Stewardship of Flint Hills is Core Goal
See also YouTube video Flint Hills Discovery Center
MANHATTAN, Kan. – Most eastern Kansans are familiar with the seasonal landscape in the Flint Hills—blackened pastures and smoky hills each spring, followed by green pastures dotted with cattle throughout the summer. While many recognize the hidden pocket of beauty in the Flint Hills, the landscape is still easily taken for granted.
Temperate grasslands like the tallgrass prairie in the Flint Hills are among the most threatened ecosystems in the world, said John Blair, professor of biology at Kansas State University. In fact, more than 95 percent of these grasslands in North America have been lost.
Unfortunately, many Kansans do not realize the extent to which these grasslands have been impacted globally or understand how critical it is to preserve and conserve the Flint Hills as one of the last remaining expanses of native tallgrass prairies.
More than a Museum
Manhattan’s latest tourist attraction, the Flint Hills Discovery Center, is filling that knowledge gap—and more. Instead of just informing people with facts about the prairie, the Discovery Center contains interactive exhibits designed to connect with people of all ages and backgrounds.
“We’ve come to understand it’s not just about the intellectual connections or teaching people facts, but about helping them experience the prairie in a way that forms emotional connections,” said Ted Cable, professor of recreation resources at Kansas State. “In other words, people often will forget what they learned or heard at a site, but they’ll remember how they felt.”
Cable served on the Discovery Center’s steering committee, along with other Kansas State faculty, Manhattan city representatives and community members, to guide the vision and direction of the Discovery Center. He provided input and feedback on all the exhibits to help people relate to the content and create a fun experience for visitors.
“The exhibit designers have done a great job in limiting the amount of text for people to read and instead, having hands-on exhibits that will engage them and be fun,” he said.
The Discovery Center includes many interactive and three-dimensional exhibits featuring the historical, cultural and biological aspects of the Flint Hills. There are also special exhibits designed for children, complete with play areas and activity centers. Eventually, the Discovery Center will hold educational programs for both children and adults.
Cable personally believes the multimedia immersive experience is one of the most powerful exhibits at the Discovery Center. This exhibit features a theater with stone benches intended to evoke the feeling of sitting around a campfire. “I think it will be a powerful mechanism for encouraging people to go outdoors and visit the Flint Hills for themselves,” he said.
With few remaining tallgrass prairies in the world, conservation is a key theme throughout the Discovery Center exhibits. Blair served on the technical committee for the Discovery Center and provided input on the exhibits focused on grassland ecology and preservation. His research at the Konza Prairie Biological Station involves identifying critical factors for maintaining and conserving tallgrass prairies like those in the Flint Hills.
“Two practices particularly important in these grasslands are periodic fires and the presence of grazers, such as bison, which would have been historically important, and cattle, which are dominant grazers in the landscape today,” he said.
Fire prevents woody vegetation, like cedar trees, from taking over the grasslands. In just a couple decades, we could lose these grasslands if it were not for the use of fire as a management tool to preserve them, Blair said.
A Portal to the Prairie
While visitors will be able to experience the Flint Hills in a dynamic and engaging way within the walls of the Discovery Center, Cable said the goal is to light a spark of interest within people that will prompt them to go outside and experience the Flint Hills firsthand. He sees the Discovery Center as an entrance point or portal into nature.
From there, Cable hopes visitors will come to love and appreciate the Flint Hills. “‘People will only protect what they love,’” he said, quoting oceanographer Jacques Cousteau. “Our ultimate goal is stewardship of the Flint Hills. So as visitors go through the Discovery Center, we want them to come to care about the Flint Hills so they’ll care for the Flint Hills.”
Cable, Blair and other committee members believe the Discovery Center will be key in introducing people to the Flint Hills as an important resource. “Education and outreach is important because people need to understand what they’re conserving,” Blair said. “The synergy between our research programs at Kansas State and the educational and outreach programs here at the Discovery Center will contribute immensely to educating the public and increasing appreciation of this important resource.”
For more information about the Discovery Center, visit Flint Hills Discovery Center or to view a video, go to Flint Hills Discovery Center.
Prairie Underground [Sidebar]
The Underground Forest exhibit introduces visitors to parts of the prairie they cannot always see—like the roots, soil and insects.
The soil found in the Flint Hills makes it ideal for grazing, said DeAnn Presley, professor of environmental soil science and management and member of the Discovery Center’s technical committee.
Prairie soil tends to be thinner than valley soils and less suitable for farming. “The upland soils are much more fragile,” she said. “If we farmed the Flint Hills, we could lose the soil due to erosion.”
Part of the Underground Forest exhibit contains dried bundles of the dominant grasses in the Flint Hills, many of them in excess of 10 feet tall from the tops of seed heads to the tips of the roots. Chuck Rice, professor of soil microbiology, also served on the technical committee and said the health of the prairie soil is influenced by the presence of these grasses.
“The length and depth of the roots really feeds the microorganisms in the soil, which helps make the soil very fertile and productive,” he said. “These roots are key for supplying energy to the microorganisms.”