Better Living Through Conservation

January 1, 2015, Department, by Samantha Bartram

Jill Erickson (far right, wearing orange gloves) explains to volunteers how and why nonprofit conservation group Kansas City WildLands removes invasive bush honeysuckle on park land. It’s a refrain commonly echoed throughout our industry: Parks and recreation does it all. From providing safe, pleasant and engaging places to recreate, to running feeding programs and activities for at-risk youth, park and recreation professionals have a hand in multiple and varied aspects of building and sustaining our communities. But, despite our seemingly boundless energy and enthusiasm, we can’t do it all. We need effective partners to help support our activities and aspirations. Jill Erickson, co-founder and program manager for the Heartland Conservation Alliance (HCA), is one such partner. Alongside local, regional and national affiliates, Erickson works tirelessly to coordinate efforts in Kansas City, Missouri’s Blue River Watershed that will have a huge impact on the quality of life for all area residents.

Identifying the Need

Erickson has deep roots in her local conservation movement. Formerly the development and communications director with Cultivate Kansas City (CKC), an urban agriculture organization working to establish sustainable, community-engaged farms in the Kansas City area, Erickson knows how powerful a group of determined individuals with a mission can be. While there, she set up systems and protocols, raised funding for projects and managed the recruitment of volunteers and community leaders. Through her efforts, CKC has established a number of urban farms and educated hundreds of people about the value of growing their own food. She also managed to find the time to develop initial plans for HCA, which first began to take shape some seven years ago. 

“[HCA’s] roots reach back to 2008 when a local nonprofit organization, Kansas City WildLands, received funding from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation to convene stakeholders of a specific important natural area in our urban core and create a long-term action plan to protect this area,” Erickson explains. At the outset, Kansas City (Missouri) Parks and Recreation, Jackson County Parks and Recreation and the Johnson County Parks and Recreation District all were involved in brainstorming, but as plans began to take shape, “two needs bubbled up to the surface over and over: Kansas City needed an urban land trust to protect land in perpetuity and had a lot of plans that were not getting implemented because there was not a hub organization with dedicated staff working to implement the plans,” Erickson says. A core group of stakeholders decided forming HCA would be the most effective way to address those needs. 

Getting Off the Ground

HCA was formally incorporated in 2012 and received its 501(c)(3) status shortly after in 2013. Initially, operations were all volunteer-based, but with receipt of an EPA Urban Waters grant, HCA was able to hire its first full-time employee in 2013. In May of that year, Kansas City’s Middle Blue River was added to the list of Urban Waters Federal Partnership projects, designed to “reconnect urban communities, particularly those that are overburdened or economically distressed, with their waterways by improving coordination among federal agencies and collaborating with community-led revitalization efforts to improve our nation’s water systems and promote their economic, environmental and social benefits,” according to an Urban Waters Federal Partnership statement. (NRPA also recently signed on to the Urban Waters Federal Partnership — learn more here. With that, HCA acquired additional partners in conservation and was able to bring more than $150,000 in new conservation funding to the area. “HCA is a co-lead of the Middle Blue River project [along with the] Mid-America Regional Council,” Erickson says. “Our focus is the Upper Blue River Conservation Opportunity Area and providing the connection between the ‘federal family’ and the ‘local family.’ As part of the Steering Council, we are helping identify ways to implement four key projects that will result in a healthier watershed and healthier communities.”

Although HCA is “barely fledged,” says Erickson, it is making major strides that would not have been possible just one year ago. It boasts 35 members and serves nine counties, two states and more than 120 cities. HCA recently hosted its first Annual Partnership Summit and kicked off a new partnership campaign. Current collaborators include local, state and federal players, all of whom are chipping in to expedite grants and new or current projects.

Greening the Blue River

HCA’s main area of focus remains the Blue River Watershed, which includes more than 1,200 miles of river and tens of thousands of acres of land and is home to some 1 million people. Approximately 63 percent of the area could be characterized as urban, and it’s one of the most rapidly developing areas in the Kansas City region. For Erickson and her team, the need for conservation in such a delicate yet growing area was obvious. “[The Blue River Watershed] is the largest basin in our region — two-thirds of the area drains into this beautiful urban stream,” Erickson says. “It is the nexus for many of our partners, and more data and plans have been gathered and created for this stream than any other in the United States. Since we are an urban land trust, people are our focus. We want to support our partners and help them do what they do best. We want all of our communities to benefit from our beautiful natural areas.”

To that end, HCA focuses on conserving land, connecting people to the land and convening partners. At present — and in partnership with Kansas City WildLands, the Missouri Department of Conservation, the Blue River Watershed Association, Kansas City Parks and Jackson County Parks — it’s in the process of wrapping a two-year federal Five Star grant-funded program that teaches middle school students about watershed quality and facilitates the removal of invasive species from the watershed. “Volunteer workdays took place on parks land,” Erickson says. “Hundreds of young people visited the Blue River and more than 175 volunteers supported our parks with caring for public land.”

Just last spring, HCA supported the region’s largest river clean-up, Project Blue River Rescue, by leading four work sites, supervising more than 100 volunteers and lending a hand with promotion and fundraising for the event. “The site we led was along the Blue River and included a city-owned parcel of land, The Municipal Farm,” Erickson adds. “The city has a re-use plan for the property that includes significant restoration. We coordinated with a local organization, Boys Grow (which will be installing an urban agricultural project at the site), the City Planning department, the City Water Services Department and the EPA. The river got cleaned up, the land got cleaned up and all of these groups worked together including some of the youth from Boys Grow.”

Looking ahead, HCA will be involved with more than 15 partners to conduct an analysis of 3,000 vacant lots in the Middle Blue River Basin. “We want to identify lots that should be preserved as permanent open space…Part of  the project will include engaging and empowering communities to reclaim the vacant lots for space they can plan and design to meet their needs,” Erickson says.

HCA’s efforts are gaining steam every day, and Erickson sees the potential for incredible progress as her team begins to dig deeply into these new projects. “We are seeing great momentum already,” she says. “Working collectively for big impact is the only way we can tackle these complex, political, multijurisdictional issues. The animals, plants and rivers don’t have those boundaries, so neither can we.”

Samantha Bartram is the Associate Editor of Parks & Recreation magazine.