Kansas National Forest and the Sandsage Bison Range and Wildlife Area

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Odd as it may seem, southwest Kansas once had a national forest. Its remnants, along with the oldest publicly-owned herd of American bison in Kansas, can be seen at the Sandsage Bison Range and Wildlife Area.

 

First, the Forest

 

The idea of a forest reserve was first voiced by A.W. Stubbs, a Garden City attorney and Charles J. “Buffalo” Jones, who in 1878 became one of the founders of Garden City and its first mayor. Stubbs reasoned that if pine trees would grow at sea level in the white sands of the Carolinas and Georgia and on the slopes of Pike's Peak, they would grow well in the sandy hills south of Garden City. In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt signed an Executive Order establishing 30,000 acres of land across the Arkansas River from Garden City in Finney, Kearney and Grant counties as the Garden City Forest Reserve.

 

This forest was to be a five-year experiment to determine which species of trees adapted best to the Great Plains. Planting began in 1906. The first year was successful, but a prairie fire in early 1907 devastated more than 200 acres. In 1908, the forest was expanded to 302,000 acres stretching west to the Colorado border, and was renamed the Kansas National Forest. A severe drought in March 1911 killed most of the seedlings and, even though replanting in evergreens helped the survival rate, unpredictable rainfall, hot summers, and unrepentant moisture evaporation brought the forest to its knees. President Woodrow Wilson abolished the forest in October 1915. The strongest survivors were a stand of yellow pine planted in 1906 which never grew more than two feet tall.

 

Sandsage Bison Range and Wildlife Area

 

A few survivors of the Kansas National Forest planted in the early 1900s can still be seen in the northwest corner of the Sandsage Bison Range and Wildlife Area’s middle pasture.

 

Located about a half-mile south of Garden City west of US-83 Business, the 3,670 acre Sandsage Bison Range offers a unique opportunity to view the sand sage prairie of southwest Kansas and the oldest publicly-owned bison herd in Kansas. The Bison Range was established in 1916 when President Woodrow Wilson granted 3,021 acres of the former Kansas National Forest to the state for use as a game preserve. Another 649 acres was added later to bring the total size to its current size. Bison were introduced to the range in 1924 when one bull and two cows arrived from the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma. A few others were added in subsequent years and the herd has been kept at its current 80 to 100 animals since the mid-1980s. Guided tours are available by reservation by calling 620-276-9400.