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Visitors' center opens at Kan. Tallgrass Preserve

Published on -7/14/2012, 2:54 PM

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Associated Press

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- U.S Interior Secretary Ken Salazar was making a two-day visit to Kansas to dedicate a visitors' center at the only national park designed to protecting the tallgrass prairie and announce that the Kansas River is receiving a designation aimed at encouraging recreation.

Both projects are part of President Barack Obama's America's Great Outdoors initiative, whose goals include improving access to outdoor recreation and restoring ecosystems

The first stop was at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve near Strong City in east-central Kansas, where Salazar and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius were headlining a Friday night grand opening event.

The nearly 11,000-acre park tells the story of an ecosystem created through a combination of limited rainfall, grazing and periodic fires. Few trees survive those conditions, but the grasses adapted with roots that reach 15 to 25 feet into the soil.

Tallgrass prairie once covered about 40 percent of the United States. But because the fertile land was widely cultivated, today less than 4 percent remains of those native prairie lands. Most of it is in the Flint Hills of eastern Kansas and the Osage Hills of northeastern Oklahoma, where farmers grazed cattle because the ground was too difficult to plow.

As awareness grew that the land was unique, Congress voted in November 1996 to create the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. The bulk of the land is owned by the Nature Conservancy, an environmental group, that handles grazing leases and taxpaying.

For years, guests began their visits at a grand four-level ranch home and barn built on the land in the 1880s. That changed Memorial Day weekend, when there was a soft opening for the visitors' center.

Kansas chipped in half of the $6 million cost of the facility, which houses the park's administrative offices and includes environmentally friendly features such as a grass roof.

Permanent exhibits are being created that will tell the prairie's story. Until they are installed sometime next year, the space will be used for temporary exhibits and art displays, Roberta Wendel, a spokeswoman for the National Park Service, told The Associated Press.

"We wanted to get the visitor activities out of the historic structures so they could be better preserved and protected, and also allow there to be more of a focus on the prairie," Wendel said. "It's not just about ranching. It's about all aspects of the prairie."

From the Strong City area, Salazar was headed Saturday to Manhattan's Flint Hills Discovery Center, where he and Kan. Gov. Sam Brownback were announcing that the Kansas River is being designated as the newest addition to the National Water Trails system.

Laura Calwell, a spokeswoman for Friends of the Kaw, said the Lawrence-based environmental advocacy group received notification this week from the National Park Service that the designation was coming. She said the designation will provide money for signs along highways such as Interstate 70 and U.S. 24 to direct people to boat access ramps along the river. There also might also be money available for picnic tables, she said.

"It really calls national attention to the recreational value of the Kansas River," said Calwell, an avid river kayaker whose group has been working to increase river access. "We are thrilled."

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