BAKER WETLANDS | Hands-On Learning Experience
One of the most diverse habitats in Kansas, the Baker Wetlands encompasses 927 acres of rich, natural wildlife. Students, faculty, and nature lovers have identified 278 species of birds, 98 other vertebrate species, and 487 plant species at the Wetlands — and these counts grow with each adventure. This exceptional environment gives students the unique opportunity for increased exploration and education about biological and ecological processes.
One of the Most Beautiful Spots in the Country
The Baker Wetlands is stunning. But don’t just take our word for it: Check out what HouseBeautiful magazine said when it declared the Wetlands the most beautiful place in Kansas.
THE BAKER WETLANDS AND DISCOVERY CENTER
The Baker Wetlands and Discovery Center is paradise for our student biologists, ecologists, biochemists, and pre-health professionals. But our students aren’t the only beneficiaries of the stunning 927-acre natural habitat. Stargazers, bird watchers, and exercise enthusiasts are always bustling around the area, which is open to the public. Located just 10 miles north of the Baldwin City Campus, the Baker Wetlands is a true distinction for the university in its region.
DISCOVERY CENTER HOURS
The Discovery Center is open 9 a.m. – 4 p.m., Monday – Saturday, and 1 – 4 p.m. on Sunday.
The Wakarusa and Kansas River floodplains have developed since the Pre-Illinoian Glacial Period ended more than 300,000 years ago. Learn more about their development and how the mitigation has helped the Wetlands grow to where they are at today.
Some trails through the Wetlands are already open and about 10 miles of trails will be available when the rest are complete. The trails are open from dawn to dusk so you can hike to your heart’s content.
• The area is open dawn to dusk (daylight hours).
• Dogs must be on a leash to protect others on the trail and the wildlife.
• Take only pictures; leave only footprints.
HISTORY OF THE BAKER WETLANDS
The Wakarusa and Kansas River floodplains have developed since the Pre-Illinoian Glacial Period ended more than 300,000 years ago. The two rivers differ significantly from each other because of the actions of this glacier. The Kansas River primarily runs through various layers of sandstone and therefore its sandy substrate allows for significant meandering across a very wide basin. The Wakarusa, however, cuts through an area that was less impacted by glaciers and consists primarily of slate, shale, limestone, silt and clay. The channel is more resistant to movement and thus the meanders in the past have been less significant, and its valley is much narrower. Its banks are steep and muddy.
Ice Age Development
The original Baker Wetlands was located in Section 18 of Township 13 South, Range 19 East. This section of 640 acres was divided into four parcels of 160 acres each and was homesteaded in 1854. An early historical map of Douglas County dated 4 July 1857 shows that these four parcels were homesteaded by G.V. Eskridge (NW), M. Groat (NE), H. Sebelius (SE – not sure of spelling of last name), and J.N. Coffey (SW). No information has been found about how much agricultural activity was carried out by these early pioneers, and some of these parcels possibly changed hands several times before becoming part of the Haskell Farm. This early map also shows a bridge located less than a quarter mile east of the current bridge on Louisiana Street. At least initially this was a simple raft that was pulled across the river using draft animals. The raft would have been tethered to a rope anchored on both sides of the river. Prior to the establishment of agriculture upstream, the Wakarusa River banks were probably much shallower than today. An obvious “shoulder” can be seen in several locations along the bank. Agriculture loosens the soil that then flows into the creeks and rivers and acts as the major force of erosion, scouring away the bottom and banks of the river, making the banks deeper and steeper.
Earlier pioneer accounts indicate that before settlement, the wagons along the Oregon/California Trail either crossed the Wakarusa at Blue Jacket, five to six miles to the east, or about 300 yards downstream from the later bridge. According to pioneer accounts, this crossing was managed by using the wagon’s own oxen to lower the wagons down the south (or possibly east) bank, and then the wagons were pulled up the opposite bank by a team of mules that were owned by a American Indian that lived on the bank.
