HUTCHINSON — Most tourists don't know it, but they owe their enjoyment of the Cheyenne Bottoms wetlands to Jan Garton's tenacity.
The wetland, a major stopping point for migrating birds in the Central Flyway, was drying up, and state wildlife officials seemed resigned to it, which is where Garton came in.
"Jan provided the passion and intellect that was the catalyst for turning the fate of Cheyenne Bottoms from one of dryland fields to a wonderfully managed wetland complex," said Ron Klataske, executive director of Audubon of Kansas.
On Monday, after a lifetime of conservation efforts, Garton died in Manhattan at the age of 59.
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"The bottom line is, the Cheyenne Bottoms wouldn't be what it is today without the work of Jan Garton as a catalyst to make things happen," Klataske said. "She was tenacious."
In 1984, Sil Pembleton, the newly elected chairwoman of the Manhattan chapter of the Kansas Audubon Society, and Garton, a newly named conservation committee chairwoman, decided the chapter needed an issue its members could "rally around."
Garton suggested the Cheyenne Bottoms wetlands near Great Bend, and the pair of conservation neophytes went on a fact-finding mission.
"We went to Pratt and requested to meet with someone involved in the management of Cheyenne Bottoms," said Pembleton, who now lives in Minnesota. "We knew the former manager had a restoration plan he'd talked about previously, so we went down to request a copy."
She doesn't recall the name of the person they met with, but she remembers what he said.
"'That plan's around here somewhere,' " Pembleton recalled him saying, noting there was $2,000 allocated to implement it. "'So don't you ladies worry your pretty little heads about it.' "
They kept their cool, Pembleton said, and when they got home, started their research.
"The water rights the state had for Cheyenne Bottoms were not being observed, and stream flows of Walnut Creek were being diminished," Klataske said. "There wasn't sufficient flow to serve the Bottoms."
So the two women and other members of their chapter, including Joyce Wolf, now of Lawrence, launched an effort to save the wetland.
"Jan was the hardest-driving conservationist," Klataske said. "She pushed the idea that this was unacceptable and that the governor, the state Legislature, Kansas Wildlife and Parks, and other entities had to be mobilized to re-create a vision for the Cheyenne Bottoms."
The result was a more-than-yearlong campaign that included letter writing, many visits to Topeka, bumper stickers, T-shirts and the creation of stadium seats with the message "Save our Bottoms" distributed to every Kansas lawmaker.
The effort worked, resulting in an extensive study of the wetlands and its hydrology, a lawsuit that changed water right allocations to give the wetlands a priority right, and a management plan still in use today.
Garton's efforts didn't stop there, said Wolf, currently recording secretary of Audubon of Kansas, but continued with development of the wetlands visitors' center, which opened in April.
"Once the funding was in place, it made sense to upgrade the facilities and to have a true visitor/education center," Wolf said. "We met with different people in Wildlife and Parks about the things they thought and the features we thought should be included. Those meetings continued over a couple of years. She was certainly instrumental in making sure the facility came to fruition."
For her efforts, Garton was named Conservationist of the Year by the Kansas Wildlife Federation in 1987 and in May 1990 was awarded the distinguished Chevron Conservation Award, becoming only the third Kansan to receive the award originally created in 1954 by the late outdoor writer Ed Zern.