25 Years of Protecting the Sunflower State

You are invited…

This year marks the 25th anniversary of The Nature Conservancy in Kansas. State Director Rob Manes invites the public to a special visitors day at Smoky Valley Ranch, Saturday, June 7th to experience one of the natural gems of Kansas and to help the Conservancy celebrate its past and future in Kansas (see event details page 3). 

Conservancy’s Earliest Projects

Even prior to the Kansas office opening in 1989, the Conservancy engaged in projects in Kansas dating back to 1965. These early efforts included the purchase and protection of eighty acres of sand dunes and marshes that would later become the Sand Prairie Natural History Reservation and the establishment of the Big Basin Prairie Preserve in Clark County. 

The opening of the Kansas office in 1989 ushered in a new era for the Conservancy’s work in Kansas. Having a full-time director and support staff allowed conservation to increase across the state. 

The Tallgrass Prairie

The Flint Hills offered an ideal setting for the early work of the Conservancy. With tallgrass prairie rapidly disappearing, a plan was made to create a network of Conservancy land holdings in the core of the Flint Hills. The first acquisition dates back to the early 1970s when 2,188 acres were purchased and became the Flint Hills Tallgrass Prairie. Just a few years later, Konza Prairie was established with the help of philanthropist Katherine Ordway and Kansas State University professor Lloyd Hulbert. Today, Konza Prairie is operated as biological field station by Kansas State University and has become an important research site for ranch management and effects of weather. 

In the late 1990s, the Conservancy started acquiring Anderson County land that would eventually become the Sunset Prairies. Though Anderson County lies outside of the Flint Hills corridor it is still considered a tallgrass prairie. It hosts a portion of the world’s largest known population of Mead’s Milkweed, a globally threatened plant. The Sunset Prairies property is now managed under an agreement with the University of Kansas Biological Field Station in a program that combines research, restoration, and conservation. 

A major land acquisition in the Flint Hills came in 2004 when the Conservancy purchased the 11,000-acre Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. Managed with the National Park Service, the preserve offers tallgrass prairie at its best. It’s ecological, agricultural and historical features draw researchers, nature lovers and adventurers from all over. 


Conservation of the state’s most important wetland habitats was one of the earliest projects undertaken by the young Kansas staff. In 1990, the Conservancy acquired the first tracts of what would become nearly 7,700 acres of Conservancy land adjacent to the state owned 20,000 acre Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area. Cheyenne Bottoms is one of the richest migratory bird feeding grounds in the world and one of the top shorebird viewing areas in the contiguous United States.

Founding Conservancy State Director, Alan Pollom, recalls the controversy over water rights and flooding issues facing the Bottoms in the late 1980s: “When I was first hired, my initial charge was to find a way for the Conservancy to help secure the future of this most important wetland in the Central Flyway. Over the subsequent 25 years, I’m happy to say the situation has improved remarkably.” 

Years later, The Nature Conservancy would continue safeguarding wetland habitat by partnering with the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks and Ducks Unlimited to protect more than 2,500 acres of wetland habitat near McPherson, Kansas and a 2,770-acre essential migration point in north-central Kansas called the Jamestown Wildlife Area. 

Smoky Valley Ranch

Nearly 10 years ago, the Conservancy made its single biggest acquisition in Kansas, the nearly 17,000-acre Smoky Valley Ranch. The working ranch and nature preserve is home to a wide variety of grassland species, including pronghorn, swift fox, golden eagles, burrowing owls, prairie dogs and a bison and cattle herd. The ranch is also a site for federally endangered black-footed ferret reintroduction effort.     

Community Based Conservation

By 2001, the Conservancy’s business model began to include more strategies that did not involve land purchases. “Community-based conservation” assists landowners who want to improve the ecological health of their working lands and ensure their property maintains its natural features in perpetuity. The Conservancy promotes and implements practices like conservation easements, prescribed fire and wildlife-friendly grazing. Staff also works with energy developers on facility siting that avoids important grasslands and key migration corridors. The Conservancy operates two community-based conservation programs in Kansas – in the Flint Hills and Red Hills, two iconic grasslands. 

Current State Director Rob Manes sees programs like the ones in the Flint Hills and Red Hills as the future of conservation. “Conservation success demands that what we do is lasting, large-scale, and science-based; but equally important, we have to make sure that what we do is good for people. So our challenge is as much communication and collaboration as it is ecological stewardship. If what we do supports people’s lives and livelihoods, then it will last.”


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