Wetlands Threat Protested in 10th Circuit Court

A proposed highway that would run through the Wakarusa Wetlands is under fire by Native American students from Haskell Indian Nations University and environmental groups.

For more than 20 years, debate has raged over a proposal by federal and state highway planners to route a major thoroughfare through the Wakarusa Wetlands in Kansas. Now that the issue has had its most recent day in court, disagreement has resurfaced.

On January 19, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments in the case of the South Lawrence Trafficway (SLT). Two years ago, a federal court had found that its proposed path through the wetlands was legal.

So students at Haskell Indian Nations University, which adjoins the wetlands, petitioned the circuit court to review the case. The students are supported by the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation—which is one of 152 tribal nations represented at Haskell—and several environmental organizations, including the Sierra Club, the Jayhawk Audubon Society and Ecojustice. Pitted against them are the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and the Kansas Department of Transportation (KDOT).

The SLT is a $192 million, four-lane bypass that would connect Kansas Highway 10 with I-70. Supporters say it would put an end to heavy traffic through Lawrence, the home of Haskell, and afford faster access to the interstate. But Haskell students, concerned about the area’s biodiversity, history, Native American culture and sacred locations, say the resulting noise and volume would be disastrous for the wetlands.

The students, banding together as the Wetlands Preservation Organization (WPO), further contend that South Lawrence’s planners did not conduct proper noise-impact studies for the project. They feel that had these tests been properly handled under the National Environmental Policy Act, planners might have chosen an alternate route south of the Wakarusa River, one that would border—not cross—the wetlands. Not conducting the tests properly, they say, constitutes a violation of federal law.

Technically, Haskell owns only a small part of the wetlands. In 1968, Baker University, a private residential institution, acquired ownership of much of the area from the federal government. The University of Kansas (KU) also owns a small tract.

Baker University supports the SLT route approved by KDOT, FHWA and Army Corps of Engineers, Steve Rottinghaus, Baker public relations director, said. The route and an associated mitigation plan “will greatly increase the size of the wetlands, and access and use by the public.”

A website maintained by the university says that the 573-acre tract administered by Baker had been transferred among three federal agencies over the years and was acquired by the university for the purposes of “education, research and preservation of the remaining virgin wet meadows.” The university received the tract free of charge in 1968.

The University of Kansas “does not have an official stance on the proposed trafficway,” said Jill Jess, director of the KU News Service, and the university has consistently held that position.

“KU’s land southwest of 31st Street and Haskell Avenue came into the university’s possession in the 1950s and was to be used for ‘the public good, or public benefit,’” said Jess. “The site has been used intermittently for biological research.”

The SLT would be built through Baker University’s portion. But Haskell senior Jessica Lackey, who is Cherokee and president of the WPO, said the wetlands “are still a part of the school, in history and in spirit. If this road is built through the wetlands, it will be paving over a portion of Haskell history, silencing it in stone.”

In May, the WPO is planning a march to the U.S. Supreme Court to advocate for the wetlands and other sites in Indian country that deserve protection, said Lackey. It is not clear if the 10th Circuit Court will have rendered a decision by then; following their January 19 session, the judges will require at least 90 days to do so, the Lawrence Journal-World reported.

Read an interview with the president and vice president of the Wetlands Preservation Organization here.