Haskell archives indicate that between 1917 and 1927 a number of projects were carried out by the federal government on Haskell’s behalf that were aimed at draining the area for agricultural use. Much of the land was “bedded,” which refers to the construction of linear raised strips alternating with troughs to drain an otherwise very flat field. The aerial photo above clearly shows these strips throughout the entire property. This is a technique that is used in most flat, floodplain fields even today. A large subterranean tile system was also installed in the north-central and south-central fields and drained to the river. This tile was 26 inches in diameter, and because it was literally draining up hill toward the river, it had to keep going deeper and deeper in order to function. This tile was 20 feet below the surface by the time it emptied into the river. A levee was also constructed all the way around the perimeter to keep flood waters out. The levee on the north contained eight or more culverts with one-way valves to facilitate water flowing out of the property and into the drainage canal on the outside. These one-way flapper valves prevented high waters in the canal from flowing back into the agricultural fields. Three drainage ditches were constructed in 1922: the E-W canal on the outside of the north levee, another E-W canal south of the E-W levee through the middle of the area and a N-S canal in the center of the east half that drains to the river. All of the fields within the levee ultimately drained into one of these canals.
An aerial map dated 1937 shows that through these agricultural activities all but three small parcels had been plowed. The northwest 140 acres had been converted to cool-season grasses for pasture. A windmill was located on the north side of the the canal that filled a concrete tank on the south side of the levee as well as another concrete tank located south of the north gate. The three small parcels that weren’t plowed were apparently maintained for hay and consisted of 15, 10 and 35 acres. It is likely that much of this hay was cordgrass, which was heavily used for thatching roofs of outbuildings. It does not make very good hay for animals to eat, but these may have been the only hay fields available on the Haskell Farm.
In 1934 the educational mission at Haskell changed and no longer included agricultural training. BIA began leasing the ground to local farmers. Then in the 1950s, a significant portion of the acreage was declared by the Department of the Interior as surplus land. Parcels of this land were given to the city to construct Broken Arrow School and South Junior High; to the county to build Broken Arrow Park; to the State Biological Survey, which was later transferred to the University of Kansas; and another 20 acres to the Kansas Forestry, Fish, and Game Commission, which later became the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and tourism. What remained was an odd-shaped parcel of approximately 573 acres.
One of the purposes of forming the State Biological Survey was to acquire the remaining Haskell property in Section 18 for the purpose of creating a wildlife refuge. Dr. E. Raymond Hall, then director of the University of Kansas Natural History Museum and the State Biological Survey, was mainly responsible for the early efforts to save the Haskell Bottoms, as it was commonly referred to. Hall attempted to have control of the 573 acres transferred to the State Biological Survey for the purpose of developing a largely urban refuge, styled after one in Los Angeles. The area would largely be managed for waterfowl because none of the large reservoirs currently in Kansas had been constructed yet. Hall anticipated that development of the refuge would be funded through continued farm leases as the area was converted back to wildlife habitat. It was then discovered that the Quit Claim deed through which the transfer would occur, would prevent earning money from the property for 30 years. Several other attempts were made to have the University of Kansas carry out the effort with funding coming from the state. None of those plans were successful.
Baker University Acquisition
Dr. Ivan Boyd believed that even though the area no longer drained as effectively as in 1920, with the construction of Clinton Dam in the next couple of years it was unlikely that flooding of the area would be frequent enough to convert the area to wetlands. Such efforts would also require expensive earth-moving, costing money that he didn’t have. However, Dr. Boyd was able to continue to lease the farm ground and pasture in exchange for labor and use of the farm equipment instead of cash. This would control weeds and trees and allow him to establish several small single-species stands of big bluestem, switchgrass and indiangrass. The ground was too damp to establish little bluestem. The seed from these stands were then harvested to provide seed to replant more and more of the farm ground. During these early years, Dr. Boyd also had to contend with a substantial land fill and several pieces of large, abandoned construction equipment. The dump had been originally created by Haskell Institute, but the lack of gates encouraged local residents to use it as well. This was located along both sides of the river levee south of the current natural gas facilities. Once the influx of additional trash was stopped through construction of larger and larger gates, the refuse was bulldozed into a pile on the south side of the levee, along with 200 yards of construction rubble hauled there over the years from the Haskell campus. Fortunately, before 196, most of the trash was nontoxic and biodegradable. Much of the scrap metal and tin has been removed, and recycled and the paper and wood products have long since decayed.
