There’s never been a Kansas state park like the Little Jerusalem Badlands in northwest Kansas. As a result, the process of bringing the soon-to-open park into being has required a balancing act that allows for public access without threatening the fragile limestone bluffs and columns that make the unique landscape a tourist draw.
Jim McGuire never lost the sense of awe he felt when visiting the family ranch in western Kansas, particularly a pocket of limestone formations that local folks have long called Little Jerusalem. (Lore has it that the landscape reminded settlers of the walled, holy city.) Though he could roam among the Niobrara Chalk bluffs and towering columns anytime he wanted, he never took the landscape for granted.
“Even as a child, I understood that it was pretty unique, a one-of-a-kind deal,” the 71-year-old lifelong Kansan says, “and I always thought that if I ever inherited the land, I would make it a park and open it up to the public.”
As an adult, the realities of operating a public attraction set in, and the land remained private, off the highway just far enough to be out of sight to almost everyone, save youth groups and church groups, who asked permission, or trespassers, who too often left a trace. When McGuire did inherit the land in 2016, he rejected offers from buyers wanting to turn it into a dig site for fossils left from the mid- to late- Cretaceous period, when a massive inland sea covered the area. He also said no to a proposed off-road vehicle park and several high-end hunting preserves.
He wanted a buyer who would allow the public to see the land while protecting the features that contribute to its specialness: more than 200 acres of tall columns, with cliffs rising 100 feet above the nearby Smoky Hill River.
The Nature Conservancy had the leadership, funding and resources to make it happen, McGuire decided. He came to that conclusion in part from seeing the conservation organization’s properties while traveling the U.S. by motor home with his wife and also because the nonprofit had been a neighbor since 1999, when it purchased the adjacent 17,000-acre Smoky Valley Ranch.
His decision to sell the land to the Conservancy – with the stipulation that public access be allowed – would eventually mobilize countless people to bring his childhood dream to reality.
Why so labor intensive? Little Jerusalem’s beauty is wholly wrapped up in its fragility. The same erosion characteristics that have shaped the soft limestone into fascinating formations also make the ecosystem susceptible to damage.
“It’s not an area where you can just mark a trail, throw the gate open and let people have access to it because it is too fragile and it is too important,” says Rob Manes (pronounced MAY’-ness), director of The Nature Conservancy in Kansas.
Balancing the competing pressures of conserving the formations and giving people the opportunity to experience them has meant decisions that facilitate openness – adding it to the state park system and carving out space on the land for a parking lot and restrooms, for example – and others that favor conservation, such as allowing hiking only on two designated rim trails unless on a scheduled, guided tour and limiting vehicle traffic to the parking lot.
When the Little Jerusalem Badlands State Park opens on Oct. 12 it will be the result of efforts by individuals from numerous organizations who found common purpose in seeking that balance. The process has had its critics, some of them impatient over a development timeline that stretched to three years (spanning three state administrations) and included several missed opening dates. It wasn’t until commissioners from the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks & Tourism, the agency responsible for managing the site, approved a unique $50 per person backcountry fee to get an up-close view, that public displeasure spilled out and even the Conservancy balked.
‘Bigger than what we can achieve on our own’
When the Conservancy posted a video online to help raise funds shortly after closing on the property in October 2016, it was the first time many people had seen that a landscape like Little Jerusalem existed in Kansas. The number of views the video received and the flood of calls it prompted from prospective visitors made the Conservancy realize “this was going to be a lot bigger than what we can achieve on our own,” says Matt Bain, western Kansas conservation manager for the Conservancy. “We’ve had to carefully think through options, gather experts and work together through all the details on how best to find that balance of maintaining this unique and fairly pristine area with giving people the opportunity to experience it.”
Before that burst of publicity, the site was mostly a local treasure. The land is off U.S. 83 between Oakley, which sits on Interstate 70, and Scott City, about 45 miles south. In the same vicinity is Monument Rocks, a smaller formation of chalk outcroppings that were much better known because the landowner has made them accessible to the public for years.
The Conservancy bought the land because it deemed the chalk flat prairie has a unique ecosystem of native plant and animal communities, and the organization believes the formation’s beauty will inspire people to connect with nature. While conservation is what the nonprofit does well, says Manes, the organization looked for partners with expertise in building infrastructure for public access and managing visitor use.
First, the Conservancy entered into a public-private partnership with Wildlife, Parks & Tourism that allowed the Conservancy to retain ownership of the land and cooperatively manage visitor access with the agency. Next, in a lengthy process, the Legislature had to designate the land a state park. Once that was completed in May 2018, physical work could begin. The project then encountered delays because there was no sewer connection for the restrooms. There are only a few vendors with the expertise to solve such a problem, and none were state contractors.
Wildlife, Parks & Tourism brings staffing – which it will share with Historic Lake Scott State Park, about 10 miles to the south – along with law enforcement credentials, emergency management capabilities and experience in operating an attraction, things that fall outside the nonprofit’s wheelhouse. For example, state workers made sure the original parking lot design was expanded to accommodate motor coaches, crucial to attract the group tour market.
“When you have a significant challenge like this, you’re crazy if you don’t come into it with a pretty good dose of humility,” Manes says, “because humility is what allows us to rely on those expert partners. I feel very good about the partnership and how we’ve worked through some of these unknown and challenging issues.”
