Baldwin Woods is one of Mother Nature's time capsules - it offers a glimpse of the Kansas forest landscape as it appeared before settlers entered Douglas County.
Approximately two miles north of Baldwin City, this 2,000-acre tract of land stands as one of the best remaining examples of original eastern deciduous forest, or oak-hickory forest, in the state.
"It's kind of a rare spot in the landscape that's never been altered," said Bill Busby, associate scientist at the Kansas Biological Survey. The survey, a nonregulatory state agency, has headquarters at Kansas University's West Campus.
Because of Baldwin Woods' historical, ecological and scenic properties, the Lawrence City Commission and Douglas County Commission are considering a proposal to preserve about 250 privately owned acres of the woodlands.
The proposal stems from ECO2, a commission appointed to reconcile open-space preservation supporters and economic-growth advocates into one vision for sustainable development.
One of the commission's tasks is to evaluate voluntary proposals from property owners to preserve land in open-space projects, said Trudy Rice, ECO2 chair. Busby was on the ECO2 subcommittee that evaluated the proposal.
"Rather than having adversaries from either approach, it's really bringing a joint awareness to those two," said RoxAnne Miller, who was one of the ECO2 commissioners reviewing the proposal.
Miller is former executive director of the nonprofit organization Kansas Land Trust, which filed the proposal to the ECO2 commission in cooperation with the property's landowners. She has since accepted a position at a land trust in North Carolina.
Miller stressed that preservation of open space did not mean completely opposing development or any active land use.
The property already features existing homes, she said, but the proposal seeks to establish two conservation easements that protect the land from additional development.
Even if the proposal is approved, landowners will continue to pay property taxes and may continue agricultural uses, she said, adding that a large subdivision of Baldwin City existed less than a mile from the property.
The proposal requests $464,000 of public funding to contribute toward the project's estimated total cost of $576,000. That includes purchasing the appraised conservation easements and paying for boundary surveys, as well as the insurance, recording and escrow fees.
Miller said the property satisfies four categories that the ECO2 plan considers for evaluating open-space projects:
¢ Its scenic property. "The public will have a beautiful view of the bluff from East 1600 Road and other areas," Miller said, adding that the public will have limited access for trails after the grantors' lifetime.
¢ Its historical qualities. Busby of the Kansas Biological Survey said some logging occurred in the Baldwin Woods, but it was never clear-cut; the tracts of land given to KU were not used for agriculture. The woodland area was designated a national natural landmark in 1980.
¢ Its integration of natural resources. The property connects two of KU's ecological reserves - the Breidenthal and Wall reserves - thus helping to integrate the state's natural resources. Busby said the survey, which manages the KU reserves, conducts research with low ecological impact on the land.
¢ Its habitat for protected species. The land provides a home for the Kansas redbelly snake, a state-designated threatened species, and two other state species needing conservation: the whip-poor-will and the cerulean warbler. The survey has also identified 16 rare plant species in the woodlands.
Busby said people often assume unprotected pockets of the natural landscape, such as the Baldwin Woods area, will continue to exist. Before it was settled, Douglas County with its tallgrass prairie looked more like the Flint Hills than it does today, he said.
"If special steps aren't made to provide those areas, then they won't exist," he said, "and once things are developed, you can't go back."