You couldn’t blame Roger Boyd if he never laughed about any of this.
After all, this land now known as the Baker Wetlands hasn’t exactly been full of grins and giggles for Boyd over the years. Sure, there’s been this more than two-decade argument over whether the South Lawrence Trafficway should travel through the wetlands.
But the confounding ways of this property — one of the oddest pieces in Douglas County — began well before then.
To understand just how confounding, you have to know a little something about the spring of 1982. It was then that Boyd’s father, the venerable Baker biology professor Ivan Boyd, died on this piece of ground. He was burning the grasses of what back then was known by many simply as the Haskell Bottoms.
Boyd’s father was 78 years old — and had managed the property for 15 years — when a tractor accident on the property took his life.
Upon Ivan’s death, it was Roger’s turn to care for the property. Boyd, now the director of natural areas for Baker University, has been doing so for 30 years. Somewhere along the way, he’s become the face most associated with the 573 acres of wetlands that lie between Haskell Avenue and Louisiana Street. In some circles, he’s also become known as the man who sold out the future of the beloved natural area by agreeing to a Kansas Department of Transportation deal that would allow the controversial South Lawrence Trafficway to be built through a portion of the wetlands.
As the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the trafficway project last week, there’s now hope that chapter soon will be behind Boyd and this place.
Yes, Boyd said recently, the last 20 years of arguing has been hard to take at times. The accusations, the finger-pointing, the thought that the man who has given so much to these wetlands — and lost much, too — simply would stop caring about them.
He has, however, found an unlikely antidote for it all: a laugh every now and then.
“I’ve found it helps to keep a sense of humor,” Boyd said. “There are a lot of people who simply said things out of ignorance.”
• • •
Boyd kneels beside a pool of water that surrounds flowering hibiscus plants. The mud along the water’s edge is full of tracks of small animals, no doubt glad that the dry summer hadn’t yet sapped all the wet from these new wetlands.
Boyd points at the tracks and declares them to be raccoon. There’s much that Boyd points at these days on the about 150 acres of new property just west of Louisiana Street that Baker has acquired as part of a mitigation package with KDOT. (The university will get about 150 additional acres east of Haskell Avenue to convert to wetlands once road construction begins.) There’s a nearly 5-acre pond that attracts a host of waterfowl; there’s an 1,100-foot boardwalk that takes visitors through the area; and there’s a multitude of wetland plants that have established themselves on man-made berms, swells and low-lying areas.
Perhaps what Boyd likes to point at the most, though, is the John Deere.
“There’s going to be a visitors center where the green tractor is parked,” Boyd said to a recent group of visitors.
By the beginning of 2014, Baker University hopes to begin construction on a 10,000-square-foot visitors center. It will have a staff of three people, including an education coordinator to usher through what Boyd expects will be thousands of students a year who attend the center for field trips.
The theme of the visitors center will be: “What wetlands have done for you lately.” Boyd said it would be a shame if after all these years of fighting, people ended up forgetting why wetlands were important to begin with. Boyd and his son Jon — who in 2009 became the third generation of Boyds to work on the wetlands when he became the project refuge manager — are eager for the center to open. They believe that could be by the end of 2014, but they are not waiting until then to start sharing the story of the new property, which Baker began converting into wetlands in 2008 by moving 56,000 cubic yards of soil.
“We’ve had a lot of people come out and visit us already,” Jon said of the property, which is open to the public from dawn till dusk. “And I think we have changed a lot of opinions. I think we have convinced a lot of people that the wetlands really aren’t going to be lost.”
When the restoration project is complete, the property will have a host of other amenities to show off, including:
• Four entrances to provide easy public access to the property. The main entrance will be at the visitors center, which will be about a half-mile south and west of the current 31st and Louisiana intersection. Other entrances will be: off Haskell Avenue near the midpoint of the wetlands; off 1055 near the Wakarusa River; and off Louisiana Street extended, near where it intersects with the Wakarusa River.
• Bike trails that are part of the SLT project will be tied into the property.
• A camping area — designed for group camping activities of Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and other such groups — near the Wakarusa River.
And yes, Roger said, there will be wildlife to see, too. During one recent visit, he stopped in midsentence to tell visitors that, if they listened, they could hear the song of the Painted Bunting, a five-colored bird that Boyd considers perhaps the most beautiful in Kansas. Boyd said animals already are flocking to this property that once used to be a cornfield. He said recent bird counts on the property have found that there are at least 10 species of birds on the new property that were never officially recorded on the original wetlands property.
