Lawsuit aims to tie up trafficway

SLT opponents pledge to fight indefinitely

Vehicles travel on U.S. Highway 59 just south of Lawrence. A lawsuit filed Friday in federal court is the latest litigation intended to block completion of the South Lawrence Trafficway's eastern leg through the Baker Wetlands. The western segment of the trafficway ends at U.S. 59.

The next round in the fight over the South Lawrence Trafficway has begun.

Area environmentalists and students from Haskell Indian Nations University announced Friday afternoon that they’ve filed a federal lawsuit seeking to block construction of the trafficway through the Baker Wetlands.

They also were promising that regardless of the outcome of the lawsuit, they would fight the controversial bypass to the bitter end.

“This will be fought tooth and nail,” said Mike Caron, executive director of the Save the Wakarusa Wetlands Organization. “This will be a national scandal if they’re allowed to move forward. There will be Native activists and environmentalists from all across the country focused on Lawrence, Kansas.”

The opponents of the $150 million project have contended – for about 15 years – that the freeway would significantly damage the environmental and historical integrity of the wetlands, just south of Haskell’s main campus.

The basic argument of the case, which includes seven plaintiffs, is that less destructive routes south of the Wakarusa River were not adequately studied by state and federal regulators. The suit also contends that a proposed mitigation package falls short of protecting the wetlands from damages.

But supporters of the project say the route through the wetlands is the most fiscally responsible, and the most efficient way to move traffic around the city. The trafficway, if completed, would loop from Interstate 70 west of Lawrence to a point on Kansas Highway 10 east of Lawrence. The western portion of the project is completed to Iowa Street, while the eastern leg has not been constructed.

Vicky Johnson, who will be involved in defending the lawsuit as the chief counsel of the Kansas Department of Transportation, said she was confident the project had followed the proper process and had taken the appropriate environmental concerns into account.

Other supporters also said the mitigation package that would be part of the project will ensure that the wetlands and the roadway can co-exist. The mitigation involves building approximately 300 acres of manmade wetlands to serve as a buffer to the existing wetlands.

“If people say they value and treasure the wetlands, if they study the mitigation plan they can’t help but be in favor (of the proposed route),” said Douglas County Commissioner Bob Johnson. “Not only are the wetlands expanded considerably, but the resources will be put in place so that Baker University can preserve the wetlands, I would say, into perpetuity.”

But opponents said Friday that their concerns go deeper than environmental issues. The press conference began with Native American songs pounded out on leather-skinned drums, and a salute to a flag of eagle feathers. American Indian groups said the wetlands are an important marker of the history surrounding the struggle of Native Americans to maintain their culture in an Anglo world.

“We’re all working together to keep this place sacred,” said Patrick Freeland, a Haskell student and president of the Wetlands Preservation Organization.

The state has not secured funding for the $150 million project, but supporters have said they are optimistic about obtaining funding if they prevail in court.

The plaintiffs in the suit are the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation; the Sierra Club; Wetlands Preservation Organization; Jayhawk Audubon Society; Save the Wakarusa Wetlands Inc; Kansas University Environs; and Ecojustice, a KU student group.

The defendants in the suite are the Federal Highway Administration, the Kansas Department of Transportation and related leaders of those two organizations.