By Mark Schlegel
DU Board Member
and Kansas State Policy Chairman
Over the past year,
the average person has spent more time outdoors than ever before. Participation
in recreational past times like hunting, fishing, hiking, biking and kayaking
has surged. Even leisure activities, such as outdoor movies, picnics, bonfires
and barbecues have worked their way back into our weekly routines with greater
frequency during the COVID-19 pandemic. Kansas was certainly no exception to
this increased demand for outdoor access, but with the Sunflower State ranking
th in the country for public lands, we don’t have the supply to
match. One thing is clear – the need for additional outdoor recreational opportunities
has never been higher.
In the coming
weeks, the Kansas Legislature can increase the state’s supply of outdoor
infrastructure by passing SB 145, which would expand the Byron Walker Wildlife
Area in Kingman County by nearly 500 acres.
Located just 45
miles West of Wichita on Highway 54, the Byron Walker Wildlife Area and Kingman
Fishing Lake is a complex of over 4,000 acres owned by the Kansas Department of
Wildlife, Parks and Tourism (KDWPT). This stretch of the Ninnescah River has the
highest concentration of mid-wintering mallards in the state and, in a region
where wintering habitat and public hunting access are both rare, that’s
significant. In addition to the abundance of migrating birds, the area also
provides hunting opportunities for other game species, including deer, turkey,
quail and pheasant. Perhaps most importantly, the proximity of this recreation
hub to the state’s largest metropolitan area makes it an important outdoor
resource for many Kansans, and a major attraction and economic driver for
Kingman County. In 2020, more than 56,000 people visited the area – an increase
of more than 60% from the previous year.
popularity of the Byron Walker Wildlife Area unquestionably is great news. Now,
the Kansas Legislature has an opportunity to continue this momentum by passing
SB 145. In 2016, private landowners offered to sell 500 acres immediately
adjacent to the wildlife area but, according to state law, KDWPT cannot acquire
land exceeding 160 acres without legislative approval. That’s when Ducks
Unlimited partnered in the transaction by acquiring the property and enrolling
it in the walk-in hunting access program. DU began investing in the restoration
of the property’s high-value habitat – a combination of cropland, riparian
woodland, mixed grass prairie and wetlands.
In addition to
habitat, the property also includes new public road access to the Ninnescah
River. An integration into the wildlife area would provide new opportunities
for hunting and wildlife viewing, as well as fishing, canoeing, kayaking and
other water sports – but none of that can materialize until the Kansas
Legislature passes SB 145. Once KDWPT gets the green light to acquire the
property from DU, the expansion of this unique recreational resource will be complete.
The land would also be purchased using federal dollars and sportsmen’s license
fees, meaning there’s essentially zero burden placed on Kansas taxpayers.
and other forms of outdoor recreation have been a part of Kansas’ heritage
since statehood – it’s a major piece of the state’s fabric and identity.
Unfortunately, there are also clear long-term challenges threatening the future
of the outdoor industry. Lack of access is often cited as a reason for active
hunter drop-off. Since public lands account for less than 2% of Kansas’
landmass, it’s no wonder hunting participation is on the decline. Now is the
time to reverse that trend.
For Kansas to have
the best chance of maintaining its strong hunting heritage, more public land is
essential. If there’s any silver lining to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that
appreciation for America’s public lands has never been higher. Now, we can help
ensure the supply comes closer to matching that increased demand. Passing SB
145 and allowing KDWPT to expand the Byron Walker Wildlife area will directly
help grow Kansas’ outdoor recreation economy while supporting both wildlife habitat
and the sportsmen and women who enjoy it.
SB 145 was
introduced in the Senate on February 4, 2021 and will be considered by the
Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee in the coming weeks.