Dr. Ivan Boyd was also interested in establishing a diverse prairie, not one with the half-dozen forbs that might be included in CRP mixes today. His students collected thousands of seeds from local prairies and performed various tests on the seeds to determine what conditions caused them to germinate the best. He established 50 study plots to the north of the present gas company site to conduct their various germination studies. From these studies, several fairly diverse prairie plots were established.
Dr. Ivan Boyd was killed in a tragic tractor accident March 18, 1982 while conducting a prescribed burn with his students. He was 78 and died doing what he loved to do: preserving native habitats and teaching students.
Dr. Boyd and his students discovered several brick chimney-like structures of unknown function and discovered several sink holes in the north central field. It was assumed that the sink holes were associated with a drainage system, but the origin and destination of this system were not known. Again, one of Dr. Boyd’s students came to the rescue. He discovered a large plume of clean water coming out of the bank of the Wakarusa River. Upon investigation, it was discovered to be coming out of a large pile of rocks on the bank, but the river was too high for the source to be seen. This was before the availability of inexpensive GPS units, so the students lined up at each of the sink holes and chimneys with a pole and flag and discovered that they were all in a straight line. A search in the Haskell archives produced a map of an elaborate scheme to tile the entire section. Through various investigations it was determined that only a portion of this plan had been completed. Another grant in 1995 allowed excavation of the tile close to the river. Once excavated (the tile was 20 feet deep at that location), a 50-foot section of the tile was destroyed and plugged with clay to prevent it from working. This had a major positive impact on water retention: It was like putting the plug back in the bathtub!
The next major project was building a large water-control structure at the south end of the large north-south canal (Mink Creek on the site map). All surface waters would eventually exit through this canal. This was funded by Western Resources. More photos.
Since the restoration of the original wetlands was begun in 1991, a number of other enhancements have been completed. A Boardwalk was constructed out of recycled plastic lumber near the north gate between 1992 and 1994. It was built in five sections by the Baldwin Boy Scouts. The section leaders were Jon Boyd, John Paden, Ben Tutschulte, Mike Curran and David Pressgrove. An information kiosk was built on the north levee in 1994 by Nate Kettle for his Eagle Scout badge, and a storage shed was built later that same year by the Boyd family. Construction of these projects was provided by a long list of volunteers, but the bulk of the funding came from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Western Resources and Jayhawk Audubon. An observation blind was built in 1998 along 35th Street near the center of the Wetlands by a group of Baldwin Boy Scouts under the leadership of Dr. Boyd and one of his students, Scott Kimball, and largely funded by Jayhawk Audubon. In the summer of 2007 Alex Coffey built the pergola near the center intersection for his Eagle Scout project. This was jointly funded by Jayhawk Audubon and Wakarusa Chapter of the Sierra Club. In 2008, a picnic pavilion was built along Mink Creek at 35th Street by Jan, Jon, Mary and Roger Boyd. The pavilion, educational panels and location map were funded by the Spiva Timmons Foundation. Other enhancements include nesting structures throughout the property for Wood Ducks, Eastern Bluebirds, Tree Swallows and bats.
South Lawrence Trafficway (SLT)
However, the death of the SLT was short lived. KDOT attorney Mike Rees approached Baker University administration officials in early 2001 about allowing the SLT and a realigned 31st Street to be built along what was to become the 32nd Street alignment. After working with several outside environmental consultants and Jim Minnerath and Greg Kramos of USFWS, it was concluded that for several reasons the 32nd Street alignment would be better for the longterm health of the wetlands than the only alternative of going south of the Wakarusa River. In the mid-1990s the City of Lawrence had declared much of the land south of the river to be an urban growth area (UGA). Speculations were that as many as 20,000 people could be living south of the Wakarusa by 2020. Primarily because of the economic recession, this growth didn’t happen in the anticipated timeframe but it is still likely to happen.
If the SLT were built south of the river, then 31st Street would still be in place and plans had been developed to widen it to four lanes fairly quickly. Because of the very narrow right-of-way in the strip, Baker University would lose its north entrance access. The county started to examine the possibility of widening both Haskell Avenue and Louisiana Street to four lanes as well. The projected growth south of the river was assumed to be by people who would work and shop in Lawrence, thus the need for these four-lane streets was fairly relevant. The SLT south of the river might allow people around Lawrence, but local people would increasingly need to travel north and south as well. Widening Haskell to four lanes would further impede our easy access from the east gate.
