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Konza Prairie Biological Station

History of Konza Prairie Biological Station

By Dr. Lloyd Hulbert, Founder and first Director of Konza Prairie

"Nine faculty in five departments at KSU began meeting in 1956 to discuss the need for a prairie area for ecological research to complement the prairie areas being used to study livestock production. After we prepared a report to the university administration documenting the need, in 1958, support gradually increased for acquiring such an area. In the mid 1960s I spent a year and a half making an inventory of the northern Flint Hills to locate the best sample for acquisition. A number of sites had native flora and fauna in good condition, and some were close to KSU, but it was difficult to find samples of deep soils that had not been cultivated.

After suitable sites had been located and ranked in value, biologist Richard Marzolf and I spent three days in Washington, D.C., seeking funds. Although the persons contacted in several Federal agencies received the proposal favorably, some enthusiastically, the consensus was that government funds for acquiring the site would be difficult to obtain. The Nature Conservancy, a private organization whose objective is to preserve natural diversity, including endangered species and samples of the natural landscape, not only was interested but quickly began negotiations for acquiring the piece of land (the Aye Ranch) that had been ranked as choice number one. It was sold to another party, however, before the offer could be made.

Efforts were shifted to the second-choice area, owned by Elizabeth Cobb Landon, wife of former Kansas governor Alfred M. Landon. James A. McCain, then president of KSU, who was actively involved in the negotiations for acquisition, later jokingly (I hope) chided me for causing him to lose his vacation in August of 1971. He had cancelled vacation plans in order to complete negotiations for purchase of a piece of land, which then was traded for the desired property. The deed was filed in Junction City, county seat of Geary county, on December 30, 1971. Concurrently, the Nature Conservancy filed another deed transferring title of the property (371 hectares, 916 acres in Geary county) to the KSU Endowment Association (now the KSU Foundation). Funds for purchasing that original tract of Konza Prairie were obtained by the Conservancy from a donor who asked to be anonymous.

A group of KSU scientists developed the research-management treatments for these first 916 acres. Studying the natural tallgrass prairie ecosystem (the overall goal) requires grazing by native grazers (bison, elk, and pronghorn) and burning. Because it was considered unwise to reintroduce the native grazers in an area as small as 916 acres, it was decided to use cattle-grazed areas nearby for grazing studies. The role of fire would be studied on Konza Prairie. The plan adopted included burning watershed units at six different intervals starting in 1972.

Because the heads of several watersheds were on the adjacent Dewey Ranch to the north, it was clear that a one-half mile wide strip of the adjacent Ranch should be added. The owner of the Dewey Ranch, Dr. David McKnight, said that he would consider trading for land contiguous to the Dewey Ranch, if such land were obtained. No land available for the trade was found. In 1975 the Nature Conservancy, having heard of the offers to purchase the Ranch, began negotiating with Dr. McKnight for the entire 2,921 hectare (7,220 acre) Dewey Ranch. He agreed to trade the Ranch for land purchased in Oklahoma ($3,600,000); the transaction was concluded in January 1977. Again funds were obtained from an anonymous donor. This part of Konza Prairie is leased by Kansas State University from the Nature Conservancy for the cost of the taxes, which the Conservancy pays, and insurance.

When the Dewey Ranch was added to the original Konza Prairie, there was an indentation one-half mile wide in the west boundary, starting a short distance south of the headquarters and extending to the Riley-Geary County line. That area of 194 hectares (480 acres) was a part of the Thowe (pronounced tow-e, with long o) estate; the owner Fanny Thowe, had died. In December 1977 the several portions of her estate in Wabaunsee and Riley counties were for sale at a sealed bid auction. The Nature Conservancy bid, successfully, on that piece of the Thowe estate; it had access through the Dewey Ranch, it was good prairie, and acquisition reduced the perimeter of Konza Prairie. Clear title was not obtained until 1979, after the mineral rights, that had been leased, were obtained.

Adding the Dewey Ranch and the Thowe land made Konza Prairie more than nine times larger than it had been originally. Rethinking the research-management treatments, KSU scientists believed that, with 8,616 acres, both native grazers and cattle could be included. After tentative plans had been made, a 19-member scientific advisory panel convened: two representatives from the Nature Conservancy, nine KSU scientists, and eight other United States scientists (from as far away as Georgia and California). Their fields of expertise included large native grazing animals, soils, vegetation, small mammals, birds, insects, genetic variability, range, forestry, and livestock. The group’s contributions considerably improved the tentative research plan.

After her death in 1979, it was announced that Katharine Ordway was the anonymous donor of the funds to purchase Konza Prairie. Before the dedication ceremony for Konza Prairie in May 1980 a plaque honoring Katharine Ordway for her generous contributions was erected at the Konza Prairie headquarters.

Katharine Ordway asked that an Indian name be given to the area. In searching for an appropriate name, it was decided to choose one of the various spellings of the Kansa tribe; the oldest tribe that lived in the area for which a name is known. Thomas Say, who accompanied the Stephen H. Long expedition in 1819, spent four days at a principal village of the Kansa Indians, located at the junction of the Blue and Kansas rivers, a few miles north of Konza Prairie. Earlier inhabitants of the area belonged to cultures that are unknown except through archeological evidence. Those that came later, such as the Pottawatomies (for whom Pottawatomie county is named) and other forest-dwelling tribes, were forced west onto reservations in eastern Kansas during the nineteenth century.

The early French and English explorers spelled the name of the Kansa Indians more than 80 different ways. Kansa was one of the most used spellings, and so it was suggested first for naming Konza Prairie. Members of the KSU administration objected on the basis that news media would often consider it a misspelling of Kansas. Therefore, Konza, a spelling thought to be sufficiently different from the name of the state so that it would not be considered a misspelling, was adopted."

Excerpt from pages 67-71 of "History and Use of Konza Prairie Research Natural Area" by Dr. Lloyd Hulbert, The Prairie Scout, Volume V, 1985.