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Requiem – Jan Garton and Cheyenne Bottoms

July 12, 2016
Convention of Storks, Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area, June 8, 2016

Convention of Pelicans…with two mallards, Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area, June 8, 2016

“What counts are the countless small deeds of unknown people who lay the basis for the significant events that enter history” Howard Zinn


And then there are those “unknown people” whose deeds can hardly be considered “small.” Jan Garton who, died at age 59 in 2009, is among them. Although hardly known outside of Kansas environmental circles, she is something of a legend within the state, the Joan of Arc of the Kansas environmental movement, and for good reason. Her ashes lie scattered about in a small private cemetery in the central Kansas Flint Hills among the graves of a few people who died more than a century ago. It is a quiet place with cattle grazing off in the distance, and from the high grounds where it sits, a fine view of the surrounding hills. When I last visited in mid-June late spring was bursting forth with its prairie grasses, wild flowers.

Never met her, only vaguely remember hearing of the extraordinary work she did to save Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area, but now seven years after she ended her life, I’m drawn to her, and “people like her.” By “people like her” I mean those unsung, or poorly sung, “organizers of the common good,” – people who in one way or another – for peace, the environment, labor rights, human dignity – have dedicated their lives to something themselves – to others, “credit,” “fame” being the last thing on their mind. She was the opposite of a “careerist”. It wasn’t a part of her nature to sacrifice human relationships to further her career…how un-American!

Garton cared for more than the face she saw in the mirror – she cared for other people, for all living things, for nature, for the fate of the earth. To that end, along with a small group of Kansas Audubon Society members, she spearheaded an effort to save one of the country’s dying wetlands areas – Cheyenne Bottoms, just north of Great Bend, Kansas where it is estimated that something close to half of all migrating birds in the Americas pass through on their journeys north in the spring and south in the winter.

Garton’s memory has been kept alive in a number of ways:
• by a two-part article in Prairie Wings, the quarterly publication of the Audubon Society of Kansas,
• and by the annual “Jan Barton Prairie Heritage Book Award, an annual award offered by “Prairie Heritage,” “a 501(c)(3) non-profit charitable corporation, dedicated to the preservation of the prairie and its stories. It is based at Bird Runner Wildlife Refuge, a native prairie preserve in eastern Geary County, in the Flint Hills of Kansas.”

The Prairie Heritage award honoring Garton’s memory consists of a $1000 prize and a sponsored book signing. The award is given to:

“…the best book of the year that illuminates the heritage of North America’s mid-continental prairies, whether of the tall-grass, mid-grass, or short-grass regions. Authors’ first books receive extra consideration. Books may be in any genre, and topics may include but are not limited to social or natural history; prairie culture of the past or in-the-making; and interactions between society and ecology. From its founding, Prairie Heritage Institute, Inc. has had a special focus on the African-American settlements of the Flint Hills of Kansas; therefore, books exploring non-European prairie heritage are especially welcome. Also encouraged are books that confront the question of prairie ways of life-how denizens of the prairie, human and non-human, have lived or can live together without the destruction and exterminations that have characterized the past.”

In 2014, the award was given to Ronald D. Parks, for The Darkest Period: The Kanza Indians and Their Last Homeland, 1846-1873. Parks is the former director of the Kaw Mission State Historic Site in Council Grove. The Kanza, or Kaw as they are also known, lived a long a long stretch of what is today Kansas, both agriculturalists and hunter-gatherers. Less known than the Cheyenne, Kiowa and Sioux (among others) with whom they did battle, and previous described in derogatory terms, they were a talented people, finally removed from their base in Council Grove, Kansas, to Indian Territory in Oklahoma in order for the U.S. military to protect travel and trade along the Sante Fe Trail. In eastern Kansas, “protecting travel and trade” along the Sante Fe Trail led to displacement, further west. For the Cheyenne and Arapaho at a place in southeastern Colorado called Sand Creek, (and a number of places in between) it would morph into removal by massacre.

A hundred and fifty years later Jan Garton would have understood the link between the fate of the Kaw and that of the place she spent a good portion of her life and creative energy trying to save, the Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area. If westward expansion of the American nation, “progress” – a polite way of saying unrestrained capitalism – first destroyed the Native American way of life, their food supply the bison and untold millions of people themselves with few regrets about the process. At the turn of the millenium the assault on the environment and eco-system of the High Plains continues in the form of an expanding system of industrial agriculture – both farming and ranching – in a region where rainfall is increasingly meager and the great underwater Ogallala Aquifer is continually – and radically – reduced. In Russia, the Aral Sea has almost ceased to exist as a result of intensive cotton farming. By all appearances, Cheyenne Bottoms was headed for a similar fate until the Kansas Audubon Society stepped in, with Jan Garton in the lead, to stop the bleeding.

