Advocates think a ‘heritage area’ is a tourism boon for Kansas. Farmers fear a land grab.

Andrew Bahl
Topeka Capital-Journal
The sun rises over the Konza Praire Biological Station south of Manhattan. The 3,487-hectare preserve of native tallgrass prairie is a protected section of the Flint Hills of Kansas.

A growing national debate over the federal government's goals for land use and conservation has upturned a nascent push to promote a large swath of western and north-central Kansas as a national heritage area.

Proponents have viewed the plan as a way of boosting tourism in the region and underscore that it is in its infancy, with ample opportunity remaining for local input and support. It is distinct from being deemed a National Park Service site, as it doesn't transfer land to a government entity or require administration by federal agencies.

But as President Joe Biden's administration has garnered national headlines for an executive order signed in January to order a plan for conserving 30% of U.S. land and water by 2030, the heritage area debate has become part of a broader national political schism over land use.

Pushback to the Kansas Nebraska Heritage Area Partnership idea has been most intense in Nebraska, as Gov. Pete Ricketts has organized a statewide listening tour to underscore his opposition to the idea.

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But western Kansas residents — and, by extension, their elected officials — say they also have concerns. That's despite the fact that advocates note the Kansas-Nebraska partnership push dates back to 2015 and is separate from the Biden administration conservation effort.

"We're afraid that if we go wrong with this National Heritage Area ...we will incrementally get more and more government encroachment on us,"  said Randy Lohmann, chair of the Lincoln County Commission. "The federal government will mandate what you have to do."

Growing number of counties push back on heritage area plan

Lincoln County is one of more than a dozen counties to pass a resolution in recent weeks opposing either the KNHAP, Biden's 30x30 plan or both. In total, 26 Kansas counties would fall under the proposed NHA, spanning from Sheridan County in the far northwest corner of the state to Riley County in the northeast.

Congress must approve any formal NHA designations, something that isn't yet on the horizon. A local group, either a state or local government, nonprofit or private corporation, is charged with administration of the heritage area.

The National Park Service, meanwhile, provides limited technical and financial support, which largely comes in the form of matching grant funds doled out by Congress each year, and the heritage area isn't a National Park site.

Areas are selected where "natural, cultural, and historic resources combine to form a cohesive, nationally important landscape," according to the NPS.

Kansas has one NHA already: Freedom's Frontier National Heritage Area in the eastern part of the state, with sites in 41 Kansas and Missouri counties highlighting the region's history on everything from the Missouri-Kansas border war to frontier settlement. 

Freedom's Frontier has underscored that it doesn't impede on property rights in any way, something proponents of the Kansas-Nebraska plan echo. 

Instead, officials focus on the potential for the plan to bring in more visitors to the region. The Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism is at least nominally involved, with representation on the board of a nonprofit exploring the heritage area idea.

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Constitution Hall in Topeka, pictured here, is part of Freedom's Frontier National Heritage Area, which spans Kansas and Missouri. Advocates are pushing for a second national heritage area in western and central Kansas.

Advocates think idea could be a tourism boost for the region 

Also on the board is Kelly Riley, executive director of the Lincoln County Economic Development Foundation. She said what started as an innocuous effort to boost tourism has taken on a life of its own, largely due to the 30 x 30 proposal.

"It's been pretty disappointing how people are primarily driven by fear and the facts seem to be not as important," Riley said.

The idea dates back to 2015 when the Nebraska-based Willa Cather Foundation and a group of University of Nebraska students were looking for a way to spur new economic development ideas for the region.

The group stumbled onto the concept of a national heritage area and thought its novelty would be a way of pulling visitors off I-80 or I-70 to the less prominent parts of Kansas and Nebraska.

"We can kind of create a destination here and say: 'Hey, this is a very interesting place. It's so interesting that we're recognized as a nationally interesting place,'" Riley said. "Maybe we can get somebody off the interstate through this area, and maybe they'll stay the night, maybe they'll stop at a couple of restaurants, a couple stores."

The group has been researching other heritage areas, including Freedom's Frontier, but hadn't yet moved to the point of conducting a feasibility study or holding public meetings before controversy exploded.

Land use remains concern amid political controversy

For his part, Lohmann, of the Lincoln County Commission, said he was open to increasing tourism, which is a modest part of life in his north-central Kansas community. Most visitors are drawn to the area for its hunting or fishing, with a smattering of others captivated by its western history.

But he said residents have become concerned about the idea, with their worries amplified by activists from across the state and across the region coming in to gin up opposition to the plan.

Visitors to Lincoln County have included Norman Kincaide, who led a group of activists who successfully opposed a similar area in southeast Colorado, even writing a book about his work. Kincaide held a series of meetings with residents throughout western Kansas and Nebraska.

"You have to get the county commissioners to pass resolutions against this,” Kincaide told a group in Red Cloud, Nebraska. “After that, there’s nothing they can do.”

It appears residents in Lincoln County responded — Lohmann said they received overwhelming popular support for taking action, although the resolution itself is non-binding.

He noted farmers and ranchers routinely work with the federal government on conservation issues. He pointed to the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to take cropland out of use and instead plant native grasses or other plants to help with land erosion and wildlife conservation.

But that work requires farmers sign a contract and makes clear what is involved ahead of time. Lohmann said he heard concerns that ranchers with a historic site on their land would be forced to allow visitors on their property — something advocates argue would not happen.

"I don't think people understand that a nonprofit cannot supersede local government control, it cannot supersede state control," Riley said.

Debate supercharged by Biden Administration conservation plan

This comes against the backdrop of the 30 x 30 plan, which has garnered major headlines but is still largely in its infancy.

A report released last month outlined some of the ways the Biden administration could achieve its lofty ideas, although it is largely an abstract document that doesn't outline what land might be chosen for conservation nor what level of funding would be required to make it a reality.

Environmentalists have framed the sweeping goals as a starting point for a broader conversation about conservation. The document even specifically instructed federal agencies to focus on grass-roots efforts and "help local communities achieve their own conservation priorities and vision."

But that isn't how many Republicans in Kansas see the idea. U.S. Sen. Roger Marshall, R-Kan., has even led an effort to block the executive order, although it is unlikely to take hold as long as Democrats control Congress.

"Land ownership is a core right protected by the Constitution and we cannot allow radical environmentalists who are in the driver’s seat on 30 x 30 dictate what happens on our land," Marshall said in a statement last month.

There is no link between 30 x 30 and the national heritage area effort. But Lohmann said the national debate has poisoned the well, calling the proposal tantamount to "socialism" — an idea that resonates in the heavily conservative region.

"Maybe we're paranoid about it," Lohmann said, "but we just don't want to lose our freedom and our private property rights. So that's bottom line here. And I think that's what all these counties are thinking here, basically. Leave us alone."

Riley pushed back on the idea that an NHA site would make the area any more likely to be part of any eventual 30 x 30 plans. For now, the nonprofit is going to sit back and "let the dust settle" before charting a path forward, she said.

"I think this could be a huge thing," Riley said. "And I guess I just kind of feel like: 'Hey, this was an idea. If somebody's got a better idea of how, by all means, we want to hear it.' But we're just we're trying to improve the area."