How hard is it to create a new reservoir in western Kansas? The answer is that it is extremely hard due to environmental regulations, government red tape, land acquisition, and the shear cost of taking on such a project. However that didn’t deter Ron Allen in the late 90’s. At the time Ron was the manager of the Pawnee Watershed District and the watershed district had been discussing the possibility of constructing a reservoir a few miles west of Jetmore, Kansas in Hodgeman County. Talk of a reservoir in this area of the state had actually been discussed since the 1930’s. The watershed was interested in protecting downstream water quality as well as flood prevention.
The watershed district had its beginning in 1965 when a group of interested farmers and businessmen met together. They formed a steering committee to explore the formation of a watershed district. A vote to organize the District passed overwhelmingly. The district received its corporate charter in 1968, organized under the Watershed District Act of Kansas. The Pawnee Watershed District is the largest in the United States. It contains more than 1.5 million acres in parts of nine Southwest Kansas Counties; Edwards, Ford, Gray, Hodgeman, Lane, Ness, Pawnee, and Rush. Governance is by a nine person Board of Directors, with a member from each of the seven sub-watersheds and two at large members.
The watershed district reached out to employees of KDWP in the mid 1990’s to sit in on meetings to discuss the development of the dam and reservoir. Scotty Baugh who was the region fisheries supervisor out of the Dodge City Office at the time attended a few initial meetings. While I was the park manager at Cedar Bluff in the early 2000’s, the Pawnee Watershed District manager Ron Allen met with me on several occasions to discuss park development. I also put Ron in contact with several fellow park managers. Ron visited several state parks including Cedar Bluff to gather information on how to construct a park.
In June of 2004 the HorseThief Reservoir Benefit District was created with the passage of Kansas State Statute 82a-2201-2211. The board of directors was organized in the same month. All 9 counties in the Pawnee watershed district had the opportunity to participate in Horse Thief Reservoir but only Ford, Finney, Gray and Hodgeman county commissions were interested. The bond issue was voted on in 2004 and was issued in 2005 with the .005% sales tax.
By state statute the HorseThief Benefit District Board of Directors is made up of eight members. Four members are appointed by the board of county commissioners of the four counties in the district (Hodgeman, Finney, Ford, Gray). One member is appointed by the governing body of the cities of Dodge City and Garden City. One member is appointed by the Pawnee watershed district and one member is appointed by the Secretary of Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism or the secretary’s designee. Mark Sexson who was the Public Lands Region Supervisor out of the Dodge City Regional Office was appointed by former Secretary Mike Hayden to serve as a member of the HorseThief Benefit District board in 2004. Mark retired from the department in 2009 and subsequently had to be replaced on the board. Secretary Hayden then appointed me to the position in 2009 and I am currently still serving.
In 2005 at the request of Ron Allen, former state parks director Jerry Hover put together a team to assist Ron with developing plans for the park at HorseThief. The team consisted of Tuttle Creek State Park Manager Todd Lovin, former Cheney State Park Manager Jerry Schmidt, Central Region State Parks Supervisor Alan Stark, former Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks Engineer Jesse Moore, and myself who at the time was the Cedar Bluff State Park Manager. We met with Ron and other Pawnee Watershed board members and developed a plan to build the park. Included in the plan was where to place the boat ramps, utility campsites, cabins, primitive campsites, shower and restroom facilities, water treatment facility, day use areas, playgrounds, trails, etc. After a couple days of onsite visits and several hours of discussion, we developed a preliminary draft plan for park development. Ron soon realized that the project was much larger than what he could handle especially since he was already working full-time as the watershed manager. By this time Jerry Schmidt had retired from KDWP and was hired on a part time basis by Ron to oversee initial park development.
Construction of the dam began in early 2008 and was completed by September of 2009. As the dam was being constructed, work was also being completed on the reservoir. Boat ramps were constructed with Federal Motorboat Access funds administered by KDWP, and roads were beginning to take shape in the park. Josh Hobbs was hired as HorseThief’s first park manager on July 20, 2009 and continues in that role today.
The reservoir filled to nearly 50% full in the spring of 2010. Due to the fact that users were extremely excited about using the reservoir for the first time the HorseThief Benefit District Board opened the park on a limited basis for boating and fishing in June of 2010. The park was opened to camping in June of 2012. The reservoir filled to capacity on July 1, 2016 and has stayed near full since that time.
The park has come a long way since its opening in 2010. The park now has a new office/shop, 50 utility campsites, numerous primitive campsites, one rustic cabin, one modern cabin, shade/wind blockers, gazebos, a good sized pavilion, restroom and shower houses, two Yurts (similar to a cabin), basketball court, a large playground, and a brand new 18 hole Frisbee golf course. The park also has a brand new enclosed building (HorseThief Lodge) complete with a kitchen and restrooms that can be rented for large family gatherings, weddings, or special events. The park also has huntable acres inside the park as well as in the adjacent wildlife area.
The park hosts numerous special events including archery shoots, running events, a large red dirt music festival, and Zombie shoots during September/October.
Besides all my years of involvement with HorseThief other KDWPT personnel continue to be involved with the property and reservoir. Other divisions involved with Horse Thief include the Fisheries, Wildlife, and Law Enforcement divisions.
-Troy Brown; Former Park Manager and State Parks Region Supervisor for KDWPT