Jan Garton at the Cecil Best Birding Trail dedication. November, 2000

Jan Garton at the Cecil Best Birding Trail dedication. November, 2000


It is possible to piece together the main lines of Jan Garton’s life from the many obituaries that appeared in the Kansas press just after her death. According to one that appeared in the Topeka Capitol JournalJan Garton was born November 30, 1949, in Borger, Texas, the daughter of Chet and Phyllis (Gallentine) Garton. Along with another obit, from the Kansas Free Press, her life experiences and values come more clearly into focus.

The family moved to Chapman, Kansas (between Abilene and Junction City) where she grew up. Manhattan Kansas would be home for much of her adult life. When John F. Kennedy was elected president of the country in November, 1960, Garton became a Democrat and began what would be her lifelong interest in politics; she dreamed of becoming a U.S. Senator. Garton was well-educated with a degree in History from Kansas State University and a masters’ in Journalism from the same institution.

Growing up in small town Kansas, Garton wrestled with her sexuality. Writing of herself in the third person and republished in the Kansas Free Press, Garton shared intimate aspects of her life: “Jan was born a lesbian, though that prospect both depressed and horrified her until halfway through college when she read the book, Lesbian/Woman, by two women who recently were able to be married in California before one of them passed away. Today, the book would be dated, but then it was transformative”

Saving Cheyenne Bottoms might have been the her greatest effort, but it was not her only one. Garton’s love of nature propelled her to work closely to it all her life. Right after graduation from college she spent a summer in Massachusetts banding birds. But born with that love of the high plains that was often difficult for Easterners (like me) to understand (I’ve learned since), she found herself returning to Kansas where she got a job working at a horticultural nursery. After several years, she got a job at UPS uploading trucks on a shift that ran from 4 to 9 am. This gave her time for organizing. Retiring from UPS, Jan worked on the congressional campaign of Nancy Boyda (KS-01). Boyda won in 2006. Jan worked part-time for her office for a year before retiring again.

Although the main thrust of Garton’s life work is largely left out of this brief description, still, it gives a sense of her as what she was – a sensitive, thoughtful working class woman struggling with everything from her own identity to the fate of the earth. Missing – but present in every obituary, tribute memorializing her after she took her own life in 2009: a tenacious, essentially indomitable will, extraordinary organizing ability, a love of all living things and nature itself, and that understanding of a deepening environmental crisis that threatens nothings short of life as we know it. A sense of all this comes through in the Topeka Capitol Journal tribute:

“Jan Garton was vital in the conservation of Cheyenne Bottoms in the 1980s when the water rights of that internationally important wetland were threatened. In partnership with others, Jan led a statewide campaign to restore priority water rights for Cheyenne Bottoms. One of the most novel ideas that Jan advanced was the gift of “Save Our Bottoms” seat pads to all members of the state legislature. For at least a decade, Jan worked day and night as a volunteer advocate for Cheyenne Bottoms. She guided the campaign as it built support in the legislature, won over a series of governors, and then prevailed in the courts. In 1990, Jan Garton was honored with the prestigious Chevron Conservation Award-the country’s oldest private conservation award-only the third Kansan to be so honored. Jan was a proud union member, an advocate for a living wage, a one-time candidate for county commission, and an active member of the Democratic Party.”

Jan Garton's ashes are strewn here at the Birdrunner Wildlife Refuge, Lower McDowell Creek - east of Junction City Kansas

Jan Garton’s ashes are strewn here at the Birdrunner Wildlife Refuge, Lower McDowell Creek – east of Junction City Kansas


Without knowing much – or anything – about Jan Garton’s work, I visited Cheyenne Bottoms twice. The first time was after Thanksgiving with Nancy at least fifteen years ago on an icy cold day. There were few birds – a lot of ducks as I recall – most of the migratory species having already scurried south. A vague sense that despite that, I was left with the impression that visiting under more favorable conditions, it might be different, I returned last month, in early June on my way East. Although I will save my thoughts on it for a later essay, the day before I visited Cheyenne Bottoms, I’d spent the morning at the Sand Creek Massacre National Historical Site in southeast Colorado and was trying to reflect upon, absorb the historical importance of that place as I drove east to Great Bend where I spent the night.

Sand Creek and Cheyenne Bottoms are linked historically as a part of that great historical migration that trampled everything that got in its way be it people, bison, wetlands in the name of…progress? Both were mauled and nearly forced to become extinct, the Cheyenne and Arapahoe by the hands of Chivington’s 1st and 3rd Colorado Cavalry in cooperation with the first governor of what would become the state of Colorado, John Evans; but the ultimate responsibility for the massacre lay in Washington with General Tecumseh Sherman and the administration of then president Abraham Lincoln. In the case of Cheyenne Bottoms, intensive farming and ranching was draining the main sources of the wetland wonder-wilderness there, Walnut Creek, the Arkansas River and the Ogallala Aquifer severely reducing the size of wetlands area. The Kansas Fish and Game Department which manages Cheyenne Bottoms did little to nothing to reverse the shrinkage until Jan Garton and company came along and essentially forced the agency out of its lethargy.

