Sprawling across 256 acres in southern Douglas County, the scenic parcel of land known as the Baldwin Woods lies undisturbed, its pristine beauty home to warblers, hawks, snakes and various forms of plant life.
Several local entities want to keep it that way.
Biologists, government officials and community preservationists have come together in their commitment to officially protect the land, a unique piece of oak-hickory forest land located between Vinland and Baldwin City. There is just one problem, and it’s a big one: money, or the lack of it.
According to representatives of the Kansas Land Trust and the local business and environmental development commission ECO2, pronounced “Eco-Squared,” the Baldwin Woods effort is caught up in the same economic roil facing many environmental projects nationwide.
Although 2008 saw approval by the Lawrence City Commission and the Douglas County Commission to buy the conservation easements needed to officially and permanently preserve the site, the actual purchase has not been made. Budget crises at the state and local levels will likely slow progress in 2009. Compounding the issue is the challenge of coordinating priorities and budgets of both commissions, each a key player in the project.
ECO2 Chairman Larry McElwain said he and members of his group acknowledge that current economic obstacles could make securing the needed $464,000 from city and county funds difficult. But they feel they are up to the task of keeping the project at the forefront of ongoing discussions.
Launched in 2000, through an innovative effort initiated by the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce, ECO2 was formed to establish a long-term plan to sustain the community’s economic vitality, while at the same time preserving the natural environment. Currently, it is composed of eight members appointed by county and city commissioners, with representation in the areas of agriculture, business and open space.
McElwain said although the timing for funding is less than ideal, there is still hope for the project in the near future.
“My hope would be for an industrial project to come along that could lead to an earmark for funding the protection of Baldwin Woods,” he said. “I think taxpayers and commissioners understand that we can do this if we tie it together as one transaction.”
He added that all parties involved have the desire to move forward.
“We have cooperative committee members and a firm commitment to Baldwin Woods from the county and city commissioners, which is a positive thing,” he said.
Jason Fizell, executive director of the Kansas Land Trust, said KLT, as well as the two private parties that own large tracts of the land, are also onboard and ready to make up the difference in the project’s total cost of about $575,000. Although he admitted purchase of the easements is currently not an urgent matter, he said increasing development projects in the vicinity raise some concern that the land could be jeopardized in the future.
“We have property owners who are willing and enthusiastic,” he said. “And with new city and county commissioners, a new Chamber of Commerce president and a national administration all committed to environmental land protection, I am confident we will see movement on this, and other ECO2 projects, in the near future.”
But Kelly Kindscher, plant ecologist for the Kansas Biological Survey and former ECO2 member, is frustrated with the lack of progress. He claims there has been ample time, since discussions began in 2000, to seal the deal.
“I am sympathetic to the current economic problems,” Kindscher said. “But that doesn’t explain why nothing happened during the years prior to this.”
He said he is disappointed that significant action has not been taken to protect local open spaces in general.
“As compared to other college towns in the Midwest, we are way behind,” he said. “Some kind of action is needed or we will find ourselves with no open space.”