Natural Leaders: Parks and recreation agencies lead their communities in conservation
Conservationists are practical souls. After all, the first step in conserving any resource is to measure the gap between what is needful and what is wasteful. To conserve is to count—and there are as many different ways to do it as there are valuable natural resources to save. Parks and recreation leaders, in their stories of conserving and protecting resources, detail approaches as varied as the agencies and regions they represent. And they catalog concrete achievements —the nuts and bolts of inventorying, surveying, measuring, setting policy, applying tools and technologies, and assessing impact.
But as unique and as practice-centered as each story is, they also share a common “conservation mindset.” It is this holistic mindset connecting the six agencies profiled here that also fuels their search for solutions. From the stormwater management efforts of New York City to the biodiversity surveys of Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, each agency looked imaginatively at its region, its resources and wildlife, its funding, its public, and its available partnerships. The result, in each case, was a distinctive conservation initiative that safeguarded natural resources while engaging the community.
Dirt Beneath Their Fingernails, Mud Between Their Toes
“We painted their faces and declared war on the invaders.” It might have been a paintball outing East Baton Rouge’s (Louisiana) park conservation director Greg Grandy was describing. “And then,” he continued, “they experienced the exhilaration of pulling the invasives out of the ground by their roots.” The warriors? Local youth summer camp participants. The weapons? Weed wrenches. And the unlucky invaders that day were Chinese tallow trees and Chinese privet. BREC—the Recreation and Park Commission for the Parish of East Baton Rouge—is well known for its year-round conservation-centered youth programming, and its summer camps offer kids between the ages of 5 and 14 a week of immersion in the outdoors—complete with environmental education, natural and cultural history activities, and conservation service opportunities.
It’s not enough, says Grandy, to proclaim a mission of creating a culture of conservation in area youth. “It’s important to understand why we want to create [that] culture….Given that many of the youth in our parish experience an urban, wired lifestyle…it is vital to provide opportunities for positive, meaningful outdoor experiences.”
And BREC’s philosophy is that being a passive onlooker to natural beauty is simply not enough. “They need,” Grandy says, “to have water splashed on their faces, dirt beneath their fingernails, mud between their toes. Adventures that get their hearts pumping and engage their minds.” The hope is that Baton Rouge’s youngest participants in conservation work would carry a love for the outdoors—along with memorable lessons in stewardship—into adulthood.
The activities BREC engages children and teens in are both purposeful in their own right and resonant with deeper lessons. For example, the experience of yanking out weeds is about more than seeing growing piles of vanquished invasives—it is also an exercise in the creation of habitat. And staff use the field experiences to reinforce lessons in sustainability at the same time: Regular management of invasives, campers learn, encourages a thriving native habitat while keeping taxpayer costs in check.
“We are proud of the tangible impact on the environment,” says Grandy, citing such successes as a youth-led bald cypress reforestation effort. “And we are also proud to see young people articulate environmental problems, identify solutions, and accept leadership roles in stewardship projects.”
BREC’s conservation director says his proudest achievement, though, is “the large number of youth who attended summer camp in the late 1990s…who graduate from universities with advanced degrees and dedicate their life’s work to conserving natural resources.”
From Urban Jungle to Urban Ecosystem
Ten thousand volunteers trained since 2009. Four thousand trees adopted by caregivers. Five hundred sixty thousand new trees planted. Is it one of America’s popular national parks? Actually, it’s New York City. Million Trees NYC, a partnership between NYC Parks and the New York Restoration Project founded by Bette Midler, is encouraging New Yorkers to provide a little extra care for New York’s existing street trees and plant thousands of new trees every year.
“It definitely saves trees, but we are not fooling ourselves that citizen volunteer labor will ensure the survival of all of the trees that we plant,” says Morgan Monaco, director of Million Trees NYC. “So we have contractors whom we employ to plant the trees and we build into their contract a two-year maintenance agreement…But we want the public, however, to care about trees. Part of the Million Trees campaign is shifting the role that trees play in New Yorkers’ every day lives.”
Monaco cites recent research by social scientists from the Forest Service about volunteer tree planting events. They found that participation in civically minded activities like tree stewardship often leads to other civic volunteer efforts. Million Trees NYC makes it simple for people to get involved by having a map on their website showing trees available for adoption—volunteers just click on the trees to select them. Volunteers perform a wide continuum of tasks ranging from simply keeping the tree bed litter-free to watering, pruning, and planting flowers.
