It was day for nature at the Barton County Commission Meeting Tuesday morning.
First, commissioners heard an update on the Kansas Wetlands Education Center, a nature center operated by the Fort Hays State University Werth College of Science Technology & Mathematics in cooperation with the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism.
Director Curtis Wolf said the facility overlooks the 19,857 acre Cheyenne Bottom Wildlife Area managed by KDWPT and the 7,694 acre Cheyenne Bottoms Preserve managed by The Nature Conservancy. He praised the cooperation from those involved, including the county.
Commissioner Jennifer Schartz agreed. “The partnerships it took to create that are just so strong.”
Today, the center’s top-notch exhibits rival those anywhere. It makes the bottoms an attraction accessible and relevant to everyone, she said.
Secondly, they received a report on the Wetlands and Wildlife National Scenic Byway, a 77-mile route that runs through Barton, Stafford and Reno counties and anchored by Cheyenne Bottoms and Quivira National Wildlife Refuge. It includes natural, historic and educational sites identified along the route and in the seven corridor communities, said Wolf, who is also the Wetlands & Wildlife National Scenic Byway Committee president.
Many see Kansas as a “fly-over state,” Schartz said. But facilities like KWEC and gems like the byway certainly counter this perception.
The education center
“We appreciate the support we’ve received from so many different organizations, including the County,” Wolf said. He provided a summary of his annual report from 2019, and highlighted portions of that.
“In my opinion, the Center is one of the many great resources that provides a unique ‘quality of life’ benefit to Barton County,” he said. “We are providing excellent programs, events, and educational opportunities for our locals, but also providing a destination drawing out of town visitors to the area.”
The Kansas Wetlands Education Center recorded 27,526 total contacts in 2019, which is the second highest recorded total since KWEC opened in 2009, Wolf said. Number of programs offered was the highest total ever recorded by KWEC with 853 total programs given (468 on-site; 385 outreach).
“School programs dominated the program offerings with 610 total school programs offered,” he said.
Other public educational programs and special events were also important draws for KWEC visitors, Wolf said. These included the annual Butterfly Festival (largest ever attendance with more than 700 total participants), a new KWEC WILD Club with monthly activities, Winter Kids’ programs, Kid Wind Challenge teams, quarterly drop-in STEM Days, Prairie Chicken Lek Tours, Biosphere Blockparty-Earth Day event, Wings and Wetlands Birding Festival, Gifts of the Garden Workshops, Nature Discovery Summer Kids Camps, high school STEM Camp, Perseid Meteor Shower watch party, hunter appreciation breakfast, holiday open house, summer library reading programs, Great Bend Recreation Commission programs, Scout programs, and 4-H programs.
“These programs will continue into this coming year,” he said. Now, “we are excited to be hosting a great slate of events this year, including many of our regular popular annual programs, but also adding a few things like our Rock’n the Planet Earth Day celebration on April 18, where we will host some great family activities, adult workshops, and an evening concert.”
KWEC also continued to improve the new exhibits that were installed in 2018 with Dorothy M. Morrison Foundation funds, resulting in an 11-minute increase in the time that visitors spend at KWEC since the install,” he said. They also renamed the KWEC Auditorium the Duane Shook Auditorium in recognition of the Hutchinson man’s ongoing support of KWEC, produced a 15-minute KWEC/Cheyenne Bottoms informational video with funds from the Morrison Foundation, attended various festivals and trade shows and completed a roofing project.
Other numbers included:
• The number of drop-in visitors went from 6,881 (20 per day) in 22018 to 8,074 (24 per day) in 2019.
• The number of on-site programs jumped from 432 with 4,972 participants to 468 with 6,344 participants.
• Outreach program numbers went from 221 with 6,507 taking part to 385 with 10,269 taking part.
• Facility rentals/meetings dipped a little from 34 (632 participants) to 29 (558).
• Tradeshow/festival booths was up from five with 1,140 estimated contacts to six with 2,046 contacts.
• Volunteers utilized jumped from 163 to 235.
• The total number served climbed from 20,295 to 27,526.
