ELKADER — Matt Bain understands the daunting task he already faces managing the 16,800-acre Smoky Valley Ranch, where hundreds of cattle graze serenely on lush grass.
Another hundred or so buffalo graze nearby, curious to see if they will be fed as Bain’s white flatbed pickup drives into the pasture where they are located.
That ranching part, he’s got it nailed down and fully understands the task he faces there, managing livestock in concert with wildlife, such as the prairie chicken — greater, lesser and hybrids — and prairie dogs and their predator, the black-footed ferret.
It’s a new challenge, however, from an adjacent parcel of land, covering 332.5 acres of mostly chalk outcroppings, that has grabbed his attention and much of his time in recent days.
Those chalk outcroppings — covering perhaps 250 acres — represent what might be the largest Niobrara Chalk formation outcropping in Kansas, and they’ve recently been purchased by the Nature Conservancy.
First, however, they’ve got to come up with a plan for how best to accomplish both goals, that of preserving the site for future generations while also making them accessible to the public.
It’s going to be a delicate balancing act, considering TNC will have to first craft some sort of tour route taking into consideration safety and being able to see the entire site.
It’s going to be foot traffic only.
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TNC took possession of the Little Jerusalem property Oct. 5, purchasing it from Jim McGuire, who had approached the group about buying it. While it is adjacent to the existing Smoky Valley Ranch, Bain isn’t planning on cutting the existing barbed wire fence separating the two.
Little Jerusalem was part of a larger parcel of land where cattle still freely roam, even though there isn’t much to eat on the chalk outcroppings.
“One of the reasons I’m excited about this thing,” Bain said, “and the Conservancy, is it will give us the opportunity to talk about some of the conservation we’re doing at the ranch.
“Our primary goal is to show you can have a profitable ranch and, at the same time, a robust wildlife habitat.”
Portions of the ranch are open to the public, such as a pair of trails on its west side.
Little Jerusalem will let TNC cast open the door for people to connect with the outdoors.
That’s what McGuire wanted, to ensure the site is preserved and the public is allowed to see it.
Bain’s appointment as the project manager of the ranch and the work TNC has done at other sites is what convinced McGuire to offer to sell the land.
“He’s just a young man we’re proud of,” McGuire said of Bain. “I wanted it last, to be open to the public, but not for hunting.”
McGuire notes he still owns approximately 80 acres of limestone outcroppings.
As the former Oakley Chamber of Commerce president, McGuire said he wanted to do something to help boost tourism in Logan County.
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Former Kansas Geological Survey Director Rex Buchanan, who retired earlier this month, heralded TNC’s purchase of the storied site, especially the plan to open it to the public.
Buchanan said he’s actually only been on the site twice while he was at the KGS, mostly because it was private property.
“It was just hard to get on,” he said.
But, Buchanan said, “there’s no question it’s a particularly spectacular location.”
He’s often heard it’s the biggest badlands in the state. He won’t quibble with that, but points to Wildcat Canyon in Trego County and an area east of Monument Rocks as other big outcroppings.
But both of those also are on private property, as is Monument Rocks and Castle Rock, together sharing the distinction as one of the Eight Wonders of Kansas.
Buchanan frequently was contacted about where to go to see badlands, and he admits that was difficult, ultimately suggesting the trails at TNC’s ranch.
“The list of chalk badlands that are accessible are not very many at all,” he said.
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Bain isn’t sure what the plan for opening the site will look like, but he’s anxious to nail down the details.
As he shows the place off, he’s quick to identify plants — using scientific terminology — to help him understand it better, he said.
“We are working on a management plan and access plan,” he said, to ensure safety of visitors while making sure they see the site, “and protect the total resource.”
Although it really hasn’t been accessible to the public previously, there were people and groups who sought and received permission. Some simply stepped over the fence.
“I’ve just been amazed at the number of people who have been here,” Bain said. “This is the kind of place that does have the potential to increase tourism in western Kansas.”
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As a wildlife biolgist, Bain also thrives on what he’s found in the chalk outcropping.
“There’s a unique ecology here,” he said.
He pointed to a nest that had been used by a ferruginous hawk, noting the other birds that can be found at the site, such as Say’s phoebe, “a unique breed for Kansas.
“There’s a lot of them here,” Bain said. “They’re a flycatcher.”
There are also cliff swallows and rock wrens.
But there’s also the “single largest population” of Great Plains wild buckwheat, which is endemic to chalk outcroppings.
“It’s found in the chalk prairies of western Kansas,” Bain said, “and nowhere else in the world.”
It’s not a particularly palatable plant for cattle, but birds like to nest in it. Mule deer and coyotes also can be found at Little Jerusalem, as can a variety of snakes, amphibians and reptiles.
A full inventory of the site will be made, and Bain said he hopes to work with universities in Kansas to get that accomplished.