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Group wants to improve accessibility, biodiversity at Haskell Wetlands – The Lawrence Times

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Students and volunteers with the Haskell Greenhouse want to create accessible trails at the Haskell Wetlands and reintroduce native species to the area.

About 20 people met at the Haskell Indian Nations University library Tuesday evening to discuss accessibility and brainstorm ideas for the future of the Haskell Wetlands.

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This community visioning session came after an initial two-day survey in December that garnered responses from 82 community members. The survey aimed to better understand what people envision for the Haskell Wetlands, with an emphasis on making the wetlands more accessible to the community.

The Haskell Wetlands are “severely inaccessible right now,” said Courtney King, lab and field research assistant at Haskell.

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Courtney King

“Indigenous people, especially the students at Haskell, need to be able to access the wetlands with ease,” she said, adding that Haskell students should be able to access the wetlands that are “right in their backyard.”

The current trail systems and boardwalks throughout the wetlands are hazardous and not easily accessible.

Multiple people in attendance Tuesday recounted their experiences walking through the current boardwalk, including one man whose foot busted through the rotting wood. Several people commiserated on the ever-present fear of breaking an ankle after one wrong move.

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times

King, Peoria and Miami, said that they’re “not looking to make the wetlands a recreation center or playground,” and that they want to implement a basic system of ADA-compliant trails and boardwalks, not bike trails.

The survey responses showed a desire for boardwalks, grass trails and gravel trails. The current state of the trails prevents maintenance equipment, such as lawnmowers, from accessing the wetlands, so gravel may need to become a part of the landscape.

Getting a permanent boardwalk installed at the Haskell Wetlands — similar to those in place before the construction of the South Lawrence Trafficway — is difficult due to a gas main that runs the length of the would-be trail.

Kelly Kindscher, professor of environmental studies at KU, questioned why a permanent boardwalk wouldn’t be feasible, considering a road used to run along that path despite the gas main.

Gasline-Map

The group brainstormed alternatives to a permanent boardwalk, including a non-permanent, floating dock anchored along points, or building a new boardwalk through existing trail systems in the woodlands.

King expressed a desire to add a staff position for a wetlands steward who would also apply for grants to help fund improvements. “Until then, we are stuck in this position where we have all these funding sources and people wanting to work with us” but not the capacity to do so.

“People are sending us these great grants and we’d love to apply to them, but we don’t have that capacity,” King said.

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times

Another improvement envisioned for the future of the wetlands is the installation of signage to educate visitors on the history, ecological importance and cultural significance of the wetlands.

The top three reasons people gave for visiting the Haskell Wetlands were to be with nature, recreation, and ceremony or prayer. One respondent said that the wetlands are “the only place as an Indigenous woman that I can go and pray.” Before the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978, many aspects of traditional Native American spirituality and ceremonies were prohibited by law, despite First Amendment protections on other groups’ religious and spiritual freedoms.

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One community member emphasized the duty to maintain and care for the lands that “offered a place of respite and healing to the children and families during the boarding school era,” adding that “it’s our responsibility to heal them in return.”

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times

The encroachment of invasive and woody species is a concern for the health of the wetlands and prairies.

The woodlands that now flank the Haskell Wetlands are a newer feature of the land. Melinda Adams, N’dee San Carlos Apache, said the woodlands have been allowed to grow due to fire suppression, which allows invasive species to continue encroaching on native ecosystems.

In May 2023, students and volunteers with the Haskell Greenhouse began removing invasive species from the woodlands, wetlands and prairies on the Haskell campus. So far, they have cleared about 1 acre of invasive and woody species, such as honeysuckle, bradford pears and wintercreeper.

“The biodiversity in the wetlands is severely, severely lacking,” King said.

To encourage biodiversity, the Greenhouse has also been reintroducing native species via plugs that they propagate at Haskell.

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times

Those in attendance also want to know more about the wetlands, past and present.

King mentioned that there are decent records on the Haskell Wetlands from 1919 to 1924, but not much before or after that time period. She would like to know more about the historical land use and the past plant communities.

One attendee mentioned wanting to know more about the soil structures of the wetlands after the development of the SLT. King wants to know more about the current plant communities and mentioned that the Greenhouse began documenting the plant species last year.

More information is also needed about how the water flows in the wetlands, and how to restore the upland areas to manage runoff and contaminants in the basins.

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Haskell biology instructor Bridgett Chapin said she wants to know more about how animals are migrating through the wetlands, especially how the underpass beneath the SLT is being utilized by vertebrates.

Migratory corridors are “completely lacking and nonexistent right now,” King said.

Brett Ramey, Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska, said the mitigation plan for the development of the SLT included increased or maintained access to the broader wetlands, and “we’ve all noticed that is not what has happened.”

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Brett Ramey speaks during Tuesday’s meeting.

Ramey said he has spent less time in either side of the wetlands since the development of the SLT. He would like to reengage the Kansas Department of Transportation in those early discussions around wildlife and human corridors into the larger wetlands to “not just keep us ghettoized on the Haskell side.”

Chapin also expressed concern about the impact of a planned development, New Boston Crossing, on the “Baker side of the Haskell Wetlands.” She added that “the Haskell community was told time and time again” that the SLT was only intended to bypass Lawrence, not to provide access for more development. She’s disappointed that the city is annexing the land around the SLT “so they can rezone it and then develop it.”

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Art related to the SLT’s destruction of the wetlands is on display in the Haskell library, where the wetlands access meeting was held.

Undergraduate and graduate researchers with KU, in conjunction with Haskell researchers, could help fill in some of these data gaps.

Kelly Nalani Beym, a citizen of the Diné (Navajo) Nation and a doctoral student in geography at KU, suggested the creation of a wetlands colloquium so the research community can share and exchange ideas and information. She also expressed a desire to have KU graduate students serve as graduate teaching and research assistants at Haskell, mentioning the existing connections between the universities that could be expanded upon.

“There are students who have bridged from Haskell and then go to grad school at KU, and there’s plenty that want to come back. We still come back to the library, we still come back for the wetlands,” Beym said. “It’d be really nice to have those opportunities, especially students who are doing research here.”

More than 100 volunteers participated in the Haskell Greenhouse’s 11 workdays in 2023. The Greenhouse collaborates with Native Lands Restoration Collaborative, KU Field Station, and the Haskell Cultural Center and is looking for additional collaboration opportunities.

The current access survey is open until 5 p.m. Friday. It is a new survey, so everyone is encouraged to take it even if they completed the first survey. It is available at this link.

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Molly Adams (she/her), photojournalist and news operations coordinator for The Lawrence Times, can be reached at molly (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Check out more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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