“There are still a lot of people who don’t believe you can convert a cornfield back to wetlands,” Boyd said. “Those are the people who haven’t been out here.”
“Or,” Jon added, “they close their eyes when they drive by.”
• • •
It was a bird that first brought Roger Boyd to what is now known as the Baker Wetlands. He was a junior at Baker University in 1967, and he came to the property with his father and esteemed Kansas University naturalist E. Raymond Hall. The trio was looking for a short-eared owl. What they found more of was trash.
In the late 1960s, Boyd said, much of the property between Haskell and Louisiana was corn and soybean fields with a little bit of pasture land. There were two pieces of native, undisturbed property on the east and west ends of the property, but Boyd estimates a full 80 percent of the 573-acre tract was being used for agricultural purposes. And trash dumping. It appeared the Haskell Bottoms were a convenient place to dump what the trash man would not take.
“I guess you could say that I wasn’t too impressed,” Boyd said about his first visit to the property.
Truth be told, it took quite awhile for Boyd to become impressed with the place. For the longest time, he simply struggled to manage the property. Most years he had a budget of $500 a year to care for the property. Back then, he was trying to establish native grasses on the site because he was convinced — as was his father — that the property could never again become wetlands once the Corps of Engineers controlled flooding on the Wakarusa by building Clinton Lake.
Then 1990 came, and Boyd may always remember that year as the turning point — or the year he started to become enamored with this place.
A student of his had found a grant that would provide funding to restore wetlands. And the student convinced Boyd that the Wakarusa didn’t need to continually flood for the property to be wetlands again. It simply needed to be allowed to hold the water it naturally collected.
By 1991, Boyd and a crew had found a large drainage pipe, 20 feet below the ground, that was taking water back to the Wakarusa. Surely, no one there knew how their discovery would change Douglas County.
“Once we plugged that pipe, it was like putting the plug in the bathtub,” Boyd said.
It didn’t take long for water to begin ponding and for the area to begin looking like wetlands. The property had never forgotten how to be one. Boyd said despite the property once being farm ground, its natural disposition is to be a wetland. It has heavy clay soils that allow water to easily pond. And then there is the almost freakish natural element to the land: From the wetlands, you actually have to walk uphill to get to the Wakarusa River. The combination of the extremely heavy soils and the slow-moving Wakarusa has created a scenario that when the Wakarusa floods it quickly deposits the heavy soils near the river’s edge. Over centuries, that has caused the ground at the river to be about five feet higher than the ground just a few hundred feet from the river.
As the wetlands developed in the 1990s, Boyd had grown to really like the place. Then, the controversial South Lawrence Trafficway shifted shapes following a legal defeat. A new plan to build the road along a route known as 32nd Street was put forward. The route would go right through the Baker Wetlands.
“I most vividly remember when the proposal for the 32nd Street route came up,” Boyd said. “My first reaction was: ‘Are you crazy?’ We had worked so hard to convert these back to wetlands. Why would we want a road to go through it?”
But Boyd chose to listen to the Kansas Department of Transportation as it presented a mitigation plan. Eventually, Boyd began to believe the overall wetlands could be improved by the project. KDOT would build far more wetlands than the road would take. In total, KDOT will pay for Baker to build 304 acres of wetlands to replace the 56 acres that will be taken by the trafficway. Importantly, KDOT will provide Baker with an approximately $9 million endowment to manage the wetlands. Baker is scheduled to receive that money in late 2013, when construction on the road begins.
Today, the Boyds, perhaps, have never been happier at the wetlands.
Roger called last week’s finding by the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals that the road project could continue like “Christmas in July.”
Jon lives at the property in an old farmhouse and gets to work full time with his father, which he said is “mostly enjoyable.”
But the happiness doesn’t just stem from the current moment. Jon is convinced that the new 304 acres of wetlands eventually will become seen as an “olive branch” to those who opposed the SLT project over concerns of the effects it would have on the wetlands.
Roger also is convinced the future is going to be much different. Whether it’s two years from now, five years, 10 years or who knows when, Boyd believes people who were once friends before this road project created such division will come back together again.
“Once the threat of this goes away, once it actually happens, there will be people who give it a second chance,” Boyd said. “I know there will be.”
In fact, Boyd goes a step further. He predicts that some of the best volunteers at Baker’s new wetlands will be the people who have fought the hardest against the road because there is no doubt that they care for this place.
But that thought does create a natural question: What will it be like when old friends, separated by a road, come back together?
“Well,” Roger said. “I think that is where that sense of humor is going to come in handy.”