Larry McMurtry, in Roads, Driving America’s Great Highways (2000), describes his first view of the Flint Hills: “To a plainsman born and raised, as I am, that lovely unbroken Kansas prairie tugs at the heart and the memory, because it is rare now to see that much grazing land not pierced by oil wells or torn by the plow.”
Sometimes it takes an outsider to appreciate what we here take for granted, to see what our eyes and our minds fail to grasp: the Flint Hills of Kansas are a national treasure. It’s a treasure unfortunately still invisible to many. Unlike McMurtry, most motorists can drive from El Dorado to Emporia on the Kansas Turnpike and never realize that they are traversing the last significant stand of tallgrass prairie, not only in North America but in the world.
Of the 170 million acres of tallgrass prairie that once ran from Canada down into Texas, from east-central Kansas back to Indiana, less than 5% remains and almost all of that is in the Flint Hills.
Most people see nothing special about the Flint Hills because there are no sky-scraping mountains, no emerald forests, no towering rock formations, no canyons thousands of feet deep stretching to the horizon to take their breath away. We are so jaded that we need spectacle to make us gasp – or even to take notice.
But the beauty of the Flint Hills is calming, reassuring. There are no hairpin curves here, no steep sided mountain passes that turn an automobile driver’s knuckles white. Instead, as the late Matfield Green rancher Wayne Rogler once told me, your pulse rate is guaranteed to slow down whenever you are out in the middle of a Flint Hills pasture. (Those wanting to experience the Flint Hills can visit the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve near Strong City with its many miles of walking trails, and they can supplement this experience with a visit to the Flint Hills Discovery Center in Manhattan or to Pioneer Bluffs near Matfield Green.)
Kansas might be known as the Wheat State, but we actually produce a lot more beef than we do wheat, and the Flint Hills are responsible for much of that beef. Each spring a million head of transient cattle from many states, some from as far away as Mexico, arrive for the summer grazing season. Here stockers (steers and heifers weaned but not yet mature enough for feedlots) can gain prodigious weight. I have helped ship steers that gained 3.8 pounds per day eating nothing but bluestem grass, and I have heard of weight gains of four pounds.
Trucks haul yearling cattle into and out of the Flint Hills now, but when I was growing up trains transported two- and three-year-old Texas steers to their summer homes. When they arrived in April, each railroad stock car held some 45 head but had room for only 25 when it left, the steers had gained so much weight.
With trucks, cattle are delivered to and picked up from the pasture directly, but with the trains we had to drive the cattle up to 15 miles or more, both to and from the pasture. Today the yearlings all arrive and leave the pasture at the same time, whereas the older cattle arrived together but began leaving piecemeal the latter part of July, a few carloads at a time of the fattest, with the pastures totally emptied by mid-October.
Although the ranching folklife of the Flint Hills shares elements with other parts of the ranching West, ours is distinctive in many ways, especially the practice of burning the old grass in the spring to make way for the new growth, something that American stockmen learned from the native peoples whom they replaced. An oral history from the Council Grove area recounts how Kansa Indians would gather large balls of dead grass in the spring and set them ablaze, horsemen dragging the balls across the prairie at a run to spread the fire. The fresh growth of green grass was as attractive to bison as it is to today’s yearlings.
Without this fire, researchers at Konza Prairie Biological Station have established, the Flint Hills would be covered with scrub forest (cedar, locust, and hedge trees) within two generations. They have also shown that the carbon in the smoke from these fires, which are essential to the health of the prairie grasses, is fully sequestered during the growing season; thus the annual burn-off does not contribute to global warming.
All the above is prelude to my expression of gratitude to Gov. Laura Kelly for reaffirming a moratorium on wind development in the Tallgrass Heartland, an area that includes parts of 12 Flint Hills counties. Gov. Kathleen Sebelius first promulgated such a moratorium in 2004, which was then continued and expanded by Gov. Sam Brownback. On July 28, 2020, Gov. Kelly issued her proclamation, thus continuing bipartisan protection of this endangered ecosystem.
Thank you, governor.
Jim Hoy is director emeritus of the Center for Great Plains Studies and professor emeritus at Emporia State University, where he taught literature and folklore for 45 years. He is a Flint Hills native, reared on a small ranch near Cassoday. His book “Flint Hills Cowboys” (published by the University Press of Kansas in 2006) was named a Kansas Notable Book. His latest, “My Flint Hills,” also from UPK, has just been released.
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