Cheyenne Bottoms can be accessed three ways: from the southeast off of Kansas Highway 156 just next to the visitor’s center; from the north on the K-4 highway, or from west off of US 281. On a beautiful, clear early June morning, I entered from K-156 on the west side of preserve. Coming from that direction, I was struck by how much Cheyenne Bottoms has shrunk as I rode past several miles of what had formerly been a part of the preserve. What it must have been like “in the old days?” I wondered. Earlier descriptions of Cheyenne Bottoms claim that a full 75% of all migrating birds stopped over there; now it is down to a little less than 50%. On my way east from southeastern Colorado I passed by several lakes, almost completely emptied of water. This would have been Cheyenne Bottoms’ probable fate as well had not Jan Garton and co. intervened as they did.

In any case there was still plenty to see. I pulled over on the side of the road in that western part of the preserve, took out a folding chair and a good pair of binoculars and sat for about two hours. Even though the migrations had ended more than a month prior, there was still plenty to see – great blue herons, little blues, American storks, cattle egrets, American egrets, avocets, yellow headed blackbirds. Very few people there that time of year. The swarms of insects that make bird watching in the high summer months something of a challenge were not out in great numbers yet, maybe because it pretty early in the morning. A description on Cheyenne Bottoms’ website gives a better sense of the diversity of bird life found there:

“At least 320 species of birds have been recorded at the Bottoms. The area is critical habitat for several threatened and endangered species, including the whooping crane, bald eagle, peregrine falcon, least tern, and piping plover. More than 25 species of ducks and geese have been identified at the Bottoms and at times have numbered in excess of 600,000 birds. In mid-March thousands of sandhill cranes stop on the way to their staging area along the Platte River in Nebraska. April brings tens of thousands of shorebirds to the mudflats where they probe the mud for bloodworms, the larval stage of a small fly known as the midge. During the summer, swarms of these insects are seen over the marshes. Common shorebirds include a variety of sandpipers, plovers, phalaropes, avocets, godwits, and dowitchers. Summer visitors often encounter huge flocks of red-winged and yellow-headed blackbirds. Herons are also common during the summer; great blue herons, snowy egrets, black-crowned night herons, and American bitterns search the shallows for fish and frogs. A highlight of fall migration is the impressive flocks of undulating, circling, white pelicans. At times, large “islands” of the birds are seen across the marsh.”

Cheyenne Bottoms wetlands looking northwest

Cheyenne Bottoms wetlands


The Cheyenne Bottoms wetlands are formed in a 64 square mile natural depression the marshy surface of which is mainly fed with waters emanating from two sources, the Arkansas River and Walnut Creek. By any reasonable measurement, it is, as Seleisa Pembleton described it “the most important interior wetland in the USA providing critical habitat for diverse species including the endangered Whooping Crane and the Threatened Least Tern.”  But by the early 1980s stretches of the Arkansas River running from the Rocky Mountains from west to east were dry from cattle raising and irrigation farming in southeastern Colorado and southwestern Kansas. Agricultural activities had also funneled off some of the Bottoms’ water supply from Walnut Creak, coming from the north.

Without concerted action, it is more than likely the Bottoms’ would have continued to shrink, threatening its future. In June 1983, the task of saving Cheyenne Bottoms  was adopted as a project by the small Audubon Society chapter in Manhattan, Kansas. Jan Garton, a member, volunteered as the group’s “conservation committee chair.” With such modest beginnings – virtually no funding and little more than a core group of half-dozen or so activists –  so began one of the  most successful environmental efforts of the past century in deeply conservative Kansas, led by a gay, part-time UPS truck loader who couldn’t stand the thought of losing Cheyenne Bottoms to a regional, and generally out of control, agribusiness sucking up the region’s fragile water supply and choking off the wetlands.

so began one of the  most successful environmental efforts of the past century in deeply conservative Kansas, led by a gay, part-time UPS truck loader who couldn’t stand the thought of losing Cheyenne Bottoms to a regional, and generally out of control, agribusiness sucking up the region’s fragile water supply and choking off the wetlands.

A detailed article on the campaign Jan Garton spearheaded to save the Cheyenne Bottoms’ Wetlands is found in the Winter 2012/Spring 2013 edition of “Praire Wings”, an Audubon Society publication. It is written by Seleisa Pembleton with exquisite photos by her husband, Ed Pembleton. The Pembletons worked closely with Garton over the decade when the wetlands’ fate was being decided.

The campaign itself was nothing short of a sophisticated, carefully planned militant and successful effort to save Cheyenne Bottoms. The Pembleton article reads like a “how to organize” –  booklet, education, strategy, mobilizing the public and state government – it’s all there: how to put together a broad-based coalition, how to involve government (ie – how to deal with government inertia) and mobilize public support (despite opposition from strong vested interests).

How did she do it? It’s a wonder…

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