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Archive for Monday, March 25, 2002

Plan seeks wetlands reconstruction

March 25, 2002

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Seeing a beaver dam is nothing new for Roger Boyd, but the biologist can't help but marvel at the simple, natural construction that helps keep life-giving water in the Baker Wetlands.

Beavers gnaw off trunks of small trees, then jam the sharp edges into the soil beneath the water's surface. The tops are pointed upstream, allowing the current to drive the wood shafts sturdily into the ground.

The resulting dam is immovable, the beavers' labor invaluable.

"That dam's been there for four years," Boyd said, pointing at a 2-foot-high pile of sticks in the wetlands just west of Douglas County Route 1055. "They're masters of engineering."

The beavers' enduring work in the Baker Wetlands  573 acres of low-lying swampland south of 31st Street, between Louisiana Street and Haskell Avenue  is but one of many focal points for Boyd and others who are working on plans associated with completion of the South Lawrence Trafficway.

An $8.5 million wetlands mitigation plan is getting its final reviews before being included in the trafficway's draft environmental impact statement, expected to be released later this spring. The impact statement is expected to propose a "preferred route" for completion of the trafficway, which is the estimated $100 million project to connect U.S. 59 with Kansas Highway 10 at Noria Road.

And with that route will come a plan to heal the damage that construction and resulting traffic would wreak on the wetlands, which are owned and managed by Baker University.

Under the microscope

Boyd, chairman of the biology department and director of natural areas at Baker, knows his work is under the microscope. And he doesn't mind.

He looks forward to following through on plans to re-create wetlands a few hundred feet southwest of 31st and Louisiana streets, build a center for wetlands culture and education, open a primitive camping area and forge boardwalks and walking trails on the site.

Groups including the Haskell Indian Nations University Board of Regents, Wetlands Preservation Organization, Haskell Alumni Assn. and others may oppose any road project that runs north of the Wakarusa River, but Boyd isn't fazed.

"Completion of the road is completely political," said Boyd, whose father negotiated to secure the wetlands from the federal government in 1968. "I approach the mitigation plan from a scientific standpoint: It has to be done right to justify doing it."

'Balancing all perspectives'

Members of the Wetlands Preservation Organization have argued that the wetlands should not be disturbed because they were taken from Haskell, and that any disruption would destroy the cultural, historical and educational foundations of the campus in southeast Lawrence. There's been talk of going to court to seek a return of the wetlands to Haskell.

Haskell's official stance remains that it opposes construction of a highway along 31st Street, and would prefer that it be built south of the Wakarusa River.

"What we're trying to do is listen to the wishes of constituents, and balance all of the perspectives that we must, including the position of the federal government on the land," said Karen Swisher, Haskell's president. "We've made our statements about the whole SLT, and I think they've pretty well stood. People can draw their own conclusions about that."

Larry Cavin, chief of regulatory programs for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Kansas City, Mo., said the environmental impact statement (EIS) should be released this spring. The only question is whether it will include formal comments from American-Indian tribes.

The corps has sought official comments from 26 tribes considered indigenous to Kansas, plus more than 500 others across the country that might have an interest in the trafficway.

Cavin is hoping for more participation, and intends to send out another letter to the tribes involved, seeking comment.

"We were hoping to get that information into the EIS," Cavin said. "The chances of that happening are not as good now  (but) whether we've heard from the tribes or not, they'll always have a chance to comment on the draft EIS."

The impact statement is required before the Kansas Department of Transportation can secure a permit to fill the wetlands, as anticipated, to allow for construction of the road.

Evaluating impact

Boyd and another biologist, Ted Cable of Kansas State University, have been charged with making sure the wetlands-mitigation portion of the impact statement makes sense.

Among the components they've helped devise, if the trafficway's 32nd Street alignment were selected as the preferred route:

 Construction of 10,000-square-foot cultural and wetlands center. It likely would be about a half mile east of Iowa Street along the south side of East 1250 Road, also known as 35th Street.

 Installation of a wooden boardwalk system, which would wind through the re-created wetlands south of the possible trafficway route and near East 1400 Road, also known as Louisiana Street.

 Installation of a concrete path connecting the wetlands center and Mary's Lake to the northeast.

 Creation of a "primitive camping" area along the north side of the Wakarusa River, just east of East 1400 Road.

The goal, Cable said, is to create a wetlands experience that works not only for the plants and animals that live there, but the humans who live nearby, too.

"They may not have the scenic value of the Rocky Mountains or the postcard beauty that some people look for, but there is a subtle beauty to the wetlands  a real magnificence in the diversity of the plants and animals that, through this project, we'll have an opportunity to share with the public," Cable said. "We'll have a chance of getting that message out to the people."

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