A feathered visitor to the Baker Wetlands had Roger Boyd puzzled last week.
The newcomer glided among trees and shrubs, ignoring a kestrel’s feigned attacks and cries. As he watched, Boyd, director of natural areas for Baker University and a lifelong birdwatcher, was much more thrilled about the unidentified raptor’s presence than was the upset kestrel.
“I don’t know what it is, and that disturbs me,” Boyd said. “It’s black. It’s not a red tail. I need to get my binoculars out and see.”
Right now, wetlands visits are pretty much limited to wildlife. Construction of the South Lawrence Trafficway has closed roads leading to access points to the site south of Lawrence. Directly behind Boyd as he watched the mystery bird, which he said might have been a rough-legged hawk, was another consequence of the SLT project that foreshadows the arrival of an unprecedented number of visitors: the 11,000-square-foot Baker University Wetlands Discovery Center now under construction.
If all goes as planned, the discovery center will open to the public in June, although Boyd said access to the wetlands would still be limited as SLT work continues. With that in mind, Baker University is delaying the center’s ceremonial opening until September.
There is, nonetheless, anticipation about what the discovery center and expanded wetlands mean for the university and surrounding community, Baker President Lynne Murray said.
“The Baker Wetlands Discovery Center will be a wonderful facility and a tremendous educational asset to Lawrence, Douglas County and the surrounding areas,” she said. “We are looking forward to the day when children of all ages and families can visit the discovery center and learn more about the wetlands and natural ecosystem.
“Roger Boyd and Jon Boyd (wetlands resident refuge manager) have spent countless hours working closely with the construction crew at the wetlands site. The Boyds are extremely passionate about the wetlands and are committed to creating significant educational opportunities for the public to learn more about the environment.”
The center sits on a slight rise overlooking the wetlands to the east, south and southwest. Although not quite entirely enclosed, the center’s construction is far enough along to discern its final appearance. The center takes advantage of a three-wing, horseshoe-like design that will give visitors a panoramic view of the wetlands and the Wakarusa River beyond.
The center’s center wing will house a display area, restrooms, gift shop, small classroom, research lab and offices. A large classroom, which can be divided by curtains, will take up the entirety of the wing that angles to the northeast. The wing angling to the northwest is to be a garage/workshop.
It’s a plan Boyd said he first drew on an envelope before architect Fran Luck of Schneider & Associates of Lawrence developed the final design. Despite that origin, there was nothing quick and sketchy about the design.
“My wife and I visited 13 or 14 different visitor centers,” he said. “This is a lot similar to the one at Cheyenne Bottoms.”
The $1.5 million center is being built with funds the Kansas Department of Transportation provided as part of the highway department’s mitigation agreement for 58 acres of wetland needed to extend the SLT. The state also agreed to restore another 410 acres of wetlands, which will increase size of the Baker Wetlands to 927 acres.
“A lot of people feel negative about the highway going through the wetlands,” Boyd said. “I don’t think people know how much better the wetlands are going to be.”
The transportation department provided another $350,000 for site improvements around the discovery center that will include an asphalt parking lot and sidewalks.
Among the most frequent visitors will be Baker students. Baker biology professor Scott Kimball said the center will be integrated into the classes he teaches that require frequent wetlands field trips. The classrooms will give the classes a gathering place on days when they can’t get into or stay in the wetlands, he said.
The center’s lab is also a big plus, Kimball said.
“Some of our students process field samples,” he said. “Instead of coming all the way back to Baldwin to do that, they can process them right there. That is much more convenient.”
Murray, Boyd and Kimball see the center as a means to introduce students and families to Baker and the opportunities the wetlands offer for those considering careers in biology.
“We certainly hope so,” Kimball said. “We are going to do everything to show it off when we have new students or prospective students on campus. We will definitely bring up the wetlands and the center as something they might not be able to get at other schools.”