The Baker Wetlands are eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, according to a consultant hired by the Kansas Department of Transportation. And that might complicate completion of the South Lawrence Trafficway.
In a draft report received Tuesday by KDOT, consultant Paul Brockington said Haskell Indian Nations University's use of the wetlands in the late 1800s and early 1900s make the property register worthy.
The wetlands once were owned by Haskell and used to teach Indian students agricultural skills. Many Haskell students and alumni say the area also was a place for students to secretly practice Native American religion while the federal government was attempting to assimilate American Indians into Anglo culture.
"Haskell is an example, unique in many ways, of the good and bad in American history," Brockington wrote in his report. "Haskell well represents the large policy questions in American history and the roles of major national movements, interest and ethnic groups, as well as church and reform organizations."
Brockington's recommendation will be considered in coming weeks by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the state historic preservation officer. They will decide if the property is eligible for listing.
KDOT Chief Counsel Mike Rees said a historical designation might raise some hurdles.
"It may require us to spend some additional money, but I think we would probably be willing to do that," Rees said. "If we wanted to, we probably could lobby against this property being determined eligible, but we don't really see any reason to do that."
Bruce Plenk, an attorney for clients who stopped the trafficway in the late '90s, said a historical designation likely would affect the project.
"I think it adds fuel to the fire that a road shouldn't be run through the wetlands," Plenk said. "The whole idea with places that are eligible for the historic register is that they are suitable for study and preservation, but they are not suitable for destruction."
Plenk said a designation would make it more likely the corps would require wide consultation with the more than 500 Indian tribes that have sent students to Haskell.
Rees said if that's the case, the trafficway might not happen.
"The decision on consultation probably means the difference between getting the project done and not getting it done," Rees said. "If we are required to do large-scale consultation, I'm afraid there will be no end to it."
Baker University owns the wetlands. Roger Boyd, chairman of the school's biology department and caretaker of the wetlands, said he is concerned about the property receiving a historic designation.
Boyd said a historic designation might prevent necessary maintenance such as changes to the wetland's levees.
If completed, the trafficway would connect Kansas Highway 10 east of Lawrence with Interstate 70 northwest of Lawrence. The western 9 miles of the road are finished and open, but the eastern third remains only in the planning stage.