J500 Media and the Environment

Don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone… by kimwallace

The Baker University Wetlands, South 31st Street and Haskell Avenue, is home to more than 250 birds, more than 400 plants and 20 frogs, reptiles and amphibians.

Photo by Kim Wallace

What if I told you that, at any given moment, you could spot a bald eagle soaring through the sky or a fallen branch packed with monarch butterflies fluttering around the ground? What if I showed you a sweet spot to take in a Lawrence sunrise or sundown, where you could sit undisturbed and take in the magnificence of what nature offers us here in town? Would you think that this place exists only in the forests of Clinton Lake State Park or somewhere else that is a drive away?

If I tell you this too late, then you could be right—this wonder of plants and animals would be a drive away—a 10-lane drive away. This beauty that exists in our own backyards is that of the Baker, or Wakarusa, Wetlands, at 31st Street and Haskell Avenue.

Old-school Lawrencians know the argument front and back: Those for “growth” see this area of land as a perfect stretch to connect the South Lawrence Trafficway, which currently deadens at Iowa Street near Toyota and Hollywood Theaters, around to K-10—a straight shot through land that many Natives consider sacred and holy. Those who are “no-growth” oppose the “unnecessary” traffic that the highway would create—creating more problems in addition to the 23rd Street traffic mess rather than alleviating it. For a city of Lawrence’s size—a projected 107,349, according to the Agricultural Marketing Service of the USDA—“no-growth” Lawrencians feel that there is no need for additional traffic routes in a city of 28.7 square miles.

But, whether you are “growth” or “no growth,” Native American or not, you should feel connected to the land. It doesn’t have to be for religious or spiritual reasons. The simplicity of this land, which is home to 255 species of birds and 417 species of plants, offers a serene space for escape from bustling University life and the “go, go, go” mentality of today’s busy person. If you must consider how you can benefit from this area before you consider the sacredness of others, I offer you this:

Serenity. Enjoy a sunset or a sunrise by the marsh while you listen to chirping crickets and birds. Watch snakes glide through the water while butterflies fly through the sky. Breathe fresh air into your air-conditioned lungs.

Space. Take time to think alone or with a close friend. Absorb the silence that this space in the wetlands has to offer, and reflect upon your day and future days while you take in sights that are not part of your normal routine.

Sound. Trek through the lands and step on crunchy leaves, or wiggle your toes in newly grown grass. Listen as the wind sings and chimes make their beautiful, wind-blown music.

This is a place that offers a kind of harmony that is untouched, unparalleled, to any park, nature center or exhibit out there. You don’t need a tour guide to tell you how to take in the depth of beauty here—it’s to each his or her own, and every one will experience it differently.

For those who are not interested in taking in the sights and sounds of this wonder, consider the historical value of the wetlands: Native Americans performed “49s,” or war journey dances, on these very grounds during the early days when Haskell University was a boarding school for runaway Natives. This 49 tradition started in the heart of these wetlands, and 49s are still an integral aspect of Native American culture. Children who died more than 200 years ago are marked on the grounds of the Wetlands, but the whereabouts of these bodies—whether they are buried in the heart of the wetlands or closer to 23rd Street—is still unknown and undocumented. Preserving the land for the sake of respect to those who passed is just another reason why these lands should be precious to all, directly connected or not.

Native American spiritual beliefs center around respect for all land and natural entities. This land symbolizes a sacred place for these people—much like a church, a cross, or any other mainstream religious symbol may mean something to you. This land is not something Natives visit once a week; it is something they tread on day in, day out, and it is where they reflect while offering others the same opportunity to reflect. Some Native American spiritual stories say that in the beginning, the earth was covered completely with water until an otter got mud in its paw and brought land to surface. No matter what your spiritual beliefs are, this beautiful idea of interconnectedness that Native Americans hinge their earth’s creation upon showcase the highest respect for even the tiniest of creatures—and those tiniest of creatures can be found in the wetlands.

Those who are interested in environmental causes should know that besides the vast amount of plant and animal lives that call the wetlands home, there is also much to be said of this area for the Midwest region of the U.S. This area was identified as a National Natural Landmark by the National Park Service in 1969 and a Natural and Scientific Area by the State of Kansas in 1987, according to Baker University. These wetlands have produced more bird biodiversity than any other area of comparable size in the entire Midwest. How’s that for bragging rights?

