October 15, 2010

Konza Prairie Preserve, Flint Hills, Kansas

We are now in Manhattan, Kansas, home to Kansas State University and located in the beautiful Flint Hills region. The Flint Hills are one of the only areas in the entire Great Plains region that was not plowed under. That is because the soils here were very shallow and limestone rocks were just under the surface, making plowing a damaging endevour to any pioneers who tried. As such, most of the region was just grazed by cattle, with farming limited to the richer soils of the river bottoms.

The Flint Hills are made up of 230 million year old limestone from the ancient mid-continent seaway. They are not so much hills, as a high flat plateau that was dissected by erosion by creeks and rivers. You can see that when you get to the top of the hills are look out across the horizon. There is almost no topsoil on the tops of the hills (blown away) and there is more in the bottoms and it settled down there.

Because this area did not see the plow, it also saw the largest tracts of native tallgrass prairie preserved. Of the 240 million acres of the Great Plains that once supports prairie, only about 1-4% remain, depending on how they are classified. Of that 1%, much of it is in the Flint Hills.

Kansas River, Manhattan (right), and Kansas State University (left) from the top of the Konza Prairie hills
One such tract is the 8,600 acre Konza Prairie Preserve. It is owned by the Nature Conservancy and managed by Kansas State University as a biological research site. They have the preserve divided up into unit to study the effects of a variety of factors on prairie health and recovery.

Several creeks cross the preserve providing natural divisions for the experimental plots
Approximately half of the preserve is fenced and contains 300 bison to study the affects grazing had on these ecosystems before the bison were exterminated from Kansas. The other area, open to the public for hiking, is the ungrazed area. They also split the preserve into a variety of units where they do prescribed burns every year, every other year, 5, 10, and every 20 years to see how the prairies respond to frequent fires or get invaded by woody plants and trees if not burned enough.

The trails and fire roads are also the divisions of management units for the prescribed burns
The diversity of the tallgrass prairie is really astounding. To some it looks like a grassy field. But, once you start looking closely, you notice all these amazing details. The tallgrass prairie at Konza has over 600 documented species. I read somewhere that the tallgrass prairie is actually considered the most complex temperate terrestrial ecosystem in North America and among the most diverse.

We are staying at Tuttle Creek Lake just north of Manhattan. It is actually a reservoir formed by a dam on the Kansas River. It's pretty nice at sunset.

View of the lake from our campsite at sunset

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