by George Frazier, author of The Last Wild Places of Kansas.
Great American Desert, flyover country, perfect platonic flatness, Tornado Alley, Dustbowl, Brownbackistan. Do these reject band names —all digs used at various times to describe our grassland zeitgeist —represent only the prejudice of some non-Kansans, or do they reflect something deeper we’ve internalized about ourselves? I sometimes wonder, when it comes to our wild lands, if Kansas has a chronic self-esteem issue, an inferiority complex of landscape. One environmental slur I’ve always thought we would do better to embrace (and promote) is “badlands”, in the geologic sense —those rugged western landforms starved for water and sculpted by erosion.
From the Lakota mako (land) sica (bad), the term was first used to describe the whimsically eroded mixed-grass hill country of the Lakota homeland in South Dakota. Although the landscape of the Dakota Badlands is unforgiving (in an Old Testament way), nearly a million Aquafina-clutching vacationers exit I-90 every year to visit Badlands National Park and its maze of buttes, pinnacles and spires. It’s a place of little comfort, but many comfort stations.
Kansas, too, has badlands, but they don’t attract many visitors and you’ll be hard pressed to find a public restroom. This is a shame (well, not the part about the public restrooms). Spectacularly under the radar, steeped in Native American and environmental history, the Kansas badlands are a reminder of the remarkable diversity of landforms in the state.
In the 21st Century, access has become the most significant metadatum of the Kansas landscape. More than ninety-eight percent of Kansas land is privately owned. By itself this isn’t necessarily bad – while writing and researching my book The Last Wild Places of Kansas I found that the private land owners of Kansas are the greatest champions and most devoted stewards of our last wild places. But to most Americans, and many Kansans, this lack of access can seem like non-existence, and that’s why most people in eastern Kansas have never heard of the Gypsum (or Red) Hills of south-central Kansas or the Arikaree Breaks in extreme northwest Kansas, our two geophysical provinces most defined by badlands topography.
Sculpted from the soft mineral gypsum (Sun City is home to both the largest gypsum mine and one of the most infamous saloons – Busters – in Kansas), the Gypsum Hills west of Medicine Lodge are a shy but stunning precinct of the southern plains. Canyonlands, Martian soil, sandstone buttes, and mesas create a skyline that looks more like Arizona than Kansas. Tables of gypsum, a mineral that occurs as flat, diamond-shaped crystals of selenite and as a silky pink crust called satin spar, cap the tallest hills. In Comanche County, Ted Turner owns the largest single ranch in Kansas – over forty thousand acres of prairie that includes a sparkling section of the Salt Fork of the Arkansas – completely dedicated to buffalo production. They’ve enrolled more than thirty thousand acres in the lesser prairie-chicken recovery program. They’ve petitioned for water rights to rehabilitate a wetland for migratory birds. Throughout the region caves pocked in the porous gypsum provide habitat for bats found nowhere else in the state, including the Brazilian free-tailed bat.
The Arikaree Breaks – our other significant badlands province — are every bit as stunning and unexpected as the Red Hills, but instead of an erosional substrate of red sandstone and gypsum, the Arikaree breaks are sculpted from loess — a fine glacial soil that covers rock gorges, canyons, gravel ridges, and even small mountains lying far beneath the surface of the Great Plains. Loess and other high plains depositional materials are a result of erosion that wore down the Rocky Mountains. Runoff over the course of millions of years deposited this fine slurry across a vast swatch of the Great Plains.
Perhaps even more than in the Red Hills, Native American history echoes across the Arikaree Breaks. Nowhere else in Kansas is the drama of the Indian Wars more evident. The Cheyenne warrior Roman Nose was killed along the Arikaree (just across the Colorado state line) and thousands of Native American survivors of the Sand Hill Massacre fled there to regroup and plan their next move in a seminal moment during the Indian Wars.
Like the Red Hills, the Arikaree Breaks have virtually no public access—only a state-sponsored scenic drive on Kansas Highway 27 north of Saint Francis. Brochures lure would-be travelers with dramatic photographs but then warn them to stick to public roads and stay in the car. Anywhere you set foot is trespassing.
But the landscape of access in the Kansas badlands is about to change. Running west across the Smoky Hill country of the Kansas high plains, a thin vein of chalk monuments adds a third movement to the Kansas badlands trilogy. Encompassing Monument Rocks, Castle Rock, the Chalk Pyramids, and a handful of other sites, gracious landowners have provided access to these wild places for years. At a distance, some of these Niobrara chalk formations remind me of small bison herds turned – a la Lot’s wife —into pillars of salt.
In early October, the Nature Conservancy announced plans to acquire “Little Jerusalem,” located between Scott City and Oakley off of US-83, the single largest rock formation in Kansas at more than a mile across. The 330-acre tract will include about 250 acres of rocks. Described as a “golden city” the site also sports a first class fossil field. The discovery of Clovis points in the area means people have been making pilgrimages to Little Jerusalem since before the founding of “Big” Jerusalem.
The new acquisition adds to the Nature Conservancy’s holdings in Logan County, which has played an important role in recent environmental history. In the mid-2000s, a “prairie dog war” was waged between the Logan County Commission and ranchers Larry and Better Haverfield, Gordon Barnhardt and Maxine Blank. At the time, the US Fish and Wildlife service was considering the Haverfield Ranch for reintroduction site of the black-footed ferret, America’s most endangered mammal. The deal hinged on the ranch’s robust (and plague free) prairie dog colony, the largest on the southern plains. The commission argued that the ranchers’ rights to promote prairie dogs on their property were trumped by a century-old Kansas law granting township boards the authority to poison prairie dogs on private property without the landowner’s permission and send them the bill. Eventually Haverfield and his partners prevailed, and just before Christmas in 2007, the black-footed ferret recovery team released ferrets at the ranch, the first to stalk the dark tunnels of a Kansas prairie dog metropolis since the 1950s. With less notoriety, ferrets were also successfully reintroduced at the Nature Conservancy’s other Logan County property, the Smoky Valley Ranch.
Here’s why I think public access at places like the Smoky Hill Ranch, and soon, Little Jerusalem, is important. Rex Buchanan of the Kansas Geologic Survey has said that we Kansans think of ourselves as a rural people, because we once were. But today, more than 50% of Kansans live in just five urban counties. We’ve become an urban people. In eastern Kansan this trend is accelerating as millennials – priced out of hipper locales on the coasts – have started immigrating to places like Kansas City, Lawrence, Manhattan and Emporia, bringing with them a hunger for authentic local experiences in the wild. Many of these newly minted Kansans don’t want to feel like strangers in their own state; they want to “learn the land.” Access at Little Jerusalem and other high quality wild places comes just in time as more Kansans realize what an important role the state played in the environmental history of this nation, a legacy that continues to this day.
The details about public access are still in the works, but I’m glad to hear this wild place will be preserved thanks to the efforts of the Nature Conservancy. This will give people one more reason to head out in search of the true nature of Kansas lands, both the good and the bad.
George Frazier’s book The Last Wild Places of Kansas won the 2016 Ferguson Award for Kansas History. Frazier lives in Lawrence with his wife and daughter.