Saturday, October 11, 2014

The Singular Flint Hills

Ironweed does well first year after a burn in the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve
I have been feeling the absence of a major camping trip this summer, so I’ve been stealing the odd night sleeping out when I can. A few weeks ago I was in the Kansas Flint Hills for work, and I took my tent. I camped in my rancher-host’s backyard instead of crashing on a couch or in a hotel. This may present a funny image to those of us in the suburbs, perhaps conjuring a childhood sleep-over with friends and visits from mom and dad with treats and bedtime stories. However, when you’re in the Flint Hills and your host owns a mile in every direction, camping is a little more enticing.

House under the stars
The coyotes seemed somewhat muted by the new moon. The first morning they howled at the sunrise. The second night, after violent passing storms, they slept late and only started yodeling to each other around 8:30 am. I wonder where they hunker down, and if they can stay dry, during the storms on the Great Plains. My old tent did fine- the seams do need to be re-taped, but any water that seeped in pooled up like a moat around the edges. I stayed high and dry on my closed-cell foam sleeping pad.

The dark moon made for an excellent showing of the Milky Way. It looked like a band of thin, high fog across the sky. I was inspired to attempt nighttime photography for the first time. I had guessed that the stars would be spectacular in Kansas, so I brought my tripod and remote shutter control. This won’t be last time I try to capture a starry night-- two state parks and one national park in Texas (Copper Breaks, Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, and Big Bend National Park) have been designated “Dark Sky Parks” by the International Dark Sky Association. Both state parks are less than a four-hour drive from Fort Worth. For reference, there are only 14 certified Dark Sky Parks in the entire United States.

Stars over Kansas
I was in Kansas to view some sites where cattle grazing had been well balanced with biodiversity conservation. To this end, I visited the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve and a private ranch in the Flint Hills. The Flint Hills are an amazing pocket of semi-natural grassland in an otherwise cropped region. The ‘flinty’, fossiliferous limestone accretions, from which the Hills get their name, made these rolling plains simply too much effort to farm. Unlike much of the surrounding region, the Flint Hills never submitted to the moldboard plow. Grazing rules the economy here.

Fossil I found on my host's ranch
Most local ranchers burn their pastures every spring to freshen the grass for their cattle. The historic fire regime was probably closer to 3 to 6 years, but it’s difficult to say if the accelerated fire regime is good or bad on the balance. Annual burning can lead to erosion, homogeneity, and ‘pedestalling’, where soil around bunch grasses washes away, leaving the bunches on an elevated base (or ‘pedestal’). On the other hand, annual burning has allowed the Flint Hills to largely retain its open, blue-sky character in the face of widespread woody shrub encroachment. Personally, because so much of the tallgrass prairie has succumbed to woody encroachment, I think I may prefer annual burning to no burning at all, if those are the only choices. Both can be hard on a landscape, but at least annual burning keeps some land open.
Wind in the goldenrod

Overall, the Flint Hills look good. The grassy, rolling hills reminded me of a gigantic alpine meadow—which is logical, I suppose, as it is a gigantic (sub) alpine meadow. ‘Sub’ in the sense of ‘lower than’. The Tallgrass Prairie Preserve even has the novelty of bison. While it is arguably ‘understocked’ in that there are only 30 bison grazing a 1,100 acre pasture (TGPP has ~11,000 acres total), it is lovely. I’ve heard rumors that they aim to build their herd. Because they desire genetically ‘pure’ bison- bison that are uncontaminated by the cattle genome- they have had some trouble getting their hands on these high-demand livestock. Or should they be called wildlife? I suppose that’s a question for another time. 

Skeptical bison look on from the bluff

1 comment:

  1. Thank you Anne for this educational and entertaining post.