Earlier this month, travel writer Annette Thompson named Route 177 one of the 10 most iconic drives in the country in a Smarter Travel article. The Kansas highway runs for about 85 miles from Manhattan to Cassoday, connecting several townships together and providing Manhattan with a major connection to Interstate 70.
“Dispel the myth that the plains are plain and boring along this stretch of road through what remains of the tallgrass prairie,” Thompson writes in her entry about the drive. “By September, these knee-high grasses will tower above your chest, tall enough that only a buck’s antlers move above them.” She recommends that travelers learn more about the prairie by visiting the Tallgrass Prairie National Reserve and Manhattan’s own Flint Hills Discovery Center.
Although Thompson does not specifically reference the Konza Prairie Research National Area, her endorsement of the tallgrass prairie brings attention to the ecological activities occurring at the Konza Prairie and within the Manhattan and K-State communities.
“It’s one of the easy tourist spots within Kansas,” said Jared Bixby, curator of education at the Flint Hills Discovery Center, about Route 177. “That stretch of 177 really being that iconic space really solidifies the efforts and what’s been done to really put Kansas in the forefront of places to visit, especially within the United States.”
The Konza Prairie itself comprises a more than 8,000-acre area of the larger Flint Hills, which covers 22 counties in Kansas and Oklahoma and contains the majority of the tallgrass prairie left on the continent. The prairie once covered more than 170 million acres of North America, but today, only 4 percent of the prairie remains, mostly in Kansas.
“We conserve Konza Prairie because it represents a rare ecosystem. In
fact, tallgrass prairie is probably the continent’s most diminished type of
ecosystem,” said Rob Manes, state director of the Nature Conservancy in Kansas, in an email interview. “North America has lost more than 95 percent of its
tallgrass prairie, due to development and agriculture conversion.”
The Flint Hills Discovery Center in downtown Manhattan seeks to educate the public about the prairie as an endangered ecosystem and to position the Konza Prairie as a tourist attraction in Kansas. As part of Manhattan’s ongoing downtown redevelopment project, the year-old Flint Hills Discovery Center was selected to fulfill the state requirement that the redevelopment project contain a tourist attraction.
“Even the state is trying to promote the Flint Hills as a great tourism place,” said Bixby, who oversees education programs ranging from preschool to an adult lecture series. “We try to reach just about every audience that we can.”
The exhibits at the Discovery Center seek to bring awareness to the endangered tallgrass ecosystem as well as encourage tourists to visit the Konza Prairie firsthand, in keeping with the impetus to promote the Konza as a tourist attraction.
“There are miles of hiking trails open to visitors,” Manes said in an email interview. “Konza also hosts public events like wildflower walks, greater prairie chicken viewings and the biennial Konza Prairie Open House. Visitors to Konza see a beautiful example of a rare ecosystem.”
Bixby said the Konza deserves recognition not only in Kansas as a tourist attraction, but also nationally as a conservation and research center.
“It has a huge role nationally because it brings awareness to Manhattan at a national level,” Bixby said. “The research that Konza does is extremely profound and extremely important. It is very highly reviewed and respected within the national and international community.”
That research largely occurs at the Konza Prairie Biological Station, an outdoor field laboratory run by K-State. The station was started in 1971 by Lloyd Hulbert, a former professor of biology. Today, it has become a highly respected outdoor research facility on both a national and international level.
“We are very fortunate, here at Kansas State, to
have the Konza, and Lloyd has set up what I consider to be a world-class field
station,” said John Briggs, professor of biology and director of the Konza Prairie Biological Station. “We have people come here from all around the world. This is something
that no other university has, particularly in the Big 12. There is not a
tallgrass research station that is so close to a university that’s been funded
for such a long time.”
The Konza Prairie Biological Station seeks to meet a three-part mission: conduct long-term ecological research, conserve the prairie and educate the public. Currently, more than 180 projects are being conducted at the station, many of which began more than 30 years ago. Such projects include studying the impact of fire on vegetation, drought and prairie water systems. The station also maintains a herd of 300 wild American Bison.
The Konza Prairie Biological Station sees significant student involvement. Undergraduate and graduate students assist professors in hands-on work like collecting and sorting samples, and students also conduct their own research in the outdoor laboratory.
Allison Veach, graduate student in microbial ecology, conducts research projects at Kings Creek, a major stream in the Konza.
“I have met several other graduate students and professors who
come to Konza to pursue grassland research from all over the country,” Veach said.
“It’s a very collaborative environment where I’ve experienced strong
intellectual support to pursue interesting research avenues.”
Bram Verheijen, graduate student in biology, utilizes the facility to study bird populations in relation to prairie management. He said the Konza functions as a site for student recreation as well as for research.
“The best time to visit Konza is around sunrise,” Verheijen said. “Visit a high hill and enjoy the
beautiful surroundings and the amazing skies. I hope that is not too early for
Veach said that in addition to the tallgrass prairie’s value as a site of research and conservation, it also deserves recognition for its aesthetic beauty.
not shocked that 177 was ranked as one of the top iconic drives,” Veach said. “It’s
absolutely beautiful. When I moved here from Indiana, I had always
thought of Kansas as barren and flat, but I was astounded at how beautiful this part of the
country is, especially during spring.”