Baker University concluded that a completed SLT south of the river would stimulate construction of four-lane roads on three sides of the Wetlands; it would increase noise, pollution and road kills and would dramatically reduce movement of animals in and out of the Wetlands as well as seriously hindering our access to the property. It was determined that with the appropriate mitigation plan in place, we would be able to expand the wetlands, increase our public access and education programs and, at the same time, sacrifice a small portion of the existing restored wetlands to allow the 32nd Street alignment to be completed.
A political element was involved as well in that President Dan Lambert did not want Baker University to be an impediment to completing the SLT becuse discussions had been going on for over 15 years already. At Dr. Lambert’s request, Dr. Roger Boyd began working with several outside consultants as well as the HNTB Engineering firm in Kansas City to develop a mitigation plan that would meet all of Baker University’s criteria. This plan was outlined in the draft Environmental Impact Statement that was released by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACOE) in 2002.
The USACOE had several highly contentious public hearings to receive input on the project. The USACOE signed their Record of Decision to approve the 32nd Street alignment in December 2003. After the first of the year Gov. Sebelius appointed HNTB attorney Deb Miller as secretary of KDOT. Deb Miller reminded proponents of the SLT that the Kansas highway plan that was accepted by the state legislature in 2000 was a 10-year plan and that there were no funds available for the project in this funding cycle. Sen. Pat Roberts included a $1.5 million earmark to “jump start” the SLT in the 2006 Federal Highway bill. FHWA became the lead agency for the SLT in 2006 because of this funding and began the process of re-assessing the EIS. FHWA accepted the USACOE EIS in 2006 and began their own 4(f) study, which concluded in 2008. Dr. Boyd made a presentation to KDOT and FHWA officials in spring 2008 that some of the federal funding from the Transportation Bill could be used to demonstrate that wetland restoration works and by the time of the next round of public hearings came about the presence of these restored wetlands might quell some of the fears expressed by the opponents to the road.
South Lawrence Trafficway: Phase I
Phase I of the Mitigation: Restore 140 Acres of Wetlands
These crop fields are within the 100-year floodplain, and a significant portion of Tract B is part of the floodway. These acres had been wetlands before conversion to crop fields in the 1800s, just like the Old Haskell Farm, which is now referred to as the Baker Wetlands. As such, the soils were hydric (they are heavy, dense clays that hold water), hydric vegetation was present, and the area could easily hold water for a portion of the year. Those soils are still hydric and hydric plants still occur. Our surveys in the fall of 2008 located 14 species of hydric plants along the drainage ditches in both tracts.
People might think we are creating wetlands on this acreage, but in fact, we are restoringwetlands that used to be here. The significance is that a vast majority of the wetland mitigation projects in this country fail because mitigation projects attempt to create new wetlands where they had not previously occurred and because monitoring is inadequate. A study by the National Academy of Science found that more than 70 percent of created wetlands fail. Restoration projects, however, succeed more than 80 percent of the time.
The process of restoring these wetlands began as soon as the crops were harvested (see illustration below). The corn stalks were mowed so they would not interfere with the earth movers. We established a permanent hectare grid across both tracts. We also began collecting seeds in the original Baker Wetlands and elsewhere around the county. Seeds from 42 species were collected, with a total weight of 12,000 grams. Examples of these seeds.
Next, the location and shape of the swales were marked in the field using a tractor and three-bottom plow. The swales were then excavated using earth movers. The swales were excavated to either 6 inches, 12 inches or 18 inches deep and from 16 feet to 64 feet wide. The length of each swale varies from 60 feet to nearly 1,200 feet, and the pattern is random, all depending on the initial site plan (see illustration below). Fifty-seven swales were excavated, requiring the removal of more 56,000 cubic yards of soil. Some of this soil was used to construct the berms that parallel Louisiana Street and N. 1250 Road. Wetlands restoration photos.
