A RAIN sweeps down from the blue-gray clouds onto the rolling grasslands of the southeastern Kansas Flint Hills, part of an endless dance of land and sky that arrests the eye as might a seascape.
For years, the pristine beauty of the Flint Hills prairie has provoked an ugly battle over its conservation.
Now, however, an unusual compromise promises to preserve the prairie as a unique symbol of America's past - and may set a precedent for how to create and manage new park lands in future.
After a three-year effort, Sen. Nancy Kassebaum (R) and other Kansas lawmakers have hammered out a proposal to combine private ownership with public management.
Early next year, the lawmakers will introduce a bill to establish a Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve on the Spring Hill Ranch. Under the draft bill, the National Park Trust (NPT), a nonprofit group that bought the ranch for $4.7 million in June, will retain ownership of most of the land.
The National Park Service will manage the entire preserve, but purchase only 180 acres of the property, including the historic ranch homestead. The project marks the first time a private conservation group has bought a property to be managed as a park by the National Park Service.
Conservationists see it as a path-breaking deal not only because it defuses some of the opposition to government ownership of the land, but also because it represents a way to overcome the financial limitations of an underfunded national park system.
``The concept of private ownership and public management is how I think public parks will come into being in the future,'' says Paul Duffendack of the NPT. ``If the park service is going to grow, we need innovative solutions to that goal, and this is one of them.''
The windswept horizon of the Flint Hills encompasses the largest remnant of virgin prairie in North America. Millions of years ago, the sea covered the region, forming thick deposits of limestone streaked with flint.
The lime helped nourish a vast prairie of bluestem, Indian grass, and other native tall grasses. Covered with only a few inches of soil, the slabs of white limestone also thwarted the plows of 19th-century American pioneers who tried to break out farms in the shallow, rocky topsoil.
Defying cultivation, the hills remain home mainly to meadowlarks, upland sandpipers, greater prairie chicken, and the cattle that graze their treeless contours. They now include most of the surviving 1 percent of the 400,000-square-mile swath of prairie that stretched from Canada to Texas 200 years ago.
Conservationists and some residents promoted a plan in 1988 to create the country's first national park of tall-grass prairie on the 10,894-acre Spring Hill Ranch, in the heart of the Flint Hills.
But a lobby of ranchers and farm groups blocked the plan for a federally owned park, which they feared would lead to mismanagement of the prairie and government encroachment on their own lands. Rallying under the slogan ``Keep the grasslands free - No government acquisition,'' opponents used bumper stickers as well as boycotts and intimidation tactics. The conflict dragged on for years, splitting neighbors, disrupting businesses, and winning Chase County national notoriety.
Under the new proposal, expected to pass in Congress next year, the Park Service will have three years to design a management plan for the preserve in consultation with local residents.
Much sooner, however, the Trust will open parts of the preserve to the public. This month and next, it will host tours of the ranch buildings, constructed in 1881 from rough-hewn limestone by pioneer cattle king S.F. Jones. By next spring, visitors will be able to explore the surrounding prairie on hiking and nature trails, says caretaker Barbara Zurhellen.
Local supporters of the park welcome the boon an influx of visitors would bring Chase County. The county of 3,000 people is one of the poorest in Kansas, with a rapidly decreasing population and stagnant, farm-based economy.
``Progress has overtaken us, and if we don't get new dollars in here all the young people will leave,'' says county commissioner Frances Olson.
Yet opposition, while muted, has not disappeared. Some farmers and ranchers still vehemently object to government ownership of even the 180 acres envisioned by the bill. They fear it may be expanded.
``We are opposed to federal ownership of the grasslands, period,'' says rancher Chuck Magathan, president of the Kansas Grassroots Association, a main opposition group.
Others, like dairy farmer Melinda Barrett, fear the park will bring too many ``strangers'' and new regulations, upsetting their simple way of life on grasslands that have sustained their families for generations.
``We've taken care of the land here for the last 100 years. To have someone from the outside come in and change our way of life - that's not right,'' she says.