There are still wild places in Kansas. Most of them are privately owned, and efforts to keep them wild, return them to a former wild state, or give them public access have met with opposition from landowners and lawmakers.
George Frazier, a software developer and author from Lawrence, discovered the prairies, forests, wetlands, and caves of Kansas, places where extinct species are making a comeback and which residents will talk to long ago if you are open to the experience .
The result is a book, “The Last Wild Places of Kansas,” which he describes as a nervous travelogue / memoir of his experiences throughout Kansas for several years.
“It’s part of a travelogue, part of cultural history, and 100 percent we’re going out and about!” he wrote in an email. “We believe this will break new ground for environmental writing about the region. As my key premise, I take up the one blatant, obvious fact that every other book on wild Kansas ignores. The whole damn state (over 98 percent) is privately owned and behind barbed wire. How does someone create a personal connection to wild lands in such a place? “
It can be done and he tells how. Of course, he also tells of his failed attempt to canoe in the upper Marais des Cygnes, a trip that would require the permission of 13 landowners along the river.
He was given permission to visit Ted Turner’s buffalo ranch in southern Barber County. He wandered at Gant-Larson Ranch west of Medicine Lodge, where he turned down the opportunity to eat mountain oysters and explored a bat cave in the Red Hills of Comanche County.
He particularly wanted to write about the Red Hills, or the Gyp Hills as they are known in the area, so that people all over Kansas could learn more about the incredibly diverse, beautiful wilderness of south-central Kansas.
“Many or even most of the people in eastern Kansas have no idea they exist,” he said. “Very little has been written about the Gypsum Mountains for a regional or even national audience.”
“Visit the Kansas Wastes if you can,” writes Frazier at the end of Chapter 7. “The property lines will be guarded at every turn, but walk the highways into the heart of these seldom traveled dreamlands. Introduce yourself to the locals. For many years the people I have met here eager to share their stories. “
Hunting for artefacts, buried treasures, morels or dancing with prairie chickens requires a permit. Be ready to take no for an answer, Frazier said, but found he didn’t have to often. He was privately owned, fed breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and sent home with gifts of local produce.
He visited some of the few public properties in Kansas, the Cimarron National Grasslands, the Kansas River, Fort Leavenworth Woods, the Ancient Trees Trail, the Marais Des Cygnes National Wildlife Refuge, and the Haskell-Baker Wetlands, and more.
Frazier has easy-to-read history lessons, including the story of how the National Grasslands System, whose sole representative in Kansas is Cimarron, was developed after the Dust Bowl days and the market collapse of 1929. The federal government bought thousands of dusty, broken farms and ranches and “sewed them together into a patchwork of land that became our system of national grasslands”.
He introduces readers to the Shawnee prophet Tenskwatawa, the French Coureurs de Bois Bourgmont, and a Logan County rancher who is fighting to protect the prairie dogs on his property.
He discovered wild places in the suburbs of Kansas City, the Flint Hills, the hills and forests of eastern Kansas, and on private property in the far northwest of Kansas. He spent time in the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism office in Pratt and stayed with Elm Mills for a week while he completed the final revision of the book.
Nine years later, “The Last Wild Places of Kansas” is available from the University Press of Kansas at www.kansaspress.ku.edu for USD 24.95 plus shipping. It is also available as an eBook from the most popular eBook retailers.