COTTONWOOD FALLS, Kan. -- The Z-Bar Ranch extends across almost 11,000 acres of unbroken prairie, one of the finest spreads of land in the Flint Hills of Kansas.
The soil in these parts is too rocky to be cultivated, so for over 100 years these rolling hills have found their highest and best use as pasture. Cattle eat the bluestem grass and turn it into beef.
Now the National Audubon Society has in mind an even higher and better use for this land: a Flint Hills Prairie National Monument. The society proposes that under the stewardship of the National Park Service, the grass could grow long and lush, native wildlife could be restored, and the American public could experience the grasslands of the plains as their forefathers first encountered them, back when herds of buffalo roamed unimpeded from Texas all the way to Canada.
Though the Audubon concept has been favorably received in towns in the region, opinion is anything but unanimous.
Local cattle ranchers have mounted a campaign to stop the park proposal in its tracks. The resulting acrimony has pitted neighbor against neighbor, brother against sister in an outpouring of bad feeling.
The Audubon Society has taken an option to purchase the Z-Bar property from a bank trustee and would like to turn it over to the park service.
Under Audubon's plan, developed by regional Vice President Ron Klataske, part of the land would be allowed to go wild, part could be set aside for hiking and horseback riding, and the ranch complex, which includes some limestone buildings from the 1880s, could be set up as a "living history" working ranch.
Rolling across east-central Kansas between Wichita and Topeka, the Flint Hills are a landscape of unspectacular yet subtle beauty. Bands of limestone jut out from beneath plateaus of green spring grass. In the river valleys, the leaves of the cottonwood trees shimmer.
This is the prairie. Practically none is left in virgin condition in the United States.
But will 10,894 acres be enough for a park? The ranchers don't believe it.
Guy Pickard, owner of a ranch that adjoins the Z-Bar, said: "We have it on tape that this park will be the cornerstone for a large park in the neighborhood of 200,000 acres." That might include his ranch. The landowners fear that once the government establishes a beachhead, they will be pushed out as the park expands, or else be hamstrung by excessive regulation.
To Mr. Pickard and his friends in the Kansas Grass Roots Association, an organization of landowners in the Flint Hills, anything involving government ownership of land spells trouble.
The group is opposing the park proposal with a vehemence that some people think is out of proportion to the problem.
Some businesses in town whose proprietors favor the park say they are targets of a boycott. The ranchers deny any organized boycott but point out that people may patronize whom they choose.
Kenneth Harder, who owns the market in Cottonwood Falls, the county seat, said his business is down about 10 percent to 15 percent from last year. That's partly due to population loss, but he added: "Maybe Grass Roots says there's no boycott, but there's a lot of people who won't come into the grocery store." Mr. Harder is also mayor of the town and a leading proponent of the park.
"The aginners, as we call them, just want to maintain the status quo," Mayor Harder said.
He and his counterpart, Larry Bayer, mayor of neighboring Strong City, see the national park option as something worth fighting for, if only on purely economic grounds.
"It gets on every map in the United States," said Mr. Bayer. "People plan their whole vacations around the national parks. It's an automatic drawing card."
Mr. Harder estimates that the salaries of 15 National Park Service personnel alone would inject $200,000 to $250,000 into the county's economy, not to speak of the dollars dropped by 100,000 or so visitors a year.
The problem, as he perceives it, is that farming just isn't carrying the freight anymore. Food production has become so rationalized that there's no employment in agriculture, and hardly anybody is left living on the land. The ranchers, long accustomed to calling the tune, are frustrated because they don't outnumber town people anymore and have lost political clout.
Though Audubon has sought to defuse the issue, the question remains: Will the Z-Bar Ranch alone be big enough to satisfy the park service's requirements?
It's too early to tell, said Randy Baynes, a National Park Service official. "It may be, it may not be to do some of the things we need to do."
The park service is now studying the feasibility of adding the Z-Bar Ranch to the national system. On completion in March zTC the study will be delivered to the Kansas congressional delegation.
After that, it's up to the politicians.
The ranchers would just as soon it not get that far. Why not leave well enough alone?
To Chuck Magathan, local president of the Grass Roots Association, the issue is straightforward: "What do the American people want? Good cheap food? Or do they want to preserve everything?"