Frequently Asked Questions
The answers in this section are Roger Boyd's and do not necessarily represent the position of Baker University, KDOT, or other governmental agencies.
What is the value of wetlands?
Wetlands can retain floodwaters and release these waters slowly after floodwaters have receded elsewhere. They are effective at removing pollutants such as nitrates. They cause silt to settle out of the water, often removing heavy metals in the process. They provide critical habitat for many species, including threatened and endangered species. Wetlands are highly productive because of the abundance of water and shallow water that allows sunlight to penetrate the entire water column.
Are the Baker Wetlands man-made?
Being man-made is about semantics. It takes three things to have wetlands: hydric soil (tight, heavy soils that hold water), hydric plants (plants adapted to growing in water or saturated soils), and sufficient hydrology (a source of water from runoff or a water table). Once hydric soils develop, they do not convert to other soil types; they remain hydric. More than 80 percent of the Baker Wetlands consists of hydric soils from thousands of years ago. Because of the two remnant wet meadows present, hydric plant seeds are available. The only thing that is man made is the levee and water-control structures that were installed in the early 1990s. Today there are virtually no naturally occurring wetlands in Kansas. All have either been drained or are artificially maintained through levees and water control structures. The exceptions would be shallow playa basins found in western Kansas.
Does being man-made lessen the value or significance of the Wetlands?
From an ecological point of view, it makes no difference how the wetlands originate. What is important is whether it functions like a wetlands. The value of a wetlands is often determined by how many functions it carries out. A man-made wetlands may actually perform more wetland functions than a natural wetland and therefore have greater value.
Will constructing the South Lawrence Trafficway (SLT) on the 32nd Street alignment destroy the rest of the Wetlands?
It will not affect the remaining wetlands at all. It won’t negatively affect the hydrology, and it won’t negatively affect the biodiversity. The four new parking areas and a much larger system of improved trails will actually improve accessibility, and the noise wall will reduce noise levels below what they are currently. The most important component of the Wetlands, the virgin wetland meadows, will be half a mile to the south and will not be affected in any way.
With the high degree of controversy surrounding the South Lawrence Trafficway, why did Baker University agree to allow the SLT to go through its property, thus destroying its own Wetlands?
If the SLT were built south of the river or not built at all, it was very likely that 31st Street, Haskell Avenue and Louisiana Street would all be widened to four-lane roads. This would have made access more difficult as well as increase noise, pollution and road-kills along these boundaries. By allowing the SLT to be built on the 32nd Street alignment, the mitigation will deal with all of these issues. Less than 10 percent of the existing Baker Wetlands will be negatively affected. The remaining 90 percent will be better protected from noise and pollution and will have safer access points after the SLT is completed.
The mitigation will expand the wetlands, fund the construction, staffing and maintenance of a visitor center, establish a 12-foot-high noise wall and a hike and bike trail paralleling the northern edge of the wetlands and will create a large buffer area to the east and west. All of these actions will benefit the Wetlands, the plants and animals, and the visiting public in the long term. Baker University is sensitive to the concerns of the public and feels that the mitigation related to the construction of the SLT on the 32nd Street alignment will address many of these concerns. It is seldom possible to please everyone, but Baker University’s action are intended to deal with the long-range concerns of increased traffic and development on the south side of Lawrence, especially south of the Wakarusa River, and how this development will affect the viability of the Wetlands in the years ahead.
Why do some people believe that Baker University obtained the Wetlands illegally?
The acreage currently referred to as the Baker Wetlands was purchased with government funds between 1898 and 1902. Haskell Institute used the land to teach farming techniques. In 1934, farming education was discontinued at Haskell. At that time, the Bureau of Indian Affairs began leasing the farm ground and pastures to local farmers. Through encouragement by local officials, the land was declared federal surplus land. An act of Congress in 1953 (Public Law 47) declared that land that was formally Indian School property could be transferred by the Department of the Interior to other local governmental entities, but only in quantities of 20 acres or fewer. In 1963, that was increased to a 50-acre maximum. In 1967, the property was transferred to General Services Administration (GSA) and then to the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. The aforementioned legislation specifically stated that the transfer limitation applied only to the Department of the Interior. Once the land was transferred to a different agency of the federal government, the ruling was no longer in effect. The transfer of the property to Baker University was from the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare in August 1968. The University submitted annual usage reports, and in the fall of 1998, the University received a clear title to the property from GSA. People who felt the transfer was illegal or even inappropriate had 30 years to file a complaint or even sue the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. The statute of limitations has run its course at this point.
What would have happened to the land if it had not been transferred to Baker University?
It is impossible to know, but indications in the 1960s were that it would most likely have been developed in some way. There were proposals to build a municipal airport on the site. There was also a proposal to build a municipal golf course on the site. It is also possible that it may have eventually been sold to private interests for farming or some other commercial or industrial uses. It was fairly evident at the time that the federal government did not have an interest in retaining the property for the purposes of agriculture or habitat restoration. So, no matter how Baker University obtained the land, it is highly unlikely that it would have been restored to wetlands had the transfer not occurred.
How would constructing the South Lawrence Trafficway south of the Wakarusa River affect the future of the Baker Wetlands?