The scenic byway
I’m also here today to give a report on the Wetlands & Wildlife National Scenic Byway, of which I serve as the Byway Board President. BJ Wooding is also here, and serves as the Byway Coordinator.
“Remarkably, the Wetlands and Wildlife Byway project began over 15 years ago with the first Corridor Management Plan,” he said. “The project is, and has always been, driven by the coordinated, grassroots, volunteer efforts of citizens and organizations within the seven corridor communities.”
These include Claflin, Ellinwood, Great Bend, Hoisington, Hudson, Stafford, and St. John, as well as the two anchor wetlands.
The Wetlands and Wildlife Byway Committee is made up of 27 local representatives, and meets every other month. The next meeting is April 16 in Hoisington.
Over the past two and half years, the committee has restructured and has reinvigorated to maintain and improve the Byway.
The Kansas State Byways Program is overseen by staff from Kansas Department of Wildlife Parks and Tourism and Kansas Department of Transportation, Wolf said. The committee is required to submit an annual report and work plan each year to the State, as well as participate in quarterly phone calls and an annual meeting with the other 11 byways across Kansas.
“The byways program is active, and in 2018 implemented a $1.4 million state interpretive sign grant,” he said. From this grant, the state replaced the byway kiosk sign at the K-4 overlook, as well as installed three new interpretive signs at the K-156 rest area.
They also installed a new kiosk and signs at the U.S. 50 rest area in Stafford County.
“This was a huge project for Kansas byways and we are glad that we were able to be included in this project,” Wolf said.
A couple years ago, the commission passed a resolution establishing the county as the fiscal agent for the byway, and the committee appreciates that, he said. The county also provides annual funds for the Byway through the Economic Development fund, which are used for various maintenance projects as well as hosting the byway website.
County Cartographer Bj Wooding, who serves as byway coordinator, maintains the byway’s website, which has been around since the beginning. In the past two years, that site has undergone much needed upgrades and improvements, she said.
With input from the communities and others, the information, maps, calendar of events, photos, articles and visitors’ guide have all be update, she said.
“Other than the annual funding from the county, our Byway has not been active in seeking additional funds for quite some time,” Wolf said. This past year, the committee sent letters and presented to the corridor municipalities, requesting $500 contributions to the Byway.
Hoisington, Ellinwood, and Claflin stepped up to contribute $500. Stafford County has also verbally committed to contributing $1.000 this year.
“The committee has earmarked these funds to replace weathered and broken interpretive signs that were originally installed over 13 years ago,” he said. The committee has completed a sign inventory and we have prioritized which signs need replaced, and will be working on replacing these over the next couple years.
“Great Bend has been a great supporter of the Byway over the last two years,” he said. The Great Bend Convention and Visitors Bureau has contributed over $20,000 of in-kind advertising for the byway. They have designed and paid for several print ads that have been used to promote the entire Byway and the communities, such as this one in the past Kansas Byways Guide, which has a wide distribution from the state.
This past year, in addition to the print ads, the Byway has also been represented in several other promotions, he said. These have included having informational booths at the Wings and Wetlands Festival and the North American Falconer’s Association Field Meet that was held in Great Bend this past year.
The committee also manages the various print materials that have been produced, including Byway maps and brochures, which are distributed throughout various venues.
“The committee is looking at some additional promotional and fund-raising ideas this year, and we hope to report on some of these in the future,” Wolf said.
“Additionally, we are pleased to announce that after about seven years of not being funded, the Reviving America’s Scenic Byways Act, was passed in September, reviving the National Scenic Byway program through the Federal Highway Administration,” he said. “The initial priority of the program is designating additional National Scenic Byways, but we are hopeful that in future years, there may be funding sources for byways that are already designated as National Scenic Byways.”
“This is another of those programs that probably wouldn’t have happened in this economic environment,” Schartz said. She attributed the success to the volunteers who made it possible.
Barton County Commission meeting at a glance
Here is a quick look at what the Barton County Commission did Tuesday morning:
• Heard an update on the Kansas Wetlands Education Center.
