Back to nature

Agencies, landowners work together to create public outdoor recreation space at Talmo Marsh

By Deb Hadachek Telescope editor

Most conservation work is about improving on Mother Nature.

But the goal of an ambitious project in Republic County the last five years has been to return the Talmo Marsh to the way it looked centuries ago.

The project could have state and nationwide impact on preserving a unique wetland ecosystem, and creating a place where the public can enjoy nature at it’s finest: hunting, birdwatching, and other outdoor activities.

“We can’t get it back exactly the way it was, but we want to bring it back to as pristine of an area as we can,” says Rob Unruh, area wildlife biologist with the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks.

The area encompasses more than 1,000 acres either owned by Kansas Wildlife and Parks, or under permanent easement in the Wetlands Reserve Program through the Natural Resources and Conservation Service.

Unruh credits retired KWP wildlife biologist, Ron Ruthstrom, for the vision for what the area could mean to the public. Years ago, Ruthstrom organized tours of government and nature agencies, and identified the wetlands at Talmo as some place special.

“He always reminded the groups (about the wetlands) that ‘we’re not making any more’,” Unruh says.

A pair of whooping cranes rested at the Talmo area for 21 days this fall. That’s only one sign that the work invested in the Talmo Marsh is starting to pay off, says Unruh.

Local photographer and Talmo area resident Tim Passmore documented the whooping cranes, and a variety of other waterfowl at Talmo this year. One of photographs shows a red winged blackbird attacking a Northern Harrier.

“Lots of birders say they rarely see them, but I see one every time I go down there,” Passmore says.

“Talmo presents an opportunity to restore an incredibly diverse wetland ecosystem where saltwater habitats and freshwater marshes lay side-by-side,’ says a 2013 Ducks Unlimited newsletter announcing the project. “It will support an abundance of plant and animal life, including thousands of waterfowl, shorebirds and other wildlife species.”

Private, Public Partnership

Republic County NRCS district conservationist Terry Alstatt credits the Eldon Trost family, especially brothers Conrad and Justin Trost, for laying the groundwork to create the public wetlands area. The Trosts owned 120 acres of the Salt Marsh unsuitable for farming. They enrolled the acreage in the Wetlands Reserve Program, which gives the government a permanent easement on privately-owned land to restore wetlands. They were the first landowners in Republic County to utilize the program, because land must meet specific guidelines as a wetland to quality.

Alstatt and Unruh said the Ruthstrom and the Trosts started encouraging other neighbors who owned similar land in the salt marsh to participate in the program. KWP eventually acquired acreages from the Trosts, Hanna Warren, the Gary Nutters, William Borchardt and Gerald and Pat Holmberg, and obtained a perpetual easement on another large tract owned by William Borchardt.

Unruh emphasizes three points about the Talmo project: one, the land was purchased at fair market value from willing landowners. Two, the state continues to pay property taxes to local government agencies.

And three: much of the money invested in the land comes from user fees paid when hunters and fishermen buy licenses, or grants, not the Kansas general fund.

“Hunters pay for helping develop 95 percent of the wildlife areas open to hunting and other outdoor recreation like birding,” Unruh says. “The sportsmen foot the bill.”

Ducks Unlimited purchased several tracts through its Wetlands America Trust, which Kansas Wildlife and Parks later acquired. Many of the water control structures and plantings planned for the area have been completed, Unruh says.

“We try to mimic the wet-dry cycles of a native salt marsh,” says Unruh of the management plan for the area. The project helps control flooding on neighboring land in wet years, but also encourages plant growth that attracts wildlife and water fowl.

Republic County assisted in the project to help improve a road that borders the area. One tract has a 1,900’ levee with a water control structure which doubles as a part of Republic County Road 200. This wetland completed in 2016 impounds 35 acres at the designed pool elevation. Eighty-six acres of cropland was reseeded to a native, warm season grassland and forb mix.

Another wetland development, finished the summer of 2017, has three dikes with water control structures impounding 132 acres. The plan called for constructing almost eight acres of new dikes and reshaping nearly the same amount of existing dike. Forty-five acres of a native, warm season grass and forb mix was seeded in 2013 and 32 acres was seeded in 2017.

“Working with the WRP contracts has been a work in progress,” Unruh says. “Realizing that there was much more wetland habitat restoration potential available on the tracts, the KDWPT managers were able to work with NRCS to modify the contracts and vastly expand the amount of restored habitat while reducing the overall cost.”

Historically important

The Talmo (Seapo) salt marsh is of historical importance to the county as well. Unruh says the Indians called the area Seapo meaning Great Salt Marsh, a name that was later claimed by a steam powered mill that sat on the east edge.

Jack Hofman, a University of Kansas archaeologist who brings students to Republic County to excavate sites at Pawnee Indian Village and Minersville, credits the salt marsh for attracting bison–and the native peoples who followed the herds–to Republic County. He has documented a large number of private prehistoric Native American collections all across Republic County.

Tribes used the salt to preserve their harvest, agrees Unruh. “Native Americans were pretty smart. They would kill the animals and process them there because of the salt,” he says.

In 1861, President Abraham Lincoln deeded 12 salt marshes in Kansas to the state. The state eventually sold all of the properties to fund construction of the Emporia Normal College (today Emporia State University). Unruh says the state has reacquired many of these properties today, including Cheyenne Bottoms, Quivera, Jamestown and Seapo.

James G. Tuthill, one of the first settlers in the county, developed a process to mine the salt in the marsh. Unruh says there are artesian wells with casings on the property that bubble up salt water. But the west side of the area has fresh water as well.

Salt was money, Unruh says of the enterprise. Tuthill would take the salt to sell in Manhattan, or sometimes the military would take a detour from the Ft. Kearney Road to buy salt.

One historical account says the marsh averaged a gallon of pure salt to every 65 gallons of water.

Start trend

Unruh hopes that public/private partnerships like the Talmo Wetlands Area might become more common in the future. Kansas ranks 50th among 50 states in areas available to the public for outdoor recreation, he says.

In the beginning, Ruthstrom promoted the project to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, USDA Farm Services Agency and Natural Resource and Conservation Service, Ducks Unlimited, Kansas Alliance of Wetlands and Streams, Pheasants Forever, Kansas Wildlife Federation, The Nature Conservancy, the Kansas Department of Wildlife Parks and Tourism and others.

Most of these groups plus the local Republic County board of commissioners later came together to form the partnership behind the North American Conservation Act grants or NAWCA that were written to acquire, protect and restore the wetlands.

“The Talmo wetlands had been recognized in years previous but lack of funding or mechanisms to acquire valuable habitats in Kansas stalled the efforts,” Unruh says.

“While the totality of the Talmo wetland complex has not yet been realized,” he says, “the cooperative approach used so far is a model to be used to realize the remaining wetland potential by creating an all-encompassing plan including, landowners, government agencies and conservation partners.”