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Nature in the Neighborhood

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Published on: Nov. 14, 2012

“I have clean air to breathe because someone somewhere manages a healthy forest,” explained the kindergarten teacher, as I walked through the nature center one morning.

I was struck by her insight and by how surprising the obvious can sometimes be.

Kindergarten teachers have a way of putting things in terms that even, well, kindergarteners can understand.

Efforts in the Missouri Ozarks to manage for healthy forests benefit urbanites like myself, as does work throughout the state on prairies, wetlands, and glades. More of our growing urban public is recognizing the connection between conservation practices and their quality of life and are supporting land managers. It is this combination of citizen support and sound resource management that ensures conservation success.

Community Stewardship Program

Natural communities are scarce in most urban centers. Where present, these small islands of the natural world possess a significance out of proportion to their size because of what they represent: the promise and presence of nature, however limited, in the midst of turf, concrete, and millions of people. Great efforts are undertaken to restore or reconstruct habitats on a small scale, to recreate a piece of that natural world, because of the importance of nature in our all-too-busy lives.

The Community Stewardship Grant Program, funded and administered out of MDC’s Wildlife Division, has supported urban conservation efforts in the St. Louis area since 2007. The Community Stewardship Program is a competitive grant opportunity for nonprofit and government organizations to receive restoration funds for urban habitat improvements in the metropolitan area, from bush honeysuckle control and replanting with native vegetation to wetland construction and cave restoration.

The three broad goals of the program are, in order of priority:

  1. Provide support for terrestrial and aquatic habitat improvement and community land stewardship;
  2. Build partnerships between MDC and similar organizations that share the common goal of improving urban habitats and supporting community conservation efforts; and
  3. Engage urban residents in community conservation through volunteer efforts to improve habitat.

While the funds come from MDC, the real work for these projects is accomplished by partner organizations and their hard-working staff and volunteers—folks like Tim Wood and Paul Emily.

The College School

Tim Wood, a teacher by trade, is now the caretaker of a 30-acre tract of land in the LaBarque Creek watershed in Jefferson County about 30 miles southwest of St. Louis. The property was purchased by The College School, a small, nonprofit school for ages pre-K through eighth grade, as an outdoor and conservation education site. “When our school acquired our LaBarque Creek Campus, we saw it as a tremendous opportunity to enhance our environmental and sustainability education programs,” says Tim.

The school’s staff wanted to be good land stewards and turned to MDC for land management advice. “Grant funding was used to purchase tools to remove invasive species and purchase native trees, shrubs, and wildflower seeds to replace them,” says Tim. “Our school community pitched in to plant trees, grow wildflowers, and cut down bush honeysuckle, autumn olive, and eastern red cedars. The student, parent, and teacher support for this project has been phenomenal.”

In order to care about something, we first need to feel some sort of attachment to it. It is hard to care about riparian corridors if you feel no connection with a river. But play in a creek, watch water striders skim the surface, feel your bobber pulled under by a longear sunfish, and the river is suddenly and irreversibly relevant and valuable to you. Educators say children need to learn to love the outdoors before they can understand conservation problems or concerns. Adults are no different; as community members experience the wonder of the natural world, they value and support conservation more.

Tim’s experience working with The College School community—teachers, parents, and students alike—exemplifies this connection. The people who have come to work on the projects funded by MDC have not only helped to accomplish our goals, they have been enriched and changed by the work we have completed,” he says. “As a group, we are forming a learning community that is committed to protecting and restoring the environment.”

Bethany-Peace United Church of Christ

Paul Emily is pastor of Bethany-Peace United Church of Christ in north St. Louis County. In 2008, some of his parishioners approached him about doing something about the vacant acre of land next to the church grounds. “The area was adjacent to the parking lot and caught all the runoff water from the lot and building,” says Paul. “This produced an area that was of little use because of frequent standing water, and it was expensive to maintain through mowing. Reconstructing prairie on the site not only reduced costs of upkeep, but is a tangible way our congregation strives to be better stewards of our property.”

Paul received a small grant to kill the existing turf grass and replant the acre with native Missouri grasses and forbs. Three years later, a bright and thriving prairie sits next to the church, buzzing with pollinators, soaking up runoff, and thriving even in the hot, dry summer of 2012. “The project would likely not have gotten beyond the visioning stage without a grant from MDC,” says Paul. “We see the prairie not as where our congregation’s ground ends, but where our role as stewards of creation begins.”

Natural Connections

For many city residents, spending time outdoors means playing soccer or walking with the dog down concrete neighborhood paths. There is nothing wrong with this, but it is important to have more opportunities for urban residents to connect with Missouri’s natural heritage. Imagine there was a rain garden downhill from the soccer field, soaking up the runoff from the turf, filtering out some of the fertilizer that keep the field thick and green. Imagine there was a patch of warm-season grasses and forbs along the walkway in a previously mowed section of a park. Imagine if those soccer players and morning dog walkers could enjoy the birds and creatures and other sights of nature, as well as the practical services. These projects could make a difference in maintaining the health and diversity of our urban habitats and even influence perceptions of why conservation measures are important— large and small, rural and urban.

I see it as an important component of my job as an urban wildlife biologist to hold this optimism close, to cultivate it wherever I find it in volunteers and organizations who care about resources, who want to get their hands dirty and donate some sweat to urban conservation. If we make conservation relevant and valuable to urban residents, in their own neighborhoods, then we are accomplishing something great for fish, forest, and wildlife resources of the entire state. And that’s exactly what MDC is trying to accomplish through the Community Stewardship Grant Program, which supports partner efforts to improve urban wildlife habitat.

The Department plans continued support for the Community Stewardship Grant Program in St. Louis and recently expanded the program to the metropolitan areas of Kansas City and Springfield.

For more information about the Community Stewardship Grant Program, eligibility, and how to apply for funds, visit the MDC website at mdc.mo.gov/node/7175.

The Community Stewardship Program

Over the first six years of the program (FY07–FY12), MDC awarded a total of 47 projects in the St. Louis metro area. Through these projects we partnered with 95 organizations and agencies. Collectively these partners have contributed $616,701 in matching funds and resources, including 12,510 volunteer hours on project planning, installation, and maintenance. On-the-ground accomplishments include the restoration or habitat improvement of 197 acres of forest, 24 acres of wetland, 186 acres of prairie/grassland, 5,600 feet of stream bank, 4 acres glade, and one cave.

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