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Wetlands at abandoned quarry become sanctuary and tourist lure

Staff writer

Rocky Hett’s truck bumps through rutted paths nearly invisible in the tallgrass on his daily tour of his family’s farm.

“The cottonwood trees they are just coming up everywhere,” Hett said looking over a stand in the hard-packed dirt.

His daughter, Wendy Hett, shakes her head from the back seat.

“Unbelievable, unbelievable, out of solid rock,” she said. “They just keep coming up.”

The volunteer trees, are proof the Hetts’ place is not the same farm it was back in ’65, she said.

Decades of wildlife habitat improvement Hett began in the 1980s, when he hand-planted 500 cedar, walnut and wild plum trees, have transformed the land.

The rocky moonscape of a paid-out limestone mine has given way to woods, meadows and fields where visiting hunters pursue wild game.

His newest project is one Hett sees as his legacy.

He will set aside 50.1 acres for wetland conservation in low-lying areas of the land fed by runoff. He has granted the federal government a perpetual easement to the land.

“Daddy is a true tender of the land,” Wendy said. “We use the land for agriculture, but the wildlife is so important to him.”

The federal Wetlands Reserve Program is a voluntary effort that allows landowners to restore and protect wetlands.

Hett spent more than a year on an application that included inspections by the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

“It wasn’t just, ‘Hey, we’ve got this piece of ground, and OK, you can put it in,’ ” Wendy Hett said. “It had to meet a lot of criteria.”

The government is investing $80,000 to build ponds and gates to correct water flow in the wetland, Rocky Hett said.

There are plans to move 86,000 cubic yards of dirt to build ponds and there has been discussion of planting hundreds of trees and bushes.

The Hetts received a one-time payment based on the market value of the land, but declined to give a figure.

Kansas landowners received $89.7 million from this past year from the program, according United States Department of agriculture reports.

Rocky Hett said the project is a sensible way to make use of unproductive cropland.

“It’s land that floods all the time anyway,” he said. “Maybe two out of five years you will get a crop off some of it. And the cost of putting crops in is so high, and your return on it is so cheap.”

The wetland suits her father’s goal of enhancing wildlife habitat and creating areas for recreation, Wendy Hett said.

“It’s such a good fit for Daddy’s vision of what this is going to look like in the future,” she said.

The Hetts’ land was home to North Marion Quarry until Martin Marietta took over the site. The Kansas Department of Health and Environment required Martin Marietta to put up a bond that would not be returned until the state signed off on the land’s restoration.

Efforts to reclaim the land post-mining began in 2016 and earned Kansas Department of Agriculture’s 2018 Governor’s Mined Land Reclamation Award.

Hett worked with conservation engineers and the Department of Agriculture’s Division of Conservation to create terrain suitable for wildlife habitat and hunting.

The site was bulldozed, graded and steps were taken to minimize land erosion and seeded with a variety of native grasses and flowers.

Meadows of prairie clover, black eyed Susan and Mexican hat, blossom from earliest March until snowfall, Wendy Hett said.

“The wildflowers out here are amazing,” she said.

The Hetts have taken on other projects, too. In 2017, the family planted about 500 milkweed plants to attract Monarch butterflies and are certified as a monarch way station.

Monarch Watch, a conservation and research program at the University of Kansas provided the plants free.

“We didn’t have that good of luck,” Rocky Hett said as he watch several butterflies flit over blossoms. “But we have got the wild milkweed.”

Spring is usually a busy time for the Hetts. For more than 20 years, hunters from the East Coast have been led on tours through the grounds in pursuit of deer and turkeys.

Built in 1873, a schoolhouse where his aunt, Iva Hett Unruh, taught in 1930 has served as a gathering place during these hunts.

“This year wasn’t no good at all,” Hett said. “Usually, I would have a bunch out-of-staters who are turkey hunters. Those all got canceled.”

The Hetts are waiting to see what the fall will bring. Their archery hunters already have their permits.

The hunting grounds are private property, but they have allowed some in-state residents, including two Wichita police officers, permission to try their luck.

“They give me a pretty good out-of-jail pass,” Hett said.

In the meantime, Rocky Hett has kept busy with plans to plant more wildflowers, trim trees, mow, and tend to anything else he finds on his daily tours.

His daughter enjoys the ever-changing landscape.

“It’s so beautiful out here,” said Wendy Hett. “I have a friend who tells me it looks like several different places.”

Last modified July 2, 2020

 

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