangered Species designation.

• Other species found in the Red Hills are found nowhere else in Kansas.

The Nature Conservancy

Source:  By Carol Bronson, The Pratt Tribune, www.pratttribune.com 17 January 2012

This article is the work of the source indicated. Any opinions expressed in it are not necessarily those of National Wind Watch.

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