Requiem for emptied-out western Kansas - A former governor preaches the promise of wildlife and the grim prospects of farming
(Kansas' former governor Hayden can afford to make such statements as the following, since taxpayers' money is 'the government' and what 'the government' can afford. The trouble is, when only 'the government' can afford to own land, America is no longer a Constitutional Republic. Has anyone mentioned this to 'Buffalo Commons' Hayden? “Only the government can afford to hold on to the land and wait for it to come back.” - former Kansas governor Mike Hayden, who, as secretary of Kansas Wildlife & Parks, wants to turn the western two-thirds of Kansas into a buffalo wallow and tourist attraction. One must wonder why Hayden doesn't just come out and tell the people of Kansas what he and his agenda intend to do to all middle-class private property ownership? Can't he spit out the words, "Wildlands Project"?)
August 1, 2004
By Scott Canon, National Correspondent
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The Kansas City Star
Kansas City, Kansas
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Coldwater, Kansas - So here comes one-time governor and all-out sportsman Mike Hayden talking as if hunters, not farmers, will save western Kansas.
He's saying farm irrigation has used up nearly all the water that's cheap enough to pump.
Anyone in range of his voice -- a twang perpetually stuck on full volume -- hears about the moneymaking promise of wildlife and the poor prospects of Great Plains agriculture.
Most jarring, he suggests government take back land, bit by dusty bit, letting the weeds grow and buffalo roam.
You can tell this guy isn't running for office anymore -- certainly not in territory where grain prices are more common on radio than a Paul Harvey monologue.
Among those waiting in Dave's Pizza Oven to talk to him is Comanche County farmer Darrol Miller, who irrigates corn and soybean crops. He has a notion for Hayden or anyone else wanting to return land to its natural state:
“Why don't we start with New York City?”
Welcome back to the Great Plains, Mike Hayden. He came to Coldwater on a 1,100-mile, three-day, 12-town swing through the western part of the state at the invitation of The Kansas City Star to test his vision of the region with those who still live there.
Across miles, western Kansans told Hayden how dearly they love small-town life.
They lamented the exodus that started not long after homesteaders wagon-trained to the West in search of free land -- land, as it turns out, that can sustain a modern living only when somebody works thousands of acres at a time.
Finally, they still feel angry about the so-called Buffalo Commons -- an idea hatched by an academic couple from New Jersey suggesting [that] much farmland here would be better off as a giant wildlife refuge -- and freshly betrayed by Hayden.
Frank and Deborah Popper posed the Buffalo Commons idea in Planning magazine in 1987. They argued [that] people had been leaving the Great Plains for the previous century, so it might as well return to public ownership.
Soon the buffalo would run wild and the ecotourists would take chase across the dun-colored landscape.
At the time, Hayden, then the governor, sounded a bit like Miller does today.
“I can only conclude their suggestions were in jest,” he said. “Tell the Poppers America's Great Plains do not equal the Sahara. Why not seal off declining urban areas as well and preserve them as museums of 20th century architecture?”
Then early this year, Hayden and the Poppers were invited to speak at Kansas State University about the future of the Great Plains. “I was wrong. They were right,” said Hayden, now the state's secretary of wildlife and parks, to the surprise of virtually everyone. “In fact, the outmigration in many ways exceeded their projections.”
Love for a dying town
Hayden had expected three or four persons waiting for him in Coldwater and a casual cafe conversation. But word had spread of his visit, and of his newfound appreciation for the locally loathed Buffalo Commons. About two dozen people showed up in the middle of a Monday afternoon.
This town might be remote -- it's not in the middle of nowhere, one guy quips, it's within 60 miles of three Wal-Marts -- but locals adore it as a haven from big-city congestion and crime.
The problem is, as farms got larger and fewer over the generations, most of the paychecks withered away.
Now most of the youths who go off to college don't come back.
Government is not seen as much help.
The school aid formula applies no small pressure to consolidate.
Can't the state, wonder those in the room, give a tax break to young people who stay?
As for federal farm programs, well, don't get these folks started.
Hayden, practiced politician that he is, smiled.
He repeated what the locals told him. Fewer farms, fewer jobs, an aging population.
The median age in Comanche County, 47, is the highest in Kansas. (There are more people in the county 65 and over than 17 and younger. Johnson County [where Kansas City is], in contrast, is home to 2½ times as many children as seniors.)
Then, stressing he was born and raised even farther west in Atwood, another struggling town, Hayden suggested another way. “I don't think any of us want the sand blowing and the land going away,” Hayden said.
“Only the government can afford to hold on to the land and wait for it to come back.”
Decades of irrigation have forced farmers to drill ever deeper, and take on steeper pumping costs to coax up enough water for their parched soil. Today parts of Kansas are within 25 years of using up the water below.
As that reality sinks in, Hayden says, maybe government could step in.
Maybe government could buy the gone-bust farms and let the weeds grow.
