One of the most unique limestone formations in the Midwest and a 117-mile trail through the Flint Hills are in line to become Kansas' newest state parks.
Little Jerusalem, a 250-acre Niobrara Chalk limestone formation between Scott City and Oakley, and the Flint Hills Trail, which runs from Osawatomie to Herington, are listed in Senate Bill 331, which has moved out of a Senate committee. If it is debated and approved by the Senate, the bill would be sent on to the state House.
If the bill is approved during this session, Little Jerusalem could potentially open to the public by May, said Linda Craighead, Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism assistant secretary. The Flint Hills Trail is already open.
The two sites could be tourism jewels as parks, of interest to anyone from conservationists to hikers and bikers and anyone who likes to explore Kansas backroads, advocates say.
"I think for people who have not driven anywhere except the interstate system, they will find every corner of Kansas offers unique features," Craighead said. "These are two that are the best of the best. We hope the legislative body recognizes the potential that both of these state parks have for this state and the bill moves through without any hiccups."
The state now has 26 parks. Adding these two sites would cost a projected $504,000 in fiscal 2018 from the parks fee fund, including $300,000 in one-time costs. After that, the parks would need roughly $200,000 a year for staffing and contract services.
Designating the two sites as state parks would allow both to be monitored by employees of the KDWPT, helping to ensure safety for visitors, but also helping to protect the areas as well, Craighead said.
Little Jerusalem is filled with fossils, giant chalk formations that rise and fall, swirl into towers and caves. It's a fragile environment that dates back 85 million years, when much of Kansas was covered by a giant sea.
The property includes rolling ranch and pastureland. It is rich in wildlife, with antelope, mule and white-tailed deer, prairie chickens, pheasants, rattlesnakes and other critters.
It is also rich in history. It is considered sacred among some Native American tribes linked to the area, and the historic Butterfield Overland Dispatch stagecoach trail passed nearby.
"This property has been on the radar screens of conservationists for a long time," said Rob Manes, director of Nature Conservancy Kansas, which owns Little Jerusalem and will offer a long-term lease to the state.
The conservancy bought the property two years ago, then began talking to the state about how to manage visitors.
"Our goal is to provide some sort of opportunity for people to love and appreciate the place but also protect the natural assets," he said.
If the area becomes a park, the state would provide staffing to patrol the areas and technology, such as cameras, to ensure none of the fragile rock, fossil and plant areas are harmed by the public.
The conservancy has worked with Kansas State University students and faculty to map and add trails to Little Jerusalem, Manes said.
"At the end of the day, one of our main goals is to keep the area pristine and maintain the natural beauty," he said. "If you are careless about the way people are using it, it could compromise it for future generations. That is definitely our concern. But it is also so important for people to get out and see it and be inspired about conserving the prairie."
Jim McGuire's family bought Little Jerusalem back in the 1940s and owned it until selling to the conservancy. All his life, he said, he has loved Little Jerusalem.
"I remember my dad, brother, grandparents and me chasing cattle out of it and taking food down to the rocks on horseback," he said. "I remember going out and finding shark's teeth and fossils. Just walking over it is pretty neat."
Rails to trail
The Flint Hills Trail follows the general route of the historic Santa Fe Trail and is host to often spectacular views of prairie and woodlands, historic sites of the Kaw or Kanza Indians and charming small towns.
The Flint Hills Trail spans five counties and runs east to west across northeast Kansas along the Marais des Cygnes River. It passes through towns such as Rantoul, Ottawa, Pamona, Vassar, Osage City, Miller, Admire, Allen, Bushong and Council Grove.
The trail was originally a discontinued Missouri Pacific Railroad. The Rails-To-Trails Conservancy acquired it and developed as a corridor in 1995.
Craighead said she believes the trail — as people learn more about it — will gain in popularity with hikers, bicyclists and those wanting to ride horseback.
"I think having the trail as a state park will make it more visible to people," said Council Grove Mayor Debi Schwerdtfeger. "It is already a strong part of our community. We have several bicycle and walking events several times a year that bring people to our town. It's an economic driver. And it is an opportunity for families to get exercise. I am so excited about this."
The trail has gained a following of people who like to do walking tours to see wildflowers in the Flint Hills. It is popular for geocaching. And it runs past the Allegawaho Memorial Heritage Park about 3 1/2 miles south of Council Grove. The park is the site of the Kaw Agency building where, in 1873, Chief Allegawaho pleaded with government officials to let his people remain in Kansas. In 2000, the Kaw Nation was able to purchase 146.8 acres of land along the Little John Creek near Council Grove.