Workers expand the BNSF railway from one to two tracks near Matfield Green, Kansas. (AP)

Workers expand the BNSF railway from one to two tracks near Matfield Green, Kansas. (AP)

More than a century after railroads arrived in the Flint Hills of Kansas, builders have started adding tracks. (AP)

More than a century after railroads arrived in the Flint Hills of Kansas, builders have started adding tracks. (AP)

This new project is tearing up some of the last tallgrass prairie left in the United States. (AP)

This new project is tearing up some of the last tallgrass prairie left in the United States. (AP)

The Konza Prairie in Flint Hills is known for its preserved tallgrass prairie.

The Konza Prairie in Flint Hills is known for its preserved tallgrass prairie.

Progress on the Prairie?

Posted: September 1, 2020

What in the world?

Clayton Jamison and his wife drive over a hill near Cassoday, Kansas. What they see on the other side shocks them. Where has the prairie gone?

“It looked like a bomb went off,” Mr. Jamison says.

Machines have dug up huge swaths of prairie land in Kansas. Why the big dig? People are building 42 miles of railroad tracks.

Railroads may seem like old news. They first arrived in the Flint Hills of Kansas more than 100 years ago. Today we think of our food and Amazon orders zooming along highways in trucks, not chugging through territory in trains. But some argue trains are more efficient than trucks. Efficiency is accomplishing the most with the littlest effort and fewest resources. Efficient transportation moves the most goods the fastest while wasting the least time, money, and energy. Trains can move huge amounts of goods at very high speeds.

That might be great for business. But what about the prairie? The broad, treeless plain we call prairie land runs right through the middle of North America. The Flint Hills are part of that. Land there has very shallow soil. Hard limestone rocks kept the first settlers from plowing the ground. But the tough terrain didn’t stop grasses from growing. Prairie grasses can stretch up to 10 feet tall. Their roots can extend 15 feet deep. The prairie ecosystem supports threatened species like the chubby game birds called prairie chickens. The new railroad project means upsetting this precious land. Workers will move streams, lengthen tunnels, and construct bridges. But builders say they’ll replant native grasses once they’ve finished their work.

At one time, 150 million acres of tallgrass prairie stretched from Texas to Canada. Today only four percent of that ecosystem survives. The largest piece of grassland remains in the Flint Hills—the very area where the new railroad tracks are being built.

Some people worry about disappearing prairie land and complain about the rail building. But officials say most prairie dwellers don’t mind the new tracks. Kathy Swift works for the local government in Chase County, Kansas. She says, “It’s not bothering us.”