KWEC is a nature center operated by the Fort Hays State University Werth College of Science Technology & Mathematics in cooperation with the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks & Tourism, said Director Curtis Wolf. The facility overlooks the 19,857 acre Cheyenne Bottom Wildlife Area managed by KDWPT and the 7,694 acre Cheyenne Bottoms Preserve managed by The Nature Conservancy.
• Heard an update on the Wetlands & Wildlife National Scenic Byway.
The Wetlands & Wildlife National Scenic Byway is a 77-mile route that runs through Barton, Stafford and Reno counties. It is anchored by Cheyenne Bottoms and Quivira National Wildlife Refuge, with natural, historic and educational sites identified along the route and in the seven corridor communities, said Wolf, a member of the Wetlands & Wildlife National Scenic Byway Committee.
• Approved cold mix asphalt bids for 2020.
The Road and Bridge Department requested a quote from Venture Corporation for mixing approximately 25,000 tons of cold mix asphalt for the 2020 overlay program. With the county providing all aggregates and liquid asphalt, Venture would be required to set up a drum mix at a location on South Washington and furnish all labor, equipment and fuel needed to mix, weigh and stockpile the finished product on site, said County Works Director Darren Williams.
The company had 15 working days to complete the work which will take place in May.
Venture proposed doing the work at a cost of $7.91 per ton, that rate being unchanged from 2019. Funds are included in the 2020 budget for this anticipated expense.
• Approved a bid from Venture Corporation for overlaying a portion of Susank Road. The project includes that portion of Susank Road from K-4 north to the edge of the Hoisington Activity Center parking area, Williams said.
Work includes milling the current roadway, applying 1.5-inch of hot mix overlay, adjusting one manhole and placing temporary tape on the work service. Funds are available in the Road and Bridge fund for this project.
Kansas Wetlands Education Center 2019 highlights
• Winter Kids Program Series
• Monthly Turtle Tots preschool program
• Birds of Colombia presentation
• Shelterbelt Birds presentation
• Special spring break drop-in STEM activities
• Quarterly STEM Drop-in Days
• Biosphere Blockparty (248 participants)
• Wings & Wetlands Birding Festival (with over 100 registrants representing 17 different states)
• Central Kansas Photography Club Nature Photo Workshop (34 participants)
• Gifts of the Garden Series (three workshops)
• 4-H Kansas Insect Spectacular host
• High school STEM Camp
• Two Nature Discovery Kids Summer Camps
• North American Butterfly Association Butterfly Count
• Ellinwood After Harvest Festival Turtle Races
• Perseids Meteor Shower Viewing (188 participants)
• Cheyenne Bottoms Youth Outdoor Day
• Butterfly Festival (757 participants, most ever)
• Edible/medicinal plant hike
• Hunter appreciation breakfast (141 participants)
• Star gazing (60 participants)
• KWEC Holiday Open House (133 participants)
• Conducted 610 school programs with most area schools.
• Created KWEC WILD Club with monthly activities.
• Sponsored two Kansas Kid Wind Challege teams, hosted Kid Wind regional competition at KWEC.
• Regular programming with USD 428, Great Bend Recreation Commission, Great Bend Children’s Learning Center, summer Great Bend Public Library programs, Boy/Girl Scouts, 4-H programming, and FHSU elementary science Methods training.
• Held two STEM Drop-in days during off-school days.
• Maintained several citizen science programs: Cheyenne Bottoms FrogWatch Chapter, NABA Butterfly Count, monarch butterfly tagging, Cheyenne Bottoms Christmas Bird Count.
• Offered 203 paid van tours plus 48 paid prairie-chicken lek tours.
• Participated in several local/regional exhibitions: Omaha Boat and Travel Show (in cooperation with the Great Bend Convention and Visitors Bureau), FHSU WCOSTM Donor Reception, Kansas State Fair, USD 428 Business Showcase, Kansas Association for Conservation and Environmental Education Conference and FHSU Agents of Science Festival.
• Produced 15-minute KWEC/Cheyenne Bottoms informational video.
• Named the Duane Shook Auditorium.
• Documented a 11-minute increase in average visitor stays in new KWEC exhibits.