Supporting Biodiversity’s Building Blocks: Pollinators and Sustainable Habitat

November 19, 2020, Feature, by By Betty Blockinger, Rosalie Hendon and Michele White

2020 December Feature Supporting Biodiversity Pollinators and Sustainable Habitat 410

For an enhanced digital experience, read this story in the ezine

The Columbus (Ohio) Recreation and Parks staff take the department’s mission to heart: “To connect the people of our community through the power of nature, wellness and creativity.” The Whetstone prairie project, our only restored prairie in the city, became the key to unlocking community support for our parks and building new partnerships. It also proved to be a perfect example of how we could activate our core mission by bringing the lasting benefits of nature to our residents through sustainably managing the unique resources of our park system.

Nature Restored

Tallgrass prairies once covered more than 1,000 square miles of Ohio, and more than 99 percent of prairies were lost in the state due to farming and development (tinyurl.com/y3s8x4tw). Prairies are now one of the most endangered ecosystems on earth (tinyurl.com/yxcdcgg3). Restoring prairies is an important conservation priority. The original prairie project in Whetstone Park was developed in 2004, with grant funding and volunteer support as a creative solution to reduce mowing in the park and to promote wildlife habitat. Initially, it was a picturesque space full of wildflowers, but the prairie’s maintenance suffered during the recession. Without prairie management, such as mowing or burning, saplings grew tall and overtook the native grasses.

In 2018, Columbus Recreation and Parks Department and the community acknowledged safety and environmental concerns regarding the overgrown vegetation. A team from the department worked with the local area commission, Columbus residents and a capstone class from The Ohio State University (OSU) to develop a five-year plan to restore the prairie ecosystem to its previous integrity and make its management sustainable. The public response has been extremely positive. As one resident said in 2018, “I love the prairie but have been quite dissatisfied lately due to the overgrowth.... I appreciate that there is now a plan.”

Columbus Recreation and Parks Department was fortunate to receive a $20,000 Parks for Pollinators grant through NRPA and The Scotts Miracle-Gro Foundation to kickstart this project. This grant funded not only the restoration of the Whetstone prairie, but also pollinator education for local children and families.

Partnerships and community support have been the key to this project’s success. Several local corporations and organizations volunteered at Earth Day events to plant prairie seed and plugs. In addition to assisting with the management plan, the OSU students conducted research, data collection and designed educational signage. Community volunteers also were welcomed to assist with weeding the prairie. Columbus residents are curious about the work we are doing and the future plans for this land. By holding volunteer events and posting educational signage, we learned there was great public interest in learning about pollinators.

All of the goals in the prairie management plan are demonstrating measurable success. One of the department’s goals was to reduce the amount of woody species — such as trees and shrubs  — in the prairie, and they have decreased by two-thirds. Woody invasive plants were eliminated entirely, and invasive species also decreased. The prairie’s overall biodiversity has increased since we implemented mowing and planting, and, in particular, our target native, non-woody species have increased by 142 percent. Through habitat surveys, we can communicate the effectiveness of prairie restoration and advocate for more prairies throughout our parks.

Park users also enjoy seeing the wildlife the prairie attracts. One visitor said, “I love to come here to see the hummingbirds. I have a feeder at home, but it’s so cool to see them out in nature.” 

This project and the commitment to sustainable management led department staff to begin restoring other prairies throughout the city with seeds collected from the newly restored Whetstone prairie. By following this successful model, new prairie restorations will provide more pollinator habitat, as well as show the community how beautiful, functional and sustainable urban prairies can be. 

A Culture of Wellness

Engaging the community as volunteers and program participants in our pollinator projects helps promote healthy and active lifestyles that fit into the city’s culture of wellness.

In October 2019, department staff hosted their first annual Pollinator Field Day at the Whetstone prairie. This family-friendly event included field games about bees and butterflies; guided tours of the prairie; and monarch butterfly catch, tag and release. Master Gardener volunteers also attended the event to help advise people on how to start pollinator gardens at home, and several people volunteered by collecting seeds or weeding the prairie.

One boy who had a particular interest in pollinators attended the event. He was able to share the names of every butterfly he saw fly by while searching the edge of the prairie. Participants enjoyed asking him questions about the butterflies, as he usually had an accurate answer and many fun facts to share. Department staff love connecting with residents on their knowledge and excitement for pollinators through programming, such as the Pollinator Field Day event. These pollinator programs have a larger purpose as well, namely, educating the public about resilience, green infrastructure and the importance of healthy ecosystems in the community.

To celebrate Pollinator Month this year, Columbus Recreation and Parks Department held an adapted Pollinator Field Day at the Whetstone prairie due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. This event was held in September, and it also included a BioBlitz. During guided habitat tours, 16 event attendees used the iNaturalist app to document species, as well as to watch butterfly catch and release demonstrations. Department staff also recruited 21 people to volunteer to weed and collect seeds in the prairie. One volunteer even chose to celebrate her birthday by volunteering at the prairie! To minimize risks and keep participants safe during this public health emergency, pre-registration was required and careful planning took place to ensure physical distancing. Staff sanitized tools, required masks to be worn and kept group sizes small.