But, this could all be gone if the Kansas Department of Transportation continues on with a plan to build 10 lanes of traffic through the area. The proposed remedy would be to have a nature center or sound barricades to limit traffic noises, but the truth is that these barricades would never equal the peace of the sounds that exist there now. And to put nature in a glass box (or nature center, however you want to describe it) doesn’t foster the idea of enjoying nature in its purest, natural form. It reminds me of the song lyric, “Took all the trees, put ’em in a tree museum/And charged the people a dollar and a half just to see ’em.” (Big Yellow Taxi/Joni Mitchell). We are to enjoy what we have here for free—land, sunsets, fresh air—and not package it up as a consumer product.

Visit the online home of the Baker/Wakarusa Wetlands to find out how you can act now to save this integral part of Native American, Lawrence, and ultimately YOUR history. Because Native American history is AMERICAN history.

“Dont it always seem to go that you dont know what you’ve got til it’s gone. They paved paradise and put up a parking lot…”



4 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Kim, I appreciated your post. I too wrote my Project 2 on the same topic; albeit from the opposing perspective. Without copying and pasting the entire post her (I speculate we will post our project online soon), I’d like to point out several counterpoints.

I called the curator of the Baker Wetlands, Dr. Roger Boyd, to clarify and cut through some of the propaganda we were fed on our field trip. First, KDOT has already signed a deal with my alma-mater, Baker University, that will cede 360 acres of state land to the school. In exchange, the SLT will only consume 56 acres. Additionally, streets will be re-routed and placed further apart to allow the wetlands to be completely connected (and infinitely larger), not fragmented as it is now.

Currently, Dr. Boyd has an annual budget of $500 to manage the wetlands; the deal affords him several hundred thousand dollars yearly to ensure the lands are well taken care of.

Basically, the wetlands will be larger and better managed (that means cleaned, etc.) so they can serve their purpose — to be an outdoor classroom (as your picture indicates).

I have several other facts I could state, but I think you get this gist.

I hope I didn’t sound confrontational; I’m just very passionate about the topic of the Baker Wetlands and the SLT.

J.J. De Simone

Comment by jjdesimone

Not at all confrontational, JJ. I mean, I don’t live in the Wetlands. You should be apologizing to the creatures….


I’m glad that you called Dr. Boyd. I’m not a Lawrence native, as I’ve only been here four years, so I don’t know the ins and outs of this 20-something year debate. It’s difficult to find objective reporting on this issue, too, because of how strong people feel (either way) on this topic.

From the tour, though, I started to feel very compassionate about this land. It has a bigger purpose than to just be an outdoor learning center. From what I understand, this is supposed to be holy land. Maybe not to you or me personally, but to a minority of folks who are just as important: Natives. And from what I’ve learned in history and religion classes, Native Americans never win when it comes to preserving property, history, spirituality, etc. There’s a disconnect in our society when it comes to a fundamental understanding of different world views.

I have a hard time understanding the need for the SLT. Sure, traffic gets bad on 23rd Street, but Lawrence just isn’t big enough for 56 acres of pavement.


Comment by kimwallace

I do think you sound confrontational. One person’s opinion is not propaganda. Mike Caron is extremely knowledgeable and passionate about the Wetlands. He took him out of his work day to stand in the cold and tell you his thoughts.
It is fine for you to disagree with him, but please do so respectfully. Dismissive comments are not the mark of a good journalist.

Comment by j500


You are right; I did not use appropriate diction when constructing my arguement at the beginning of my response. My intention certainly was not to be disrespectful of Mr. Caron’s viewpoints regarding the Baker Wetlands. I’m sorry for the dismissive tone.

I hope this does not close the lines of the two sides of communication regarding the Baker Wetlands. Hopefully, we can continue to discuss this so we find a happy middle ground.

I still strongly believe that if we exponentially expand the Baker Wetlands (I say Baker Wetlands, as the Baker University portion is the only portion that will be affected by the SLT), eco-diversity will increase. Furthermore, I feel the extra land will enhance the visibility of the Wetlands and make it more the “outdoor” classroom its supposed to be.

J.J. De Simone

Comment by jjdesimone

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