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Haskell agrees to highway project with conditions

LAWRENCE, Kan. - Haskell Indian Nations University has agreed to cooperate with the Kansas Department of Transportation on the South Lawrence Trafficway (SLT) project, providing the existing 31st Street right of way on campus land is eliminated and the original wetlands ecosystem is restored.

The position, stated in a letter to the department's chief counsel, represents an abrupt change in position by the university which had strongly opposed routing the SLT along 31st Street. In fact, the highway project has been a bone of contention between the state of Kansas and Haskell for more than a decade.

The proposed highway bypass around the city would connect to Highway K-10, the main, four-lane road into Kansas City from Lawrence. Increased traffic flow from commuters and trucks currently overwhelms the southern end of the city on 23rd Street. City and state officials see the SLT as a way to alleviate the high-traffic flow through the city.

One leg of the trafficway has been finished and ends at Highway 59 in the southern part of Lawrence. The overpass, called the bridge to nowhere, would have continued through the southern end of the Haskell campus, along a single land easement through the property called 31st Street.

In the past, threats, protests, negotiations and even an "interpreter" failed to bring the parties together on the proposed road alignment. The Wetlands Preservation Organization also has been fighting to keep the roadway out of the Haskell Wetlands, on the southern end of the campus, because it believes the land is sacred and that there are unmarked graves in the area. The organization is in mitigation with Transportation over the proposed roadway.

The decision by the BIA and Haskell to send the letter stating the new position to Transportation may mean the ball is now in the preservation group's court if it wants to stop the project.

"This is very sad," said Anna Wilson, the organization spokeswoman. "I tried to get the Board of Regents and President (Karen) Swisher, for several years now, to go ahead and protect 35th, 38th and the whole entire wetlands ... they have not done that. They are going to agree on something that they said they wouldn't even state an opinion on before. So what has changed?" she asked.

A letter from Chief Counsel Mike Rees to Ron Manka, the attorney representing Haskell Regents, triggered the change in position and is causing some confusion among those involved in the battle to keep the SLT out of the wetlands.

In the Feb. 21 letter, Rees outlines Transportation's "consistent attempt to reconcile its obligation with the position taken by Haskell University. Most recently the Department has under taken the Indian burial site investigation, expressed willingness to move the Traffic way alignment to the South of the Haskell campus, exert our best efforts at obtaining the vacation of 31st Street from the campus, increase the size of Haskell proper by the addition of wetlands to be acquired for this purpose, establish new wetlands as buffers to the east and west of the existing wetlands, and explore participation in a wetlands research and educational facility."

Then Rees' letter points out that although the offers have not been specifically declined, they haven't produced any results or response from Haskell, so further, unilateral efforts toward an accord based on negotiated mitigation were viewed by the department as counterproductive.

Rees wrote that Transportation consistently maintained that K-10 is a critical link in the highway system that remains crippled because of the desire to accommodate Haskell.

"The desire to reach accommodation with Haskell University has been a highly visible commitment, but it must be considered secondary to the needs of the larger public ... The Department cannot fulfill its responsibilities by idly watching the development of East Lawrence consume right-of-way essential for the project."

The letter ends: "Consistent with the above, the decision has been made to protect the ability to construct the Traffic way by acquisition of tracts as can be identified as clearly necessary. Concurrent with this action, design of route alternative to the original alignment will be undertaken. While the location of the new alignment can not be precisely identified at the present time, it will be sufficiently south of 31St Street as to negate any impacts on grounds administered by the Bureau of Indian Affairs for Haskell University."

Manka said he was bothered by Rees' criticism directed toward Haskell President Swisher in not forming a committee in regard to the traffic way.

"I thought it was totally inappropriate criticism. This is a very complicated matter and Karen was in the process of talking to the various interest groups in the community and her constituents so they would understand what she was doing. Then in his letter he criticizes her for not getting it done in just a matter of a week or two after she said she would work on it. It was inappropriate."

Manka and others at Haskell said they could see a threatening tone to the letter and believe it was time for a response to pin down just exactly what Transportation is willing to do to resolve the SLT conflict.

Following the receipt of Rees' letter, Haskell officials drafted their own response. Indian Country Today was able to obtain a copy of a "final draft" by Manka, from a source close to the board. Manka said although he hadn't examined the letter, he believes that draft is the final copy or very close to it.

"The thing that bugs me is that this is still only a draft," Wilson said.

The letter, reportedly approved by Haskell Regents for release, responds to a possible widening of 31st Street by the city of Lawrence which owns the easement through the southern part of the Haskell campus. A source indicated agreement on its release was reached in a telephone conference call and that it appears in tone to be somewhat softer than earlier communications between the two parties, perhaps looking for a point of negotiation.

"KDOT wants to pull 31st Street and lay the bed for 32nd Street, other than that there is no mitigation," Wilson said. "That is the sad thing. They are still ignoring that there is an entire ecosystem. We still have to paint a picture to the people that it is an entire ecosystem, not just Haskell or Baker and that it goes clear to the Wakarusa River. I think that it is a little misleading. Who ever wrote this (the draft) needs to be educated."

The draft was sent to the Office of Indian Education Programs in Washington, D.C., for review and approval and was to be signed by Deputy Director Joe Frazier.

Director Bill Mehojah confirmed in a telephone interview, that the letter had been sent to Rees at KDOT, but directed further questions to the public information office of the BIA.

Previous stands by the Regents and the Wetlands Preservation Organization have demanded that the traffic way be built south of the river, with a 35th or 38th Street alignment.

A source close to the Regents said that recent fears the city of Lawrence would use its rights over the 31st Street easement and build a four-lane highway through the Haskell Wetlands prompted the letter.

Asked if he thought the state, county and federal governments were working together to push the highway through, Manka said a conspiracy was possible, but he hadn't seen any indication of one.

Wilson doesn't see a city-county conspiracy, but added, "There is pressure. Rees is trying to solve a problem and it is money. This road was built on money and it is a very political game. The ones that have the most money are the ones who are going to benefit. He is trying to fulfill a deal he made a long time ago and he is going to do it anyway he can."

She suggested the city and county "have no clue what Mike Rees is doing. They are actually fighting against each other. As soon as the letter comes out, we will have to see if the board approved and how they approved it. They haven't met, that is what is all fuzzy, there will be questions. If the board wasn't supposed to respond to it, did they have the jurisdiction?"

Wilson also questions whether the board was acting on its own or if Regents were doing what the tribal leaders they represent wanted. She said her organization is asking for comments from tribes across the country and opinions on the decision.

"We want to know what tribes are approving of this."

Comments from tribes and tribal leaders can be sent to; WPO c/o Stan Ross, 1728 Barker, Lawrence, KS 66044.

For the full text of the Rees and Manka letters, you can read the Manka Feb 21, 2001 letter and the Rees March 7, 2001 letter