Baker University is ready to consider a South Lawrence Trafficway built through the wetlands that bear the school's name.
Baker President Dan Lambert said Thursday that though the university still prefers a 31st Street route for the road, he will appoint a six-member committee to study potential benefits of a wetlands mitigation plan offered by state road officials.
"The university has agreed to consider what, if any, mitigation could in the long term justify the immediate danger to such a precious natural resource," he said.
Lambert said the mitigation must protect the wetlands from future encroachment.
KDOT has proposed spending $5 million to create 400 acres of man-made wetlands and build an educational research center in the area to mitigate any damage done to the Baker-owned wetlands.
A proposed 42nd Street route, one of five routes being considered, is the only option that would not cut through the wetlands. The 42nd Street route would be south of the Wakarusa River.
Lambert said he hadn't studied that route yet. He said the committee would study it and all options and try to make a decision in the best interest of the university.
Bruce Plenk, a Lawrence attorney representing the Wetlands Preservation Organization, said he still is wary about the idea of man-made wetlands. The organization, which includes Haskell Indian Nations University students, faculty and alumni, supports the 42nd Street route.
"Remember the best way to enhance the research and educational opportunities in the wetlands is not to build a road through it," he said. "That would totally screw up the ecology of the wetlands. The only thing we'd be able to study would be the effects of the road."
Plenk said he hoped Baker would take a big-picture view and seriously evaluate the no-build alternative and the south-of-the-river route.
Douglas County Commission Chairman Bob Johnson said he was pleased the university is getting involved in the discussions.
"It's a very positive step toward a resolution," he said. "Baker University is a key player and a solution to the trafficway issues."
Lambert said the committee will start work immediately. It will make a recommendation to Baker's administrators and board of trustees, preferably before the end of September, he said.
Committee members include Larry Parkin, a former Baker trustee; Roger Boyd, a Baker biology professor who manages the wetlands; Steve Sublett, a Baker alumnus and Wakarusa Township trustee; Terry Flanagan, vice president of HNTB, a Kansas City, Mo., engineering firm hired by KDOT to manage the project; and Ted Cable, a Kansas State University biology professor and project consultant. Lambert said he also contacted Karen Swisher, Haskell Indian Nations University's president, about selecting a member from the Native American community.
But WPO spokesperson Anna Wilson said she was disappointed the committee and other community committees have not included Haskell student representation.
Baker spokesman John Fuller said forming the committee and its announcement Thursday morning was not related to the timing of a public meeting Thursday night to collect community reaction to the proposed routes.
"I think Dr. Lambert felt we needed to get these people together to talk about mitigation because the trafficway may go through the wetlands," he said.
Though Baker has supported a 31st Street route in the past, Fuller said he is not sure how the other trafficway routes would rate.
"I don't think (Lambert) said he preferred one route over another," Fuller said.
But the Jayhawk Audubon Society released a statement Thursday saying it felt Baker has aligned itself with a northern route, specifically 32nd Street, as the best way to defend the wetlands.
"It seems pretty obvious they have made up their minds," said Sharon Ashworth, JAS conservation chairwoman. "We really feel serious consideration needs to be given to south of the river, and this continues to cast that in serious doubt."