The event was hugely successful both in person and online with more than 39,000 impressions and 792 engagements on social media. Following the in-person event, the BioBlitz was advertised for two weeks, allowing for more Columbus residents to learn about the Whetstone prairie and pollinators individually. We were committed to offering a safe space for the community to learn about pollinators and contribute to the prairie, whether in person or virtually.

Creativity Inspired

Because of the collaboration and success of the Whetstone prairie project, Columbus Recreation and Parks Department has grown internally and developed a brand-new team: the Parkland Conservation Team. This new team focuses on four areas: (1) removing invasive species; (2) increasing tree canopy and pollinator habitat; (3) reducing debris, erosion and harmful aquatic organisms within the water systems; and (4) investing in the conservation pillar within Columbus Recreation and Parks Department.

Forming the conservation team allowed staff to activate a core group of volunteers who are committed to conservation projects and advocate for parkland stewardship. The team is installing new pollinator gardens and offering new programming throughout the city. Staff also are creating new partnerships with local school districts and library systems to continue sharing pollinator education. All of this has inspired the team and the community about future pollinator projects.

An overgrown and overlooked prairie has come to new life for the benefit of all through the power of nature, wellness and creativity.

2020 Parks for Pollinators BioBlitz

NRPA’s Parks for Pollinators BioBlitz is a community science campaign that allows community members to explore their parks, learn about pollinators and plants that call them home and help agencies understand how to manage open spaces with data-driven information. Hosted through a partnership between NRPA and The Scotts Miracle-Gro Foundation, the Parks for Pollinators campaign aims to raise public awareness of the pollinator crisis and to encourage local action through public parks and recreation. NRPA and The Scotts Miracle-Gro Foundation believe parks play a key role in protecting and preserving pollinators and their habitats. Together, as part of Scotts Miracle-Gro’s GroMoreGood initiative, they are working to educate more children, families and communities about the importance of pollinators and what people can do to help.

This year, like so many activities, the BioBlitz had to adapt due to the pandemic. Initially planned to run in June for Pollinators Month, the campaign was rescheduled for September to ensure agencies and their communities could participate safely. Fortunately, the BioBlitz lends itself to being a virtual activity that anyone can participate in. The activity not only let participants safely explore parks and learn more about the species through the iNaturalist App, but also helped to gather specific data on the species located in parks that helps park professionals manage those spaces for biological diversity and build ecological resilience.

This year, nearly 200 park agencies or like-minded organizations downloaded information on how to host a BioBlitz. Events were organized from coast to coast, with 24 states represented from Alaska to Florida, and a total of 57 organizations participated. These groups recorded nearly 19,500 observations, documenting thousands of different species of both pollinators and pollinator-supporting plants. Nearly 2,300 people participated in the national BioBlitz to record these findings, and more than 3,000 experts helped identify the findings using iNaturalist. 

Participating park and recreation professionals found creative ways to connect virtually with the communities they serve, including holding virtual sessions to help educate their communities on local pollinators and host plants, providing adventure kits for participating youth, installing interactive art features to educate and engage in a safe manner, providing directions for pollinator crafts and games for families — the list goes on. By promoting the importance of pollinators, some agencies experienced an increase in public support for pollinator habitat and are planning installations this fall! For instance, the city of Peoria, Arizona, received such strong community interest and engagement through its BioBlitz that the city is planning a new pollinator garden in one of its parks and plans to host other BioBlitz events later this year to continue to engage and educate its community around the importance of biodiversity.

In 2020, NRPA and The Scotts Miracle-Gro Foundation granted $20,000 to the city of Dallas (Texas) Parks and Recreation Department to create pollinator habitats and educate local children, families and community members. The city of Dallas will install a pollinator habitat at Crawford Memorial Park that aligns with its efforts to improve pollinator conservation, focusing on increasing connectivity for both wildlife to habitat and people to nature. The garden will act as an outdoor classroom, waystation for pollinators and have elements of both a formal garden and a maintained wildflower area to showcase the beauty of pollinator gardens. It will connect communities to larger-scale installations nearby and the cost effectiveness of native habitat. “Dallas is focused on protecting our natural resources and educating communities on how nature and pollinators affect our daily lives,” says John D. Jenkins, director of Dallas Parks and Recreation. “Creating a pollinator garden at Crawford Park will provide an outdoor classroom and a natural space for residents to enjoy all year-round. Conservation activities like BioBlitzes are hands-on ways for them to get excited about protecting Dallas’ natural habitats and wildlife and feel that they belong to nature.” We look forward to sharing the impacts of this project in the future.

Betty Blockinger is Volunteer Services Manager at Columbus Recreation and Parks Department (BKBlockinger@columbus.gov). Rosalie Hendon is an Environmental Planner at Columbus Recreation and Parks Department (RFHendon@columbus.gov). Michele White is the Conservation Program Manager at NRPA (mwhite@nrpa.org).