Historic Wetlands Inspire Research at Haskell

A five-year National Science Foundation grant will enable students at Haskell Indian Nations University to study the impacts of a trafficway on the Wakarusa Wetlands.

When a school was established in Lawrence, Kansas in 1884, the surrounding 18,000-acre Wakarusa Wetlands provided refuge and a place for prayer, ceremonies and comfort for American Indian children forcibly removed from their homes and cultures by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and sent to what was then known as the U.S. Industrial Training School. The wetlands became a place for students to find solitude and conduct ceremonies for their schoolmates who passed.

Today, 640 acres of wetlands remain, through which the state of Kansas plans to route a six-mile stretch of the proposed $192 million South Lawrence Trafficway. The U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals still has before it a challenge to the project, but it is widely expected that the highway will be built. The Environmental Impact Statement for the project, conducted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, concluded that environmental impacts on the wetlands could be mitigated by building new wetlands adjacent to the existing ones. Cultural and religious impacts were essentially disregarded.

Fortunately for the wetlands and the people who use them for religious and cultural ceremonies, outdoor laboratories and recreational sites, the U.S. Industrial Training School has evolved into Haskell Indian Nations University, a four-year college serving more than 1,000 students from 150 Indian nations that has the capacity and ingenuity to discover and document the impacts of the trafficway on both the existing wetlands and the planned 370 acres of mitigation wetlands.

With a $2.2 million, five-year grant from the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Tribal Colleges and Universities Program, Haskell has developed an undergraduate research team approach to study the wetlands. Lucas Miller, co-principal investigator, co-project director and lead faculty on the engineering team, explains that one of Haskell’s primary goals is to get students interested in scientific research that is important to them and to provide relevant courses and paid summer internships in the hope that students will choose STEM—science, technology, engineering and mathematics—academic majors and careers. The NSF funding supports high-tech coursework during the academic year to train the students for research during the summer.

Cherokee Student Scott LaBrie was invited to take one of the eight available research internships last summer. “I love the area, and it was a challenge to me to expand my knowledge,” he says. LaBrie worked on the engineering team where he helped build, equip and test a radio-controlled remote-sensing aircraft fitted with a camera to fly over the wetlands and take photos. Using a student-built and -controlled aircraft the team can get more information than if they had to hire a commercial company to go out and take pictures.

That data then goes to the geography team where Dr. David McDermott, lead faculty of the team, helps students map the wetlands using GIS coordinates. “We’re looking at mapping features such as drainage and vegetation. Drainage in these wetlands is very complex—there are only two meters of vertical rise across the area. In vegetation mapping we’re looking at plant distribution and how it changes, as well as invasive species.

“The challenge here is how to do vegetation mapping in a place that is very hard to get to. Mapping wetlands is extremely difficult. If you can be good at mapping here at Haskell, you can be good anywhere,” McDermott says.

Haskell students who have studied geography are in high demand post-graduation. Businesses, federal agencies, municipalities and American Indian tribes all want their services. “Geography skills are so important in Indian country today,” McDermott says. “Many disputes have to do with who gets to make the rules about the land, who gets to speak for the land.”

The third arm of the research effort is the environmental sciences team. “Some students love getting out into the field studying the plants and the animals," says Miller. These are the people in waders who go out into the wetlands and identify flora and fauna, take water samples and measure air quality. “We’re trying to cover as many bases as we can in one project that has real meaning to our students.”

Miller says the program will be fully operational this summer. “We’ll have five students on each of the teams. The engineering students will be building the aircraft that they will take out to the wetlands, the geography students will analyze the data, and draw maps, while the environmental sciences team will take the maps into the field to study flora and fauna directly.”

Construction of the trafficway is expected to begin next year. “Even if the project gets cancelled,” says Miller, “the study of the old and mitigation wetlands is still worth doing. But if the trafficway does get built, we’re going to be on the spot. We’ve got program funding for another four years to study wetlands from the sky every season all year long. We can actually measure and quantify the environmental impact of a highway project on a highly-sensitive environment.”

In addition to looking at the physical impacts of the trafficway, the Haskell research teams will develop information relevant to evaluating the social impacts of the road. "We'll be able to look at how sound levels at the contemporary medicine wheel are affected by traffic on the highway, as well as the health-related impacts of particulate and smog levels at Broken Arrow Park and the Broken Arrow elementary school in Lawrence,” says Miller.

The research itself isn’t the only challenge the students will face. "The work poses an applied scientific ethical challenge for our students," says Miller. "Most of our students and most of our campus are anti-trafficway for a lot of reasons. It will be important that we approach this scientific experiment with as much objectivity as we can.”

The roster of students for the research program is not yet complete, and Miller is still looking for participants. “We want people to be aware that they can come here and do really interesting and relevant research at the undergraduate level. We are just overflowing with research opportunities here at Haskell.”

To get an application, interested Native students can contact Miller directly at miller@haskell.edu or email haskelltcup@gmail.com.

Related articles:

Wetlands Threat Protested in 10th Circuit Court

Haskell Students Speak Out About Protecting the Wakarusa Wetlands