New York’s street tree beds are more than just a place to plant trees, however. They are a small but important part of New York’s stormwater management systems. With 60 percent of the city using a combined sewer system for both sewage and stormwater, even moderate rainfall events can lead to overflow of the sewer system into some already impaired water bodies such as the Bronx River, Flushing Bay, and Jamaica Bay.
“We have a citywide goal of managing stormwater more sustainably,” says Nette Compton, NYC Parks director of green infrastructure. “We are in large part driven by our desire to make water a resource that helps make our parks more successful as opposed to a waste product.”
The “green infrastructure” of parks, as opposed to the “grey infrastructure” of sewer systems, serves more than one function. Compton notes there are almost infinite ways to address stormwater management through parks, just as there are nearly infinite varieties of parks themselves. For example, stormwater features range in scale from a small playground to large-scale networks of parks called “blue belts” being developed throughout the city. A number of other cities such as Philadelphia are also looking to their parks to maximize the existing benefits of every square foot of land while saving money on constructing new grey infrastructure to meet water quality standards, according to Compton.
Some simple ways runoff can be reduced are through redirecting water toward planting beds instead of drains, using porous drainage systems under synthetic sports fields, using less pavement while at the same time creating more interesting spaces, and installing concave tree pits or tree pits with inlets and outlets to allow water to pass through. Compton says in most cases well-designed stormwater management modifications enhance rather than detract from the recreational value of a park.
“We’re really showing that parks aren’t just for recreation—they are part of how a city functions,” Compton says. “And they help provide those functions in many cases at a lower cost than the grey infrastructure.”
NYC Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe sums it up as, “The old school of thought was that when you were building a playground or athletic field was how quickly and efficiently can you process the stormwater into a storm drain. Now it’s the opposite—it’s how much you can slow down the stormwater flow and process it into the adjacent landscape and into the soil….Parks have long been playing a role in having a healthier city; it’s just based so much more on science now….Most people don’t feel warm and cozy talking about sewers, but they get parks.”
At Home with Sustainable Landscapes
Most homeowners don’t have to care for landscapes the size of New York City, but that doesn’t mean that parks don’t have a role to play in engaging the community in sustainability. In Sarasota, Florida, parks serve as models for how to build sustainable landscapes that address some common issues in Florida such as invasive species and appropriate water and fertilizer use.
Invasive plants are particularly problematic in Florida because there is no dormancy period, according to Todd Kucharski, general manager of public works for the City of Sarasota. For example, Brazilian pepper forms thick stands so dense that it is difficult to walk or see through them. And birds love its berries, spreading the plant ever further around the state and adversely affecting native species. Beyond invasives, however, the choice of what to plant where can have long-term implications for sustainability and maintenance.
“There was a time when a lot of communities went for a
“tropical lush look”, so you had high water use plant material and grass areas
with high use of fertilizer to keep them green, lush and flowering,” Kucharski
says. “The community as a whole started to look at ways to minimize our impact
on the environment, Sarasota Bay, and the Gulf of Mexico because we had a lot of
issues with algae in ponds and red tide blooms in the Bay.”
So the city used the recommendations of University of
Florida and Agricultural Extension Service to implement a new landscape
guidelines including prescriptive fertilizer and pesticide use only, no
nitrogen use during the rainy season, “right plant, right location,” and
Florida Friendly landscaping. “Right plant, right location” is a philosophy of
using plants in the proper situation, such as grouping plant material according
to their drought tolerance, so they all have similar watering needs.Florida Friendly landscapes are certified by the local
extension service agency, which visits the site with a criteria checklist and
assigns points on a scale. These types of landscapes help reduce stormwater
runoff, attract wildlife, lower maintenance costs, and protect the waterfronts.
Some of the city’s past and current demonstration projects
include a green roof, bioswale plantings at various City locations, and a
non-irrigated median planting relying only on natural rainwater after
establishment. Kucharski says the city is the process of installing a Low
Impact Development (LID) design for a “sustainability walk” in Bayfront Park to
exhibit several different types of LID elements, including a variety of
pervious pavement systems, recycled benches, L.E.D. lights, a bioswale, and
rain garden along with Florida Friendly Landscaping. Kucharski says that this
difficult economy has made people more receptive to such money-saving ideas
that in turn also helps the protect our environment.
“If a community just gives it a try, I think they’ll be pleased by the results,” Kucharski remarks. “And besides being environmental stewards, it won’t pinch so hard on their pocketbooks.”
