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85-million-year-old secret revealed in western Kansas

April 15, 2017

Many tourists in western Kansas are familiar with the Niobrara Chalk formations of Castle Rock and Monument Rocks National Landmark. These ancient chalk spires have “fingers” 70-feet tall reaching far above the prairie. These formations are dwarfed, however, by the scale of Little Jerusalem, a 300-acre site in Logan County being prepared for the public by The Nature Conservancy.

Little Jerusalem is a vast expanse of chalk spires and ravines, practically untouched for 85 million years. Formed after the inland sea covering the high plains dried, the spires are all that remains from an ancient oyster bed. Giant clams, more than three feet wide, leave their fossils jutting out of the canyon walls, and imprints of oysters and barnacles crunch with every step on the ground.

The Nature Conservancy purchased the property on Oct. 5, 2016, and it is managed by Smoky Valley Ranch project coordinator Matt Bain, who said Little Jerusalem will be the perfect place for nature lovers to explore.

“This is the largest Niobrara Chalk formation in Kansas,” Bain said. “There’s probably thousands of these jagged castles out here at this site. As you walk through the canyons, go through all the little ravines, you could walk through it for two or three days and not see it all. There are miles of little canyons and mazes.”

Located 20 miles north of Scott City and just west of U.S. Highway 83 on the Western Vistas Byway, Bain hopes that the opening of Little Jerusalem will add to the tourism and conservation efforts of the area.

“It’s hard to come to a place like this and not be inspired about the prairie,” he said about Little Jerusalem, which is located about 15 miles west of Monument Rocks. “We are really excited about the opportunity to do that for people, to get people excited about the natural resources out here.”

Bain said that the site has been known by many names through the years. It was first known as the Logan County Badlands by pioneers, then Castle City, and eventually, Little Jerusalem.

“Most of the locals know it as that, and we are not really sure how it got that name.” he said. “Some people said that from a distance, it looks like the ancient walled city of Jerusalem.”

Because of farming and ranching, only 20 percent of the native intact prairie remains in Kansas. Rare and unique flora and fauna call the winding ravines of Little Jerusalem home. One species is Great Plains Wild Buckwheat, a short shrub with spiny twigs and green leaves. Little Jerusalem hosts the largest population of the plant, and beyond western Kansas, the species is found nowhere on earth.

“The ecology of these formations are unique because all of the cavities in the rocks,” Bain said. “Bats, hawks, snakes and even amphibians call Little Jerusalem home. These canyons are also a perfect mule deer habitat.”

Bain said that The Nature Conservancy is still in the planning stages of the site, so he couldn’t provide an opening date or exact details about trail layouts, but he hopes to begin with a parking lot and a short handicap-accessible trail down to the main formations.

He said the main goal is to present the area in a way that guests can enjoy the scenery without disrupting millions of years worth of fossils.

“The last thing we would want to do is anything that would compromise the natural resources here,” Bain said. “We are working with bringing a number of partners and experts to figure out how we will set this up so people can use it and enjoy it, but also protect the fragile resources here.”

Once open, it’s expected fossil hunters from across the region will travel to Little Jerusalem to examine all of the relics left by the ocean. Western Kansas is already known for its large number of aquatic fossils, including shark teeth and skeletons of the mighty Mosasaur, which can be up to 50 feet long. Little Jerusalem is the remains of an oyster bed, which likely looked a lot like coral reefs do today.

“When you walk around, almost everything you step on here is a fossil,” Bain said. “The oysters and all the other marine life made the limestone that you see here. When glaciers formed and retreated, it carved out a completely different landscape and exposed this chalk.”

Laura Wilson, curator of paleontology at the Sternberg Museum of Natural History in Hays, said the staff is excited to see what secrets the rocks may be holding.

“You never know if a new area is going to represent slightly different habitats or time period,” she said. “With each piece of land that we access and explore, it holds a lot of potential for new discovery and understanding of what this region and the earth as a whole was like during that time period, which then has a lot of implications for understanding what is happening now and in the future.”

The history of the location doesn’t stop 85 million years ago. Pioneers used the rocks as markers along the Smoky Hill Trail, and Bain said pioneers and Native Americans left their mark on the ancient rocks.

“There are a couple sites here where people have etched their names into the rocks over time, and one of those says ‘Fort Wallace Kans. 1865,’” he said. “A lot of these sites were important for Native American tribes who lived here, as well. It’s an awe-inspiring place regardless of who you are, so a lot of theses sites have Native American artifacts.”

The site will have a no collection policy, so that every guest can enjoy the fossils and artifacts. If a major archaeological find is discovered, the Sternberg Museum of Natural History in Hays will be called out to excavate. Bain said that it is extremely important to conserve the intact prairie, and the best way to do that is to let children experience places like Little Jerusalem.

“Most kids are growing up now in a much more urban setting, and we’re detached from the land a lot more than we used to be,” he said. “Growing up like that, departed from the land, these are the people that are going to be making policies and decisions about this part of the state. You bring a kid out to a place like this, they can stand up on those rocks and look out, it is an unforgettable thing that they will carry with them.”

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