By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

GOODLAND -- Taking the opportunity to look around, members of the Kansas Wildlife and Parks Commission toured several sites in northwest Kansas prior to meeting in Goodland last week.

They got the chance to look at the South Fork and St. Francis wildlife areas in Cheyenne County and the Arikaree Breaks in the northwest part of the county.

They learned more about each site, as well as the Lake Atwood renovation project, at the outset of Thursday's meeting.

Based out of Norton, wildlife area manager Cris Mulder told about the Cheyenne County areas.

St. Francis, he said, covers about 480 acres and is open to hunting and fishing -- something of a rarity in the far reaches of northwest Kansas.

The South Fork area covers about 1,000 acres, and was acquired by the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks in 1991.

"It's one of the most diverse areas in Region 1 for its size," Mulder said of the northwest Kansas site.

There are management issues, however, including littering and off-road driving.

The addition of now-retired wildlife biologist Leonard Hopper at both Cheyenne County sites, as well as in Sherman County, has helped alleviate some of those problems.

Cedar Bluff wildlife area manager Kent Hensley told of the Sherman Wildlife Area southwest of Goodland.

While there's a lake there, built in 1965, it's dry most of the time.

The last time it filled was in 1994, allowing about two years for the lake to be usable.

When full, about 2,400 acre-feet of water seeps through the dam and another 700 acre-feet evaporates. An acre-foot of water contains about 326,000 gallons.

"When Sherman is full, it acts as an upstream spring to Smoky Gardens," Hensley said.

Smoky Gardens is a county-owned lake about a quarter mile from the Sherman Wildlife Area.

When the agency looked at repairing the dam in 1995, the cost would have been about $2 million.

"There's also been talk about breaching the dam and letting the Smoky go back to its natural state," Hensley said.

The lake is fed by the north branch of the Smoky Hill River.

Despite the dry conditions, the lake is used by deer and pheasant hunters, most of them from Kansas.

"The non-consumptive use is pretty small," he said.

Josh Williams, private lands biologist in Colby, told of the Arikaree Breaks and the tour that was guided by 95-year-old Tobe Zweygardt.

"Tobe is a true expert of the landscape and a wealth of information," Williams said.

Formed by wind and water erosion, the Breaks cover almost 40,000 acres in Kansas, he said.

Topsoil deposits of up to 150 feet deep are responsible for the Breaks, and despite low rainfall and little access to water, is home to 19 rare plant species, Williams said.

As for Lake Atwood, efforts to keep the lake from going dry appear to have succeeded, said fisheries biologist Dave Spalsbury, and fish have been stocked.

Spalsbury is based at Cedar Bluff Reservoir.

He bemoaned the presence of carp that washed in when heavy rain fell.

"They just take them and dispose of them," Spalsbury said of the Atwood residents catching carp in the lake.