Playa Lakes Joint Venture has enjoyed a 25-year partnership with ConocoPhillips, in which the company has provided in-kind contributions and expertise, and some $2.3 million the Joint Venture has awarded in the form of grants to help get conservation projects started. An example of such a project is found in north central Kansas. In 2012, the state purchased 160 acres of salt-marsh wetland in Lincoln County from a private elderly landowner who was interested in making certain his land would never be developed.
This is Playa Country — a weekly look at the wildlife, wetlands and prairies of the western Great Plains, and the people who manage them — brought to you by Playa Lakes Joint Venture, an organization dedicated to conserving birds and bird habitat.
We’re considering the good things that can happen when corporate philanthropy provides seed money for conservation and wildlife habitat projects. Playa Lakes Joint Venture has enjoyed a 25-year partnership with ConocoPhillips, in which the company has provided in-kind contributions and expertise, and some $2.3 million the Joint Venture has awarded in the form of grants to help get conservation projects started. An example of such a project is found in north central Kansas. In 2012, the state purchased 160 acres of salt-marsh wetland in Lincoln County from a private elderly landowner who was interested in making certain his land would never be developed.
“The Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism had been looking at this wetland for a few years and wanted to purchase it.” Christopher Rustay is conservation delivery leader for Playa Lakes Joint Venture. “It worked out really well. They used our ConocoPhillips money, matched it to a North American Wetland Conservation Act grant and were able to purchase this wetland. It’s a sweet gem of a waterfowl hunting area.”
This land was owned by Jim Gurley. He grew up in Barnard, Kansas, but had lived back east for years. Matt Smith, a biologist with Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, worked with Gurley. “We were very timely in being able to pull that together and be able to make the offer when the time was right and when the landowner had the interest. He was an elderly gentleman and he told me, ‘I’m not buying any green tomatoes here so we need to get this deal done.’ And, we were able to get those grants in place and get the funding in place and make it happen.”
The landowner and others in the community over the decades had hunted the land. “There’s about 80 acres of open water, and then there’s another 30 or so acres that have been identified as wetlands, and then there’s about another 40 acres of upland, which is all native grass.”
This quarter-section is a salt marsh. “The particular soil type where this where this project is called saltine soil and it is very salty. Some of the vegetation there is inland saltgrass which is very much adapted to those salty conditions. The story is that when the settlers came over the hill they saw this white broad expanse and they thought it was all just open water. They thought it was a great thing. When they got down there, it was salt encrusted. They were a little disappointed.”
Smith says this wetland, due to its location, is well-situated to benefit migrating birds. “It’s right in the middle of the central flyway, so it’s a great stop-over for a lot of migrating waterfowl and shorebirds, and ducks and geese, that come through that area.”
When I talked to Matt Smith, he related the details of negotiating the purchase and getting the funding in place. Before long, it occurred to me I was hearing a man describing a life lesson he learned — arranging to buy that wetland from Jim Gurley. Smith told me when he first got involved with this land purchase, he was most excited about what it meant for public access, and how the state of Kansas would have a very beautiful property the public would enjoy perpetually.
“But what I didn’t really realize up front, and what I do now, he was really trying to secure his legacy, something that was very dear and important to him — and, it was very much a highlight of my career to help him do that. He was really thankful that he got to see his wishes realized for that property — that it will be under public ownership, and it will be preserved forever. That’s what he was really concerned about. He wanted to keep it like it was.
“That was a very, very satisfying experience. He passed on about six months after we wrapped everything up.”
You’ve been listening to Playa Country, a weekly show about the wildlife, people and landscapes of the western Great Plains. This program is made possible by the Playa Lakes and Rainwater Basin Joint Ventures.
Original broadcast: May 2015