Give Me a Home
In 1803, the last recorded wild bison in the state of Ohio was shot and killed. In 2011, bison made their return to central Ohio—not as part of a zoo exhibit, but as a functional part of the prairie ecosystem of Battelle Darby Creek Park.
“We’ve been restoring prairie habitat for 20 years now, and one of things that anyone who has tried to restore prairie habitat realizes is that if you don’t have some large herbivore out there, they tend to get overgrown. As they get overgrown, you lose a lot of the small mammals and birds that nest on or near the ground. So if you’re really trying to create habitat that is of value to all the native species, you have to have a large herbivore to clear it that opens up and makes it more usable for other species,” explains John O’Meara, director of Columbus Metro Parks.
O’Meara adds that the grazing bison open up the landscape for other smaller species. But beyond its basis in science, the arrival of the bison also had an educational component. More than 40,000 people have come to see the six bison, kept in two large winter and summer habitat enclosures.
“If you take kids out to the prairie, it’s a little too far removed from their experience if they’re a city kid. They don’t really appreciate it,” O’Meara says. “But if you put bison out there, you get their attention….All of a sudden you’ve got something that’s exciting, that’s interesting, that’s different.”
Despite budget setbacks, Metro Parks recently added more than 1,000 acres and five new major parks to its roster, as well as working to restore more than 1,000 acres of forest, wetland, and prairie habitat every year. Its park offerings range from the new Rocky Fork Metro Park, preserving the headwaters of Rocky Fork from development, to Scioto Audubon Park in downtown Columbus, a restored brownfield offering both nature and recreation activities geared toward to urban young professionals.
Although founded as a regional land conservation agency, Metro Parks hosts almost 7 million visitors per year, providing a huge opportunity for public education. O’Meara says that Metro Parks takes a strategic targeted approach to education, focusing on school-age children and seniors in particular.
Every fifth grader in the Columbus city school system participates in the Students Exploring Ecosystem Dynamics (SEED) program. The nine-week SEED life sciences program was carefully crafted to fit into the curriculum requirements of the school system—in fact, O’Meara says that students who participated in SEED pilot programs performed better on their academic assessment tests than those who did not.
Seniors, meanwhile, can reconnect with nature (and perhaps their childhoods) through senior summer camp, where they enjoy fishing, crafts, games, nature walks, and live animal programs. Throughout the year, the Metro Parks Five-O program takes a new approach to senior programming, with staff specifically programming activities with seniors in mind. Heavily used by senior groups, the park system’s trams allow people even with more limited mobility to get out into the parks.
“We always need to do more,” O’Meara says. “I think that parks in general, and particularly conservation-based parks, absolutely have to be leaders in the community. The community looks to us to have the experts and know what’s best from a conservation perspective—and we have to fulfill that role and we have to be proactive in that role. We can’t just do that passively.”
“Science determines the best and highest use for the land”
Twenty years ago, the Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation Department partnered with the North Carolina Natural Heritage Program to conduct the county’s first formal inventory of its natural areas. The resulting survey documented the presence of a stunning diversity of natural communities and brought to public attention a number of rare and endangered species native to the area—including a vibrant yellow sunflower—Schwenitz’s Sunflower—that would became a conservation rallying point in the community.
The survey’s impact transcended the protection of any one species, though. At a time when Charlotte and its suburbs were undergoing rapid development, Mecklenburg’s park department adopted a new vision. “Ours became a broader view than the preservation of open spaces,” parks director Jim Garges recounts. “[one of] protecting the biodiversity we have…and managing resources.” Out of that commitment, a Nature Preserve plan was incorporated into the county’s broader master plan--and the park department’s Natural Resources Division was born.
Natural Resource Manager Chris Matthews manages the small team of scientists who inventory and report on the natural communities present in the county’s public lands. “When the department acquires a piece of land,” Matthews explains, “our team goes in to look at the topography and to evaluate the habitats, natural resources, and protected species….We let science determine the best and highest use for that land.” It is a system where ecosystem and biodiversity priorities dictate park planning practices. And, of course, there are times when the science of conservation argues against park facilities and services that residents might want. Like when a newly acquired flood plain forest parcel home to numerous amphibian species was also a desirable spot for a community ball field.
“The thing is,” Matthews adds, “when we tell the public the science behind our recommendations, they respect that. It’s not a political conclusion—it’s about how the land can serve us best. And what other alternatives are available.” And sometimes the alternative is, literally, right around the corner. In the case of that community ball field plan, for example, the Natural Resources Management team was able to suggest another parcel nearby that was already graded and well suited to active recreation uses.