The purpose of these swales is to disrupt the linear pattern created by agriculture over the past century, to create a pattern similar to the meanders, swales, and oxbows that might typically be found in an active, untouched floodplain and to create a variety of habitats for plants and wildlife. Some swales will retain water much longer than others. This will stimulate the presence of different species of hydric plants and thus the presence of different invertebrates and aquatic vertebrates. Several swales will go dry periodically, and this will eliminate the presence of fish, which can be fierce predators on tadpoles and other aquatic invertebrates.
The collected seeds were dispersed around the perimeters of the swales in mid-April 2009 and many germinated fairly soon afterward. Some species, however, may take several years to germinate. The area will be monitored, and weeds will be controlled as needed. Keep in mind that what one person refers to as a weed may be excellent wildlife food and be of great ecological value.
Another component of the plan is regulation of water levels. This will be accomplished through two water-control structures (WCS). The location of these structures is illustrated above by the tan arrows. The WCS in Tract A is a small plastic unit. It will be relocated during road construction. The WCS in Unit B is a large, three-bay concrete structure. In both structures, boards will be sealed into the bay, which backs up the water into the tract. Once it gets to the top of the board, it flows over and through the outlet. The height of the boards determines the depth of the water and the extent of the flooding inside the tract. Another reason for the difference in size between the two WCS is the drainage area of each tracts. Unit A drains only about 80 acres, so it can be relatively small. Tract B, however, drains about 650 acres beginning on the west side of US Highway 59. This larger drainage area will deliver more water into the tract, so a larger outlet must be in place. The process of building this larger WCS is illustrated in the Water Control Structure photo album.
A lake is located in Tract B. It is slightly less than 5 acres in surface area, but its sides are steep and it is 15 feet deep. This angular pond was a “borrow pit” for fill dirt to construct the ramps on the east side of the South Lawrence Trafficway bridge over US Highway 59. Several improvements have been made to increase the wildlife value of this lake. The elevation of the lake was lowered and irregular-shaped channels were excavated around the lake to give it a more natural appearance. About a dozen cedar trees of various sizes were submerged in the lake to create fish habitat, and two floating rafts were anchored in the middle of the lake to create additional habitat. Once the WCS is closed and water is backed up in the channel, it will flood these channels around the pool, creating a shallow-water habitat around the edge. This will be beneficial to several organisms that depend on this type of habitat. Another advantage of the lake is that all runoff from the west enters the lake, allowing the silt load it carries to settle out rather than moving on down the channels and causing other problems there. In addition, the lake will serve as a discharge location from the surrounding water table, and this will provide a more continuous flow of water through the outlet channels and pools during dry weather.
Down the hill from the silo is a smaller pond that serves as a settling basin. It is slightly deeper than the outlet channel and allows silt that flows into the pond to settle out so that it does not flow down to the outlet structure. Maximum depth, when full, is about three feet.
In addition to monitoring vegetation, we will monitor the changes in the surrounding water table as the previous agricultural fields are rehydrated. Two monitoring wells were established in Tract A and four in Tract B for this purpose. Both are constructed of a single 10-foot-long PVC pipe, 2 inches in diameter. On the end is a foot-long screen that allows water to seep into the pipe. The well hole is sealed around the outside of the pipe to prevent surface water from entering the well. The water table is measured with an electronic tape. Measurements are added to a database that calculates the elevation of the water table, both in regards to the surface and in relation to sea level. The maximum depth of the wells is between 8 and 9 feet below the surface. In the spring of 2011 the water table was within a few inches of the ground surface to a depth of 3 feet from the surface, depending on the well. During the severe drought of summer and fall 2011, however, the water table was between 7 and 9 feet from the surface. Still not too bad for an old farm field.
In 2009 we constructed a picnic pavilion on top of the footings for the old milk barn next to the silo. The pavilion contains information panels providing information about the value of wetlands, what to look for on the trails, future plans for the wetlands, and the process for restoring the wetlands along the boardwalk. Construction of an 1,800-foot walking trail has been completed, and construction of a 1,000-foot-long boardwalk down to the lake and back was completed in May 2010.