The Conservancy turned to Kansas State University for help with measuring the impact of visitation on the land. Faculty, staff and students in the Park Management & Conservation program in the Department of Horticulture and Natural Resources conducted research to establish baseline data and developed visitor use monitoring protocols, including employing remote trail cameras to ensure that guests don’t go off trail, as well as to determine the impact increased foot traffic is having on established trails.
“There is an inherent amount of erosion with or without us,” the Conservancy’s Bain says, “but K-State has helped us determine the best approach to minimizing the impact, monitoring the impact and knowing when something we are doing is not working. We have adaptive management strategies identified in our agreement with the state, and we can make changes as needed, for example if we need to alter an existing trail.”
The Kansas Trails Council and the Westar Energy Green Team, as well as Conservancy volunteers, have led the way in developing the park’s initial trails. Ted Cable, a retired professor from Kansas State, is lending his expertise in natural resource interpretation to help tell Little Jerusalem’s story through the extensive use of signs.
Unlike other Kansas state parks
Little Jerusalem will offer seasoned state park visitors a distinct experience. The infrastructure footprint is small, with vehicle traffic limited to a parking lot 750 feet inside the entrance gate and self-guided hiking on two designated rim trails only. Access will be available dawn to dusk and will require the $5 daily vehicle fee required at most Kansas state parks.
Just off the parking area there will be restrooms, a ramada to provide shade, interpretive panels on the history and geology of the area and a distant view of the formations. The two trails will depart from this area. A half-mile round trip on an improved surface with an easy grade leads to a point overlooking the north side of the formations. A 2.4-mile round trip along the top of the south rim follows a crushed rock surface for two-thirds of a mile to the first overlook and then another half mile on a natural surface to a second overlook, passing interpretive signage focused on nature, including plant life and wildlife habitats.
The Conservancy and Wildlife, Parks & Tourism faced a learning curve to opening the park because the fragility makes it so vulnerable. The unknown impact of increased traffic on the land creates an ongoing challenge of balancing openness with conservation, so they have adopted a cautious mentality, reasoning that it would be easier to loosen the reins than try to tighten them.
“We’re not afraid to make adjustments over time, even though making a change is often seen as a threat and you can be criticized for it,” says Wildlife, Parks & Tourism chief Brad Loveless. “We’re willing to accept that criticism if those changes lead us to a better place.”
In fact, criticism was awaiting Loveless before he was named to his position in January. A few weeks earlier, The Wichita Eagle told readers of the agency’s action on the $50 backcountry fee. Predictably, the article stoked a certain amount of anger. But there was confusion, too.
Some misinterpreted that fee to be the cost to get inside the park. Others who understood what it provided – a scheduled, guided hike that led to the base of the formations, which some think is the best way to experience the park – thought the price was too steep and it would prohibit many from visiting or revisiting.
The chairman of the Wildlife, Parks & Tourism commission acknowledged to the Eagle that the fee would prevent some people from an intimate badlands experience. The Conservancy was caught off guard, not realizing a price had been determined. The two groups revisited the fee and decided more research was needed.
“We made some assumptions that we should have checked out,” says Linda Lanterman, the agency’s parks director. “By reaching out to other state park systems, I got a better idea that they offer free programs through naturalists, and it’s also not uncommon for them to charge for some, but at a reasonable fee. We do not want price to be a hindrance to people coming in, whether it’s individuals or a school group.”
The commission recently rescinded the fee, and the agency said it plans to offer several scheduled weekly tours to the base of the formations at no cost. Special event permits, which are an affordable option already in place at state parks, will be used to handle group tour requests outside the regularly scheduled times. The state also has hired a naturalist to provide interpretation at the new park as well as Historic Lake Scott State Park.
The slowly unfolding process has added uncertainty to communities in the region that hope to capitalize on Little Jerusalem as a tourist attraction.
Nobody knows how many visitors to expect and, through the first half of this year, officials in Logan and Scott counties were unsure when to start promoting the park because an opening date had yet to be set. Laurie Millensifer, administrator at the Buffalo Bill Cultural Center in Oakley, says based on the calls received since the project was announced, she expects the opening of Logan County’s first state park to have an immediate and substantial economic impact.
Wildlife, Parks & Tourism anticipates the opening of Little Jerusalem will draw more attention to other stops along the Western Vistas Historic Byway, although attractions in Oakley and Scott City will likely see the most increased visitation. The state also expects to see more visitors at Historic Lake Scott State Park, the closest traditional state park with amenities such as camping, fishing, canoeing and multiuse trails. The agency has added space and features to handle more campers and larger recreational vehicles.
Overnight stays are key to an attraction’s economic impact. The longer visitors stay, the more they spend. So while a more robust trail system would attract repeat visitors and keep them in the area longer, possibly overnight, this is yet another decision that must be balanced with how it will impact the land.
“What’s been great about this process so far, and we expect it to be the same going forward, is that the parks department and the Conservancy have been coming at this with the same perspective: that conservation has to be considered in every decision,” says Laura Rose Clawson, director of marketing and outreach for The Nature Conservancy in Kansas. “This is a special piece of land, and access is going to be different than either group has dealt with before.”
A version of this article appears in the Summer 2019 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store. For a subscription to the printed edition of The Journal, visit https://kansasleadershipcenter.org/store/one-year-subscription-to-the-journal-4-upcoming-issues/.