Overgrazed ranches might see the grass and brush thicken.
Then maybe ponds drained by irrigation might fill.
Perhaps pheasant and deer and bass might return.
Then would come the sportsmen and their free-spending ways.
People here, however, say a few weeks of hunting every year couldn't possibly rival farming.
Look at all the seed sold, the tractors, the irrigation gear, fertilizer and herbicides.
Consider the grain elevator, the crop duster, the mega-feedlots and packing houses that rely on cheap feed.
Besides, they trot out examples of hope amid gloomy economic prospects.
Ben Smith works for a firm that grades essays from standardized tests.
Tiffany Sowa transcribes physicians' dictation she downloads through the Internet while her husband works as a carpenter.
Chiropractor Brandon Trost has been amazed at his ability to build up a practice in Coldwater and at his wife's popularity as a massage therapist.
The town's physician, Chindini Sharma, came [to Coldwater] through a program that forgives medical school debts in return for practicing medicine in a rural area. She's here beyond her obligation and plans to make a career in town, a place whose hospitality reminds the doctor of her native India.
Coldwater offers them great pride, especially as a place for families.
Unlike in Kansas City or Denver or even Dodge City, they say, the people here gladly let their children tool around unsupervised on bikes.
People look out for each other, they say. People care.
“The best thing about Kansas City is getting the hell out of there,” said Dennies Andersen, editor of The (Coldwater) Western Star.
“The small-town way of life is the only logical choice.” But he said losing two or three advertisers and 20 subscribers in the past year “because more people have died than moved in … hurts a small weekly newspaper.”
Around the room, people tell similar stories. They've got everything they need here, folks say, except numbers.
Hayden's trip began in late July after recent, aberrant rains had painted a temporary green patina to a countryside baked under at least three years of drought.
In fact, some climatologists have begun to think that what's long been considered drought in the region might really be the norm.
White settlement on the Plains may have come during a relatively wet cycle -- it just seemed dry compared with the rest of the world.
The Great Plains stretch from Alberta to the Rio Grande, from roughly the 98th parallel to the Rockies.
Stuck between high desert and low tundra, few parts of it soak up more than 20 inches of rain in a normal year.
Hayden knows the land well.
“Look, there's a Eurasian collared dove,” he bellows. He points out the dark band on the bird's neck, the cream color of the other feathers.
He notes how the dove colonies just came to western Kansas, how they probably crossed the Atlantic with hobbyists, and how the birds prefer to perch on manmade things in town.
During the first Bush and Clinton administrations, he was assistant secretary of the U.S. Interior Department for fish, wildlife and parks.
It seems there's hardly any game on the planet he hasn't stalked, nor a place he hasn't toted a gun or a rod in pursuit of a trophy.
In his mind, Kansas could be the next great getaway.
But with less than 2 percent of the land publicly owned -- less than any other state -- Hayden thinks Kansas misses out.
Great expanses of public land in the West are used, for instance, for both cattle grazing and hunting.
Drawing hunters and hikers might not prove as big as large-scale agriculture -- where monster center pivot sprinkler systems leave room only for crops -- but the Poppers contend outdoor recreation would offer a steadier anchor.
“We don't see a great economic reverse,” Frank Popper said in a telephone interview from his Rutgers University office. “But it's a way to preserve what's there and to give the people who remain something stable.”
Neither do the Poppers view public ownership as the cure-all Hayden imagines.
After all, much more of western Nebraska is publicly owned than Kansas, and the population has dropped just as steadily there.
They concede the prairie is an acquired taste in a way that beaches and mountains are not.
“It is something that has to grow on you,” said Deborah Popper, who teaches at the College of Staten Island.
The new West
The Finney Game Refuge on the south edge of Garden City is a sandy parcel where the topsoil blew off during the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s.
Now a small buffalo herd treads there, drawing a dozen or two dozen tourists a day.
It makes for nice pictures, and a small example of what Hayden sees as making the Great Plains a tourist attraction.
Still, he concedes, “most people in Garden City probably have no interest in coming out here.”
This isn't the Garden City of a generation ago.
Consolidation of ever-larger beef packing operations makes the air here, and in nearby Dodge City and Liberal, reek of manure.
Meantime, transient manual labor fuels a rough prosperity that shifts among the three cities, depending on where the work is.
Hispanics and other minority groups have gone from 36 percent of Garden City's school population in 1990 to 68 percent today.
All the school district's signs appear in English, Spanish, Laotian and Vietnamese.
“We celebrate Cinco de Mayo and Tet,” said Julie Ford, the deputy school superintendent. “The older people struggle with (the cultural influx). But it's made Garden City a much more interesting city.”
Twenty-five miles west, at breakfast in Lakin -- half farm town, half bedroom community -- Garden City is seen as dangerously crime-ridden. Four locals breakfasting with Hayden at Scotty's Cafe talk like underdogs. “We need more rainfall, and we need more voters,” said John Crump, president of the Southwest Kansas (natural gas) Royalty Owners Association.
