Site of unsanctioned homeless camp behind Amtrak station has special easement on it to protect bald eagles; state has the power to order changes

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

The former Riverfront Mall and the Kansas River is pictured on March 14, 2023. To the left of the building, near the path, are tents and other structures that have been erected as part of an unsanctioned homeless camp along the banks of the river.

There are new questions surrounding the legality of the unsanctioned homeless camp on city-owned property behind the Amtrak train station in East Lawrence. Actually, the questions may be circling overhead.

Bald eagles.

An inquiry by the Journal-World has found that the city-owned property along the banks of the Kansas River is the site of a conservation easement held by the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks that agreed in 1989 to forever protect the property as a winter nesting site for bald eagles.

Ever since the unsanctioned camp that houses dozens of homeless individuals began developing several months ago, I’ve heard some conversations in the community that the property had some sort of special environmental protections on it. People, though, seemed to have few details about its true status. The site has a sign listing it as a wildlife habitation area, but the property is not an official park in the city, leading to more questions about its environmental significance.

With a little digging, I found the conservation easement for the property on file at the Douglas County Register of Deeds office. The easement, which states the property should be “retained forever in its natural condition,” creates questions about whether the unsanctioned camping is in violation of the state-imposed environmental protections placed on the land

Thus far, public officials don’t have answers. The Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks is responsible for enforcing the provisions of the easement. A spokeswoman with the department said it was still researching the issue and formulating a response.

A spokeswoman for the city said it also was researching the issue, but also acknowledged that this unsanctioned camp and others in different locations throughout the city can create problems of varying types.

“We acknowledge that unauthorized camping affects neighborhoods throughout our community, and we’re committed to improving the availability of safe sheltering options to help reduce the amount of camping,” Maureen Brady, brand manager for the city of Lawrence, said via email.

There long have been questions about whether the camp is a violation of multiple city ordinances. When the Journal-World toured the site in December, the camp was filled with debris scattered throughout the property, stacks of bicycle parts, and many other items. In recent weeks, there have been signs that the items continue to accumulate. What appears to be a broken-down car has been moved into the woods in recent weeks.

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

A car, pictured on March 14, 2023, has been moved into the woods of an unsanctioned homeless camp along the Kansas River in East Lawrence.

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

Debris and other possessions are scattered throughout a homeless camp on the banks of the Kansas River in East Lawrence on Dec. 8, 2022.

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

Debris and other possessions are scattered throughout a homeless camp on the banks of the Kansas River in East Lawrence on Dec. 8, 2022.

The city in December acknowledged that the city-owned property is zoned for open space, a zoning category that generally does not allow for overnight camping. For instance, the city prohibits overnight camping in city parks, which are also zoned for open space.

In December, though, the city did not directly answer a question of whether city ordinance prohibited camping on the property. Instead, the city has taken the position that the camping activity is not desirable and is not a long-term solution, but that there needs to be a balancing of interests as the community deals with homeless numbers that outstrip the number of shelter beds available in the city.

The significance of the conservation easement is that it brings a new party into play. The easement makes clear that the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks has broad authority to take action to protect the environmental features of the land

Whether KDWP will employ the same balancing of interests as the city has is unclear. The easement, however, doesn’t require that KDWP do anything. The document states “enforcement of the terms of the easement shall be at the discretion of Grantee” (KDWP).

If KDWP does want to act, however, there are seemingly several provisions of the easement that the state could argue the camping activity violates. The easement prohibits “any improvements designed to cause increased human activity on the property.”

It also specifically prohibits residential development on the property, and says the state has the right to “prevent any use of the property that will significantly impair or interfere with the conservation values of the property.”

Part of the issue may hinge on how important the property remains for bald eagle nesting. A spokeswoman with the local Jayhawk Audubon Society told me the issue of the easement hadn’t yet come up in official board business, and she wasn’t aware of the role the property currently plays in bald eagle nesting.

Dawn Buehler, executive director of Friends of the Kaw, said she also wasn’t up to speed on the significance of the property for bald eagles.

“What does come up on our radar is all the trash that ends up in the Kansas River,” said Buehler, who also serves as the Kaw riverkeeper, meaning she is often on the waters of the Kaw.

Buehler said the Lawrence camp does produce trash issues for the river, but so do many others between Manhattan and Kansas City.

“Topeka’s problem is even bigger than Lawrence’s,” Buehler said of campsites along the Kansas River.

Buehler said Friends of the Kaw has chosen not to weigh in on the issue of whether cities should evict campers from the sites. Instead, the group has said that if cities allow the camping to take place, they should provide trash cans and restroom facilities for the camps as a way to protect the river.

She said the group has found a large increase in trash items, including blankets, clothing, and lots of plastic trash that is creating a “huge water quality problem for the river.”

“We don’t know the answer to this very difficult issue communities are facing, but our job is to keep the river clean,” she said.

The easement was granted as part of mitigation measures when the former Riverfront Mall was constructed. That project was opposed by some groups, in part, because there was concern the mall would disturb bald eagle habitat.

As I hear responses from the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks on the issue, I’ll pass them along.


The Friends of the Kaw will be having an event next month to clean up portions of the river around Lawrence. At 9 a.m. on April 22, volunteers can gather in the city parking lot at Second and Locust streets in North Lawrence (the one across the street from Johnny’s Tavern) to disperse for clean-up activities. The event is part of an annual program the nonprofit group hosts to clean up the river and its banks. For more information, see


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