Bird surveys have been made every two weeks since 2009. All have been posted to KS-BirdListServe and the last several years have been posted to eBird. Eleven new species have been added to the checklist with the completion of the restoration west of Louisiana Street. Periodic surveys of the swales for fish, amphibians and aquatic organisms have been conducted. However, the most critical component of wetland monitoring is plants. Wetlands must contain more than 50 percent of facultative or wetter plants. This means obligate wetland, facultative wetland, and facultative plants. These surveys were conducted by surveying the percentage of coverage of plants by species within a plot one meter squared to the left and right of each of 56 grid stakes throughout the project. The first survey was conducted in November of 2008 and then June of 2009 through 2012. The November 2008 survey was conducted before excavation had been done. Table of data:
The table shows an increase in species diversity and a better balance of OBL vs. FACW coverage. Overall, in 2012, facultative and wetter included 53 species and 92.5 percent coverage. This was at the end of a second year of severe drought, so an even more impressive result. In 2011 there were 62 species of facultative or wetter species. The restoration to a functional wetland was rather quick and continues to improve. All that remains is help from Mother Nature and Father Time.
Completion of SLT & Mitigation: Phase II
When the project is completed Baker University will have forfeited 56 acres from the original 573 acres, and the following items will be part of the mitigation plan:
- A total of 310 acres of floodplain crop field will be restored to wetlands.
- A total of 75 acres of various crop fields will be restored to native grassland and wildflowers.
- A total of 27 acres of former crop field will be restored to native riparian forest.
- Louisiana Street will be relocated half a mile west to create a buffer for the original wetland.
- Haskell Avenue will be relocated a quarter mile east to create a buffer for the original wetland.
- Four new access points with public parking lots will be constructed; two will be hard surfaced.
- Utility lines (electricity, natural gas, city water, waste water, telephone and cable) will be located along existing transportation corridors and removed from the interior of the wetlands.
- A multiple-use hike and bike trail will be established along the south side of the trafficway.
- A noise wall will be constructed on either side of the trafficway.
- The existing 31st Street will be relocated within the former wetlands, adjacent to the trafficway.
- The old roadbed of 31st Street will be removed.
- Five other area hike and bike trails will tie into the SLT hike and bike trail.
- Money will be provided to build a 10,000-square-foot Discovery Center and adjacent storage building.
- Money will be provided to purchase tools and equipment to assist in repairs, construction projects and management.
- Baker University will establish an endowment with KDOT funds to maintain and staff the facility.
- A new 1,100-foot-long boardwalk will be constructed by the center and possibly shorter ones in other locations.
- A network of trails will be constructed at the facility including two pedestrian bridges over Naismith Creek.
All of these components are accumulative to ensure an improved wildlife habitat and visitor access as well as increased appreciation for wetland habitats by the general public.
Getting to the Baker Wetlands
Discovery Center | 1365 N. 1250 Road, Lawrence, KS 66046
The Baker Wetlands is located on the south side of Lawrence in Douglas County in northeastern Kansas, approximately 45 miles west of Kansas City.
From US 59 on the south side of the South Lawrence Trafficway and K10 interchange, turn east on N. 1250 Road and go 0.7 miles to the parking lot of the Discovery Center. Follow signs to the entrance.
From 31st Street come south on a new road called Michigan (opposite the new Mennards Store) to N 1250 Road, turn left (east) 0.2 mi to the Discovery Center parking lot.
Dr. Roger Boyd
Education Coordinator for the Baker Wetlands & Professor Emeritus of Biology | roger.boyd@bakerU.edu
The Boyd family science history runs deep at Baker. Dr. Roger Boyd has been able to both teach and develop the Baker University Wetlands into a unique learning tool — something he had been working on for 50 years that had come to fruition. His most memorable experience at Baker was teaching abroad at Harlaxton College, our partner college, and taking a group of students to Mexico 11 different times as a part of the interterm experience.
Ph.D. Colorado State University
Expertise: ornithology, wetland and prairie ecosystems, neotropics
Office: Baker Wetlands Office, 1365 N. 1250 Road | 785.594.4702
Jonathan J. Boyd
Director of Baker Wetlands | jon.boyd@bakerU.edu
Office: Baker Wetlands Office, 1365 N. 1250 Road | 785.594.4701
Baldwin City, KS 66006