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The Urban Prairies Project: Habitat Conservation and Community Wellness

Sometimes, conservation and habitat restoration wind up building community.

By Amy Yarger, Horticulture Director

One spring morning, I was walking on the Big Dry Creek Open Space, a Westminster Open Space property adjacent to Butterfly Pavilion. Because of its location, the trail gets heavy use from families, schoolkids and local residents.

The Urban Prairies Project: Habitat Conservation and Community Wellness

At the trailhead, I saw what I thought was an explosion of paper litter in the distance and hurried over to clean it up. What a happy surprise to find that I was actually looking at a patch of crown-leaf primrose (Oenothera coronipifolia).

These frilly, ephemeral wildflowers stood out against the browns and pale greens of early spring like lace against sandpaper.

What I learned – nature is full of surprises. Think of the last time you were out in nature – what surprised you?

Urban and suburban open spaces facilitate transformative experiences for visitors, while providing healthy habitat for native plants and wildlife. Healthy open spaces can address many of the challenges of population growth by providing accessible opportunities for people to exercise, to pursue lifelong learning and to appreciate natural beauty.  This engagement with the natural world has proven profoundly beneficial to human health. With this in mind, in 2013 the American Public Health Association officially recommended that land use decisions should prioritize the preservation and restoration of natural areas and green spaces for people of all ages, income levels and abilities. In addition, urban and suburban open spaces contribute millions of dollars in ecological services, including flood management, pollution abatement and access to crop pollination. Their importance should not be underestimated!

But not all open spaces are created equal. Suburban open spaces often struggle with a high degree of disturbance, pollution and invasive species. In comparison to wild lands, suburban natural areas also support a far lower number of plant and animal species. By restoring local open spaces to a greater degree of biodiversity, land managers and volunteers can include “planned complexity” in urban and suburban landscapes, which leads to better function and sustainability over time.

With over half of the human population now living in cities and towns, a habitat network of open spaces, parks and private gardens can add significant resources, especially for beneficial wildlife such as pollinators. These “habitat pockets” can grow over time to become linked corridors for wildlife. One successful example of this model is Seattle’s Pollinator Pathway, which revolutionized the idea of human and natural landscapes by educating the public to reconsider the priorities for public and private landscaping.

The growing communities of Westminster and Broomfield, Colorado currently have over 8000 acres of open space parks and trails. Since residents in Broomfield and Westminster report that they value the wildlife and native plants found on open spaces, effective habitat restoration plays a vital role in maintaining these sites for the community to enjoy. In order to increase impactful restoration activities on open space parks and to cultivate a stewardship ethic among local residents, Butterfly Pavilion, the City of Westminster and the City and County of Broomfield created the Urban Prairies Project in 2016.

With open space department staff stretched thin over so much acreage, the partners aimed to tap into local enthusiasm for open spaces. Beginning in March 2016, the partners launched a Restoration Master Volunteer program. These committed and passionate individuals complete 25 hours of intensive training which includes subjects from weed identification and management to how to share scientific information with the public. So far, 31 Restoration Master Volunteers are contributing their skills to everything from revegetation projects to pollinator monitoring. These volunteers have so far astounded us with their skills and expertise, as well as their enthusiasm for learning and even the hard physical labor of restoration.

The Urban Prairies Project partners have also worked closely with other groups, such as local schools, to involve more local residents in restoration work. A relationship with Legacy High School has resulted in four youth service learning projects, including planting native shrubs and collecting invertebrate diversity data. Kristina Schaad, the biology teacher at Legacy High School and the advisor for the Environmental Club, notes that, “Participating in restoration work has been invaluable for my students. It has provided them with the opportunity to learn while getting their hands dirty, giving back to their community, and working with others–all of which are extremely important for today’s adolescents. I know that working with Urban Prairies Project has positively impacted my students and increased their appreciation of natural spaces. We are excited to continue our work with this organization in the future!”

2018 is already shaping up to be an exciting and productive year. Our next set of Restoration Master Volunteer trainings will begin on March 11th. This year, Urban Prairies Project volunteers will be working in areas as diverse as Standley Lake, Skyestone and Metzger Farm open spaces this year, improving habitat and collecting data on everything from beavers to bees to birds. Volunteers are also helping to raise awareness among people of all ages about the importance of natural areas by creating educational materials and attending public fairs. The inspiring message that we can all make a difference for our communities and our planet has never been more timely.

If you are interested in learning more about how you can get involved, please contact me by clicking here.

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