“This is not about saying no,” Matthews concludes. “It’s more like ‘yes, and…,’ or ‘no, but….’”
A 20-year Plan Covering 2,000 Square Miles
In 2008, following 18 months of stakeholder participation meetings and collaboration between county park professionals and supervisors, Washoe County, Nevada, released its Regional Open Space and Natural Resource Management Plan. And in 2009, The Trust for Public Land (TPL) brought national attention to the plan when Washoe was named as one of three recipients of TPL’s annual County Leadership in Conservation award.
The plan, says Jennifer Budge, park planner for Washoe County Regional Parks and Open Space, came about because of a Nevada statute mandating that the county prepare a regional plan to preserve remaining open spaces. The original version of the plan, while addressing open spaces and trails, contained no provision for natural resources. So, says Budge, with the guidance of a third-party consultant, the parks department, county officials, and the municipalities of Reno and Sparks worked to create both an overarching conservation document and a plan for its successful execution.
The plan is introduced by lines from the naturalist John Muir: “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.” Running through the pages of the plan are reminders that the whole of Washoe’s conservation effort is greater than the sum of the parts—but that the individual parts merit careful, exact definitions and lists of achievable goals. Washoe’s plan outlines a set of principles to guide biodiversity support, cultural resources and sensitive lands, natural hazards, recreation resources, visual and scenic character, and water resources. And its companion document offers a set of strategies for carrying out the plan incrementally over time—including the cultivation and management of ongoing inter-governmental and nonprofit partnerships to help fund the work.
Budge says the work of forming the plan has not only raised awareness in the community—it has also led to a new level of cooperation between the county and nonprofits like the Nevada Rock Art Foundation, which has stepped forward to help save pieces of prehistoric rock art in Washoe from vandalism and destruction. “This is about everyone valuing what we have here,” says Budge. “It’s a 20-year plan, and our vision is that, by 2030, our open spaces and resources will be valued by the community and managed effectively by partnerships.”
Elizabeth Beard is Managing Editor and Maureen Hannan is Senior Editor of Parks & Recreation.
The Successful Planning Process (Jennifer Budge, Washoe County, Nevada)
• Plan interactive public meetings with limited “presentation time,” but lots of small group workshops with maps and hands-on activities.
• The agency staff assigned to mentor the process must have both strong connections to the community and scientific and technical credibility among stakeholders and advisory teams.
Implementing Green Infrastructure (Nette Compton, New York City)
• Anything new, people are going to be skeptical of, even if the old system isn’t working very well. So the power of demonstration projects is huge, because it makes people comfortable with something new. The demonstration approach really helps get more people on board.
• The multi-agency approach is also incredibly helpful. You build allies and you learn what people’s concerns are and figure out how to address them. As you’re moving forward past the demonstration phase, it becomes something that everyone can get behind.
The Value of a Natural Resources Management Staff (Michael Kirschman, Mecklenburg County, North Carolina)
• Having a professional natural resources staff greatly increases the agency’s credibility when embarking on a nearby development project, land acquisition, or a wildlife management issue.
• Having a natural resources section that has partnered extensively with outside agencies and organizations (e.g., National Wildlife Federation, Sierra Club, and Audubon Society) has greatly expanded our constituency and advocacy groups.
The Power of Mentoring (Greg Grandy, Baton Rouge, Louisiana)
• Young adults who lead outreach programs with school kids make great role models. For example, undergraduate and graduate students, professional biologists, and state and federal wildlife agents have taught our youth contemporary bird monitoring techniques. They have had a huge impact on the youth and young adults engaged in this program.
Dealing with Budget Cuts (John O’Meara, Columbus, Ohio)
• If you want to protect land, don’t do it with money that is left over: We make that a priority from the start of the budget process. And think about what you do best. Don’t compete with city recreation programs: Instead, offer something that is distinctive from them. Having great people who are committed to conservation is an important part of the process.
Implementing Sustainable Landscapes (Todd Kucharski, Sarasota, Florida)
• Plan ahead with all necessary information. Find out what the potential costs are to implement sustainable methods verses traditional methods costs and combine those costs with the maintenance requirements for each over a length of time such as 10 years. Generally, we have found that sustainable methods may cost more initially—but that we can recoup those costs quickly and even get substantial savings long-term.