They react resentfully to Hayden's embrace of a Buffalo Commons, and suspiciously toward those who would shift more control to eastern politicians.
“We don't trust them,” said Kearny County Attorney Dennis Jones, who once led a half-serious campaign to secede from the state.
The local consensus is that eastern Kansas (defined in these parts as starting somewhere west of Salina) uses its population advantage to bully western Kansas out of taxes on oil and gas wells without sending much back.
Crump concedes some of what Hayden and the Poppers point out, agreeing that the Ogallala Aquifer is drying up. But he sees no reason to stop pumping. “What are we saving it for?” he asks. “For 'future generations', so they can't use it either?”
In nearby Leoti, water is already scarce. The town buys water from local farmers and pipes it in. Even if a new employer came to Leoti, finding water for more people would be tough. “We're pretty much at capacity,” said Todd Barker, the city superintendent.
Who will stay?
Rita Williams got steamed when she read in a newspaper story that Hayden said Sharon Springs “died” when the route for Interstate 70 turned north at Oakley.
“We don't know [that] we're DEAD out here,” the accountant wrote Hayden in an e-mail in February. “We need every last bit of hope we can muster.”
Yet seated across from Hayden in her Sharon Springs office in July, she confessed, “We just didn't want to hear that truth.”
She introduced the former governor to Brent Weinland, a guy putting ranchland to the sort of use Hayden thinks more people could try.
Weinland manages a ranch run as a private hunting preserve. People from outside the state pay $4,000 for a few days of tracking deer on the land near Russell Springs. “I've got more clients than I can accommodate,” he said.
The next day Hayden went home to Atwood. His youngest brother tends to the Hayden family farm of 2,400 acres. In 1964, the land supported 16 persons. Today, it supports four, and three of those are over 80 years old.
At the center of town is Lake Atwood. Hayden learned to fish, swim and water ski there. His master's thesis at Fort Hays State linked recreation at the lake to the city's economic vigor.
Drought and irrigation have emptied the lake. Completely.
On a playground at the edge of the grassy lake bed, Hayden chatted with the lawyer who ran his campaigns for governor, the town's last remaining grocer (there were six groceries when Hayden grew up) and a construction contractor.
Again, they all treasure life here, even as they wonder how long it can last.
“We ought to give a reverse scholarship,” lawyer Bob Creighton said. “We ought to give kids money to come back.” (Indeed, several western Kansans told Hayden that college scholarships seem always to backfire because they only increase the recipients' chances of leaving.)
“If all the doctors from here came back,” said grocer Mike Braxmeyer, “we could probably serve six counties.”
A short drive east at Prairie Dog State Park near Norton, Hayden crows about a deal the state has made to buy irrigation water to keep in manmade Keith Sebelius Lake.
The pact could eventually give permanent water rights to the state. In effect, it replaces irrigation farming -- at best, a mixed success -- with recreation.
“There's not enough water for both irrigation and recreation,” said Karl Kohfeld, president of First Security Bank in Norton. “And we need stable water to get repeat business at the lake.”
Earlier in the trip, Hayden insisted on a quick stop at Mount Sunflower, the highest point in Kansas.
It's just a rise on the plain less than a mile from the Colorado border. But because all around the land is so flat, the view stretches for at nearly 20 miles.
Hayden soaked up the midday sun. He reveled in filling out a guest book. He pivoted his arm over around the landscape.
So many acres, he says, and so few people here.
And fewer all the time.
Copyright 2004, The Kansas City Star
The sidebars to this article:
Photos by Chris Ochsner/The Kansas City Star - Putting private land into public ownership is a cure-all notion for western Kansas that has been embraced by former Governor Mike Hayden, now the state's secretary of wildlife and parks. He once derided the thought of making farmland into a buffalo refuge.
Chris Ochsner/The Kansas City Star - Farmer Darrol Miller said he didn't see any sense in converting private land in western Kansas to public use, as supported by former Kansas Governor Mike Hayden.
Footnotes: "Tourism is occasionally touted as an economic panacea ... as if fridged winters, sizzling summers, constant wind, and a paucity of traveler services were mere inconveniences, easily tolerated in the pursuit of all this glorious open space. Yet, however devoutly some folks might wish the Plains to develop a recreation-based economy, the safer bet is on those who say it will never happen." - National Geographic Magazine, 2004
"Drouth is, throughout each summer, the master scourge of the Plains. No rain-or next to none-falls on them from May till October. By day, hot suns bake them; by night, fierce winds sweep them; parching the earth to cavernous depths; withering the scanty vegetation, and causing fires to run wherever a thin vesture of dead herbage may have escaped the ravages of the previous autumn." - Horace Greeley, 1869, in Harper's magazine.