June 16, 2008

Wetlands Supporters Prepare for Next Battle

By Sophia Maines, Journal-World, Lawrence, Kan.

Jun. 16--In the midst of preparing their latest legal challenge, opponents of the proposed South Lawrence Trafficway wetlands route laid out their case once again Sunday.

"I detect in our community a little lessening of our interest in saving our wetlands," said Joe Collins, a Kansas University herpetologist and speaker at the event. "People don't understand that this is not something you're going to recover."

Collins and others involved in the long struggle to divert the proposed highway project from the Baker Wetlands were among about 40 people who gathered at the Lawrence Public Library on Sunday for a public forum on the issue.

Speakers detailed the land's history and set out the environmental reasons why the area should be left in its current state. They spoke of the decline in wetlands areas nationally and said that swampy lands are key for diversity of wildlife. SLT opponents will be raising money to cover legal costs for their next fight.

"There are a whole lot of people that still don't even realize that this is an issue," said Michael Caron, of Save the Wakarusa Wetlands Organization. "They think either that the road has gone away, and it's never going to be built or that it's already a done deal and there's nothing to be done about it. Both are absolutely wrong."

Last month, the Kansas Department of Transportation announced that the Federal Highway Administration had issued a key permit, essentially giving the construction project a green light. Reports from the Federal Highway Administration and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have backed a 32nd Street alignment through the wetlands over a 42nd Street route south of the Wakarusa River, citing cheaper costs and improved traffic flow. Funding the work, however, remains an issue.

Meanwhile, opponents are preparing for the next battle. They will challenge an environmental impact statement on the project.

Bob Eye, an environmental lawyer who is handling the legal challenge, said routes south of the Wakarusa River were never adequately considered.

"It appears to me that any route outside the wetlands was set up to fail," he said. "It was dead on arrival. There was no serious consideration of taking this south of the river. That's one of the things that we're most concerned about."

The speakers also said the upcoming election is key, and they urged audience members to see how local, state and federal candidates stand on the issue.

"The Wakarusa wetlands are the last major wetlands in Douglas County," Collins said. "It is the last major wetlands that we have a chance to save."


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