One undisputed fact is that the area hasn't always looked like it does today.
Before settlers arrived, the property that's now home to a mix of trees, prairie grasses and standing water was mainly a treeless, often soggy wetland prairie, said Roger Boyd, who oversees Baker University's maintenance of the area and is its unofficial historian.
Ted Cable, a Kansas State University professor who has been hired by the Kansas Department of Transportation to help develop a proposed wetland education center, agreed the area originally was a wetland, but of a much different type than today.
That view is echoed by Paul Brockington, a historical consultant hired by the state to determine whether the area is appropriate for historic designation.
Where water now stands, cattle grazed as recently as the early 1980s. Much of the land was farmed -- though often unsuccessfully -- for decades.
According to Boyd, the land was platted into quarter-sections in the 1860s and claimed by four different families "basically because it was free land from the government." Small-scale farming was tried, but often was unsuccessful because the property was frequently flooded.
Secret meetings, graves
In the mid-1880s, Haskell Institute began purchasing the property. Boyd said the history of what happened on the property between 1880 and 1920 was "pretty murky."
Haskell historians say the period's history is more messy than murky.
During that time, the Haskell Institute, as it was then known, was knee-deep in the federal government's program to assimilate American Indians into Anglo culture and religion.
And it was then, said Anna Wilson of the Wetlands Preservation Organization, that the property became a place for students to secretly practice native American religions, a late-night meeting ground for students to sneak visits with estranged parents, and an unmarked burial ground for students dead from disease and alleged abuse.
The area's role in that part of Haskell's history has led WPO and some Haskell alumni to request having the wetlands added to the National Register of Historic Places. The unofficial request is being studied by state and federal officials.
In the 1890s, Haskell began draining the farm using drainage tiles.
By 1920, the area was being used to teach students farming and animal husbandry. A levee was built in 1920, using drainage tiles to keep the land dry enough for farming.
The same levee built then to stop floodwaters from the Wakarusa River from covering the property today is used to hold water on the property and promote growth of wetland vegetation.
During the farming period, two pieces of property weren't farmed -- a 15-acre site on the eastern end of the wetlands and a 33-acre site on the western end. Those sites now are widely regarded as the jewels of the wetlands.
The tracts are what environmentalists call "virgin prairie," which means they have never been plowed.
"The grass there was good to make thatched roofs, and that is probably why it was never cultivated," Boyd said of the cordgrass in the wetlands. "That's what saved it."
But Haskell ended its agricultural program in 1936, in part because flooding still was preventing the land from consistently producing crops. Haskell leased the land to an Oklahoma Indian tribe, which in turn leased most of it to area farmers. The land remained in small-scale agricultural production until 1968.
Baker takes over
Brockington said it was then, about 12 years after the federal agency that oversees Haskell declared the ground "surplus property," that Baker took over the wetlands area. About the same time, the city, county and school district received pieces of land that now are home to Broken Arrow School, a city park and other public uses.
The wetlands area was first offered to Kansas University. But Baker was happy to have it, Boyd said. His father, Ivan, who was then chair of the school's biology department, set about reclaiming portions of the wetlands prairie.
The process of bringing the property back to a more natural state was time-consuming but not extremely difficult, Boyd said, because farming hadn't destroyed many of the native plant species. They had survived in ditches and land that had remained pasture.
"What we did is probably more of an enhancement than a true mitigation because it wasn't like it was entirely bare ground that we had to work with," Boyd said.
In fact, Boyd said much of the area where the 32nd Street route would be built was used for livestock grazing until 1982. The area began holding water on a more regular basis after Baker received federal funding in 1990 to rehydrate the land.
Now, Boyd finds himself in a position to start an even more ambitious wetlands creation project. Boyd is the Baker official most involved with the state's proposal to add from 200 to 400 acres of new wetlands.
The plan calls for the Kansas Department of Transportation to purchase farmland east and west of the Baker property to be converted into man-made wetlands. It also may include a wetlands education center and an endowment fund to finance Baker's maintenance of the area.
In exchange, Baker would allow KDOT to build a trafficway along a 32nd Street route through the northern edge of the wetlands, and relocate the portion of 31st Street between Haskell Avenue and Louisana Street on Baker property immediately south of the current road.
The question Boyd and other wetland watchers are asking is whether the package is worth allowing the estimated 25 to 40 acres of existing wetlands to be gobbled up by the road.
"I think a lot of people in opposition to this plan say you can't mitigate wetlands, but I think it all depends on how picky you want to be," Boyd said. "What a lot of people don't realize is that 10 years ago this area around the boardwalk wasn't very good."
The fact Haskell once controlled the land but let it go has fueled speculation about whether Haskell always viewed the wetlands area as sacred.
KDOT Chief Counsel Mike Rees said he believes other opponents of the trafficway, including some who opposed the western leg of the project, encouraged Haskell students to protest the road.
"I have always believed that this wasn't Haskell's fight in the beginning," Rees said. "It only became theirs after they were led to it.
"But make no mistake about it, I know it is their fight now. There's no question it is important to them today."
Members of the Haskell community, though, say the land has always been important to the students, and it fell out of Haskell control only because federal bueracracy got involved.
"The decision was never in our hands," said Thomasine Ross, who was a member of the Haskell Board of Regents in the mid 1990s. "The decision was made by people higher up in the federal government and they had no idea what was going on at Haskell."
-- Staff writer Chad Lawhorn can be reached at 832-6362.