Proposed grasslands act would protect Kansas’ precious prairies

December 29, 2021 3:33 am

The Kansas Flint Hills stretch out near Matfield Green. For the purposes of the proposed North American Grasslands Conservation Act, “grasslands” includes tallgrass, mixed grass, and shortgrass, native prairie, sagebrush shrub-steppe, savanna grasslands, glades, and other related grassland ecosystems. (Shawna Bethell/Kansas Reflector)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Shawna Bethell is a freelance essayist/journalist covering the people and places of Kansas, Nebraska and Missouri.

Amid the chaos of 2020, I reached a point when I needed to get away: from people’s anger and fear, the suffocating cluttered skyline, even the lush vegetation where I live. Open space was what I craved, and to find it I secured a small place in the Flint Hills, where for the next several days I walked grassland trails reacquainting myself with an ecosystem I had long appreciated but had woefully lost touch with.

It is rare to find a Kansan who does not know the quieting whisper of prairie grass or the sweet, clear trill of a lark. These grasslands and their creatures make us whole. Yet we also know this ecosystem is disappearing at a record pace, which is why I am looking forward with cautious optimism to a proposal to protect these lands.

Currently in its final draft stages, a proposal for The North American Grasslands Conservation Act states that the act would express “a vision … that would create a landowner-driven, voluntary, incentive-based program to conserve and restore threatened grassland ecosystems.” The result of collaboration by more than a dozen entities, including the National Wildlife Federation, Quail Unlimited, and Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, the proposal is based on the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, which has brought millions of dollars to the state for wetland conservation over the years, including $4 million in 2021 alone. 

Rangeland at Little Jerusalem Badlands State Park shows the variety of Kansas grasslands. (Shawna Bethell/Kansas Reflector)

Stating that grasslands and sagebrush steppe systems are some of the most threatened ecosystems in the world, the proposed act also recognizes these ecosystems are often working lands, integral to rural economies. Likewise, grasslands are critically necessary for wildlife habitat and carbon sequestration. The proposal’s goals include — but are not limited to — preventing further conversion of native grasslands, creating a flexible, grant-based, voluntary program to assist those with working lands, and improving biodiversity for birds, pollinators, and wildlife.

According to the draft, proponents are requesting $350 million per year to fulfill these goals and proposing that the program be administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in consultation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other relevant agencies.

Because of its breadth of vision, which encompasses the entirety of North America, establishing an interagency working group is at the core of these efforts. This group would be responsible for crafting a strategy for grassland protections by supporting the Natural Resource Conservation Service’s Working Lands for Wildlife Frameworks for Conservation Action. This framework is a detailed guide on how to restore, manage, and protect the critical ecosystem, but Tim Griffiths, West Working Lands for Wildlife coordinator with the USDA-NRCS, calls it an “olive branch.”

“Conserving grasslands at scale requires an all hands on deck approach,” Griffiths said. “While the frameworks provide this common vision … it is crucial to combine that vision with partner input and landowner ‘know how’ to ensure the right practices hit the ground in the right places to achieve meaningful outcomes.”

So what would those outcomes mean for Kansas?

The 2015 Pocket Guide to Kansas Endangered and Threatened Species states that 91% of Kansans support protecting endangered and threatened species and their habitats. Multiple species of birds and amphibians are already considered threatened by either or both state and federal entities, and most of them are threatened due to habitat loss. Much of this habitat is in our state’s vast grasslands, but likewise, most of these lands are working lands. When landowners get pinched for income, rangelands may be converted to cropland or sold to development companies to meet the ever-growing appetite for subdivisions.

We have already lost more than half of our grasslands, thus it is imperative that tools be provided to protect these rich ecosystems and the wildlife that call them home. Earlier this year, I participated in a public comment session on habitat and species protections, and one of the things I heard repeated was frustration at governmental entities because there did not seem to be a unified effort between agencies, which left gaps in information and effective on-the-ground action.

With this proposal, based on collaboration between agricultural, environmental, and recreational groups, perhaps this will be rectified.

While not yet introduced, the proposed bill for the North American Grasslands Conservation Act has garnered interest and support across platforms. I would ask U.S. Sens. Roger Marshall and Jerry Moran to consider joining in the support of this legislation when it moves forward. Kansas landowners hold not only a precious resource in their hands, but also a legacy of the state’s natural heritage. It deserves to be protected.

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Shawna Bethell
Shawna Bethell

Shawna Bethell is a freelance essayist/journalist covering the people and places of Kansas, Nebraska and Missouri. Before returning home, she wrote for several publications in the southwestern United States.