Sometime this year.
That’s when the Little Jerusalem Badlands State Park in Logan County south of Oakley is expected to open to the public after the land was purchased three years ago.
An update on the newest state park in Kansas was presented Thursday night by Laura Rose Clawson, director of marketing and outreach for The Nature Conservancy (TNC) Kansas field office, at the Hays Public Library.
“This is the first anyone’s hearing about it,” Clawson told the small but enthusiastic audience. “What I’m telling you is pretty new and there’s always something that could change. But there’s a good certainty [this] is going to be what happens.
“We need to get it open sooner than later so we’re going to do it in phases.”
TNC purchased the 330 acres from fifth-generation owner Jim McGuire in late 2016. The family was ready to sell but only if the land and wildlife were protected and public access be granted to the previously private property.
During 2017, Clawson said TNC realized “we were in over our heads. We are a nature conservationist organization. We are not a visitor access organization.”
TNC started exploring options, and looked towards the public/private partnership the organization has with the U.S. National Park Service at the Tall Grass Prairie National Preserve in the Flint Hills of Chase County.
They landed on a similar partnership with the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism (KDWPT).
The project next had to go through the legislative process. Then-governor Jeff Colyer signed the bill creating Little Jerusalem Badlands State Park about a year ago.
Since then, work has been underway to open the park. Phase 1 is a series of designated trails.
Last Dec. 13, the KDWPT Commission approved a $50 fee that would be charged to access the trails, although a $5 fee per vehicle would allow entrance to the grounds. The Nature Conservancy was not in favor of such a high fee.
“It’s really important to the Nature Conservancy that access is affordable as possible so that as many people as possible can experience it,” Clawson said.
TNC has been working with KDWPT, she said, and “landed on what we all feel is a really good solution.”
“It’s currently in front of the KDWPT Commission. What’s most likely going to happen and what everybody wants at this point is the Kansas standard park entrance fee, currently $5 a vehicle, or an annual pass [to all state parks].”
Clawson says the KDWPT Commission will discuss the joint proposal by KDWPT and TNC for lowering the fee from $50 to $5 will be discussed at a quarterly meeting and then voted on at the following meeting. “We don’t anticipate any push back with that,” she said.
The KDWPT Commission will meet June 13 at Rolling Hills Zoo in Salina. The agenda items currently do not specifically list Little Jerusalem Badlands State Park.
During questions from the audience Clawson reiterated the entrance fee would be $5 per vehicle, the same as any other Kansas state park.
“So you come in, however many people are in your car, you pay one [$5] fee to get in and then you can get out and go on the trails.”
Clawson said the $50 fee came from “some former state personnel recognizing how excited people are for this, and knowing what it’s going to take [to open], was trying to make up the funds for it.”
KDWPT does not get any appropriation or general funding from the state, she noted. The department funds itself by charging fees.
“Nature Conservancy was okay with a fee, not a $50 fee. We’re all on the same page now and have worked it out.”
Clawson was unable to confirm a specific date for the park’s opening.
“There are a lot of moving parts, but it’s gonna be this year the park will open. I can’t put a month to it quite yet. Too many little things that could come up.”
The plan calls for KDWPT to hire a new park ranger to start work this summer – a naturalist – who will have regularly scheduled guided walks on and off the trails. Rangers now working at Historic Lake Scott – just seven miles to the south in Scott County – are now rangers working in both parks, according to Clawson. The park manager for Lake Scott is also the park manager for Little Jerusalem.
There will also be occasional special events that would have a additional fee and different staffing. “We’re not talking $50,” she stressed. People are already requesting a night photography event to take pictures of the stars in the clear sky with no light pollution.
The parking lot, designed for 30 to 40 vehicles plus a designated bus area, has been carved out, overflow parking areas have been identified, fencing is going up, and hiking trails with a variety of views are being mapped. The trail system will be adjusted as needed.
A researcher in the Kansas State University Conservation and Parks Management Department is conducting a three-year study on the impact of visitors in the park.
“She has pictures of all the trespassers we’ve had because she’s got cameras hidden through Little Jerusalem,” Clawson laughed.
“But it also means she knows where every trickle of stream water is. And she’s going to be able to see where everybody is going off-road and going through. So maybe we need to put the trail there. Or maybe we have to do something more significant with our signage preventing people from going down there.
“We’re going to make those real-time decisions based on a combination of her scientific data and the park rangers that are going to be patrolling every day and see what’s happening.”
The mile-long valley of 150- to 160-foot-tall spires and cliffs encompasses the state’s largest Niobrara Chalk formations, created 85 million years ago when what is now western Kansas was under the Western Interior Seaway. Fossils can be seen embedded in the chalk.
Trails cross the historic Smoky Hill Trail territory that once saw “Wild Bill” Hickok and “Buffalo Bill” Cody pass through, and today is home to wildlife and plants rarely found anywhere else in the world.
Interpretive signage of the flora and fauna, along with information about the shortgrass prairie and the 200 acres of exposed chalk formations, will be placed along the trails.
Little Jerusalem Badlands State Park will be open 365 days a year during daylight hours, except for special night time events. Inclimate weather could force closure of the park or its entrance access, 400 Road, a dirt road maintained by Gove County.
Two staff members of The Nature Conservancy live in the area and manage Smokey Valley Ranch. “They’re sort of the first-line decision for Little Jerusalem as well,” Clawson explained.
The ranch and park are connected with cattle grazing in both areas. “That’s why we have fencing in the parking lot. It’s not so much to keep people in but to keep the cattle out,” she said with a smile.
Clawson thinks visitation will rival that of Tallgrass Prairie National Reserve, which sees up to 25,000 visitors a year. “We’ve gotten a lot of public interest about Little Jerusalem.”
Because TNC wants to limit the number of structures in the park, there will not be a visitors center.
“That’s one of the roles the new naturalist park ranger will play during the regular interpretive hikes and while meeting with school groups,” Clawson explained.
There are plans for a restroom facility.
Hays resident Jane Gilman told Clawson she would be “willing to pay $50” to hike in Little Jerusalem. She and her husband were recently on the Gove County 400 Road to pick up a piece of equipment. Gilman says she could see the tall chalk spires.
“I’m from western Kansas and I love open spaces.”
Gilman is an avid walker, three miles a day when she can. “I’m excited to go out and see this,” she said. “I picture this like my own ‘Little Grand Canyon’ here in Kansas.”