Construction south of the river would most likely stimulate rapid development south of the river. The area has been declared an Urban Growth Area and this would further accelerate this development. Even if the SLT were built south of the river, there would still be considerable levels of traffic on 31st Street, and thus 31st Street would have to be widened to four lanes. This would in all likelihood eliminate access to the north gate and the Boardwalk. Many of those new residents south of the river would most likely want to come into Lawrence on Haskell Avenue or Louisiana Street. This would stimulate the city and county into widening those two roads to four lanes. Thus the Baker Wetlands would end up with four-lane roads on three sides with increased noise and road-kills and decreased access to the facility.
Will the construction of the South Lawrence Trafficway along the 32nd Street alignment decrease the biodiversity of the Baker Wetlands?
One of the myths about wetlands is their biodiversity. They are extremely productive because of the abundance of sun, water and organic matter used for fertility. However, they are not particularly diverse. Hydric plants, those adapted to growing in water-logged soils, are actually fairly few in number. More than 410 species of plants and more than 260 species of birds have been identified at the Baker Wetlands. These are high numbers; however, they are not caused by wetland habitat as much as the presence of a wide diversity of habitats found in a compressed area. The area contains three main types of wetlands as well as shrubby edge, upland prairie and riparian woodlands. All of these add to the biodiversity of the area in an accumulative fashion. In general, the more acreage you have, the more likely it will attract more species, primarily due to its increased resilience to change. The footprint of the SLT and relocated 31st Street will not affect species that are restricted to that area. All of the species that occur there also occur elsewhere in the Wetlands. Because of increased total acreage, it is likely that construction of the SLT and completion of the mitigation plan will actually increase the overall biodiversity rather than decrease it. In fact, the current restoration project to the west of the current Wetlands has already added more than three dozen species of birds, fish, reptiles and plants that are not found in the current Wetlands.
Isn’t the area sacred to American Indians and doesn't it contain the burial site of 400 to 500 children from the early boarding school?
Wetlands are considered by many tribes to be sacred. They are often considered to be the center of Mother Nature, where everything originates. The Baker Wetlands are considered sacred by some individuals because of the connection to American Indian children who were taken from their families to be assimilated into white culture at the Haskell Boarding School. Children would sometimes sneak away from the barracks to the quiet and solitude of the wetlands. There, it is said, they secretly met with their families, held secret, banned ceremonies or simply got away from the regulations and rules for a period. But it is also known that before the Bureau of Indian Affairs acquired this property, it was being farmed by early settlers. There is little information about how much wetlands still existed when the parcels were purchased. Haskell archives talk of flooding of the farm fields but does not indicate how much of this land was still wetlands. Federal protection, such as a designated Traditional Cultural Property, has not been bestowed on the Baker Wetlands primarily because it was never identified through any formal tribal designations. It is primarily recognized as a property of sacredness through individual actions rather than through an organized tribal setting.
It is also believed by some that there are graves of children in the Wetlands. It is possible, but is unlikely to ever be proven one way or the other. It is unlikely that anyone would have been buried in an agricultural field, and yet most of the wetlands of the past in this area were dominated by a native grass called cordgrass or slough grass. Its roots are like wire and would have required a substantial shovel to penetrate. Oral history does record the burial of one student out on the peninsula in the southeastern portion of the property. A small concrete slab and flagpole used to exist at the location. The remains of this concrete slab and pole appear to exist along the banks of the river. Claims of 400 to 500 unmarked graves on the site are unsubstantiated. These numbers were apparently derived by counting the number of names of children that went “missing” at the school. An anthropologist hired by the Kansas Department of Transportation found several Haskell alumni who indicated that a type of underground railroad had been established. If runaway children returned to their own tribes, the local Indian Agent had the authority to return them to the school. Oral history indicates that instead, these children most likely ran away to other tribes and were hidden by them.
Regardless of how many unmarked graves there might be, when Baker University received the land, 80 percent of it had been plowed. Any physical evidence of these unmarked graves would have been scattered and their remains decomposed over the years. It is also important to note that if there ever were unmarked graves, it is much more likely that those burials would have occurred in the drier portions of the property which lie closer to the Wakarusa River, nearly a mile from the route of the SLT. Thus the SLT on the 32nd Street alignment will not likely affect these graves.
Why won’t the completion of the SLT along the 32nd Street alignment be a complete environmental disaster to the Baker Wetlands ecosystem?
There are many reasons that this won’t be an environmental disaster, many of which have been mentioned above. It is important to remember that before 1980, the fields that will be affected by SLT were cultivated for a pasture that was dominated by introduced grasses such as brome, fescue, and Kentucky bluegrass; they were not wetlands as some would claim. Wetlands are resilient and quickly recover from disturbance. The 56 acres of wetlands that are lost will be replaced by 304 acres of wetlands in the adjacent fields that contain the same critical hydric soil as found in the current wetlands. It seems ironic, but the loss of these 56 acres will provide the opportunity for a professional staff of naturalists at the soon-to-be constructed visitor center to educate thousands of school children each year about the benefits of protecting wetlands and the reasons for federal protection for wetlands in the Clean Water Act.