West of Wichita: Opportunity for Kansas Recreation

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 49 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.

The rising 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.

Hunting, fishing 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.