Pollinators bring communities together
This summer, the township of Montclair, N.J., celebrated becoming one of a few locations in the Garden State to earn designation as a Monarch City USA community.
Montclair earned the honor by demonstrating it has planted milkweed and other nectar plants the monarch butterfly needs to thrive. It is one of a growing number of communities nationally working to help bees, butterflies and other pollinators rebound from population declines and threats to their future.
“It is now. There is no time for tomorrow,” said Jose German-Gomez, founder and chief executive officer of the nonprofit Northeast Earth Coalition in Montclair, which works closely with the township government on environmental conservation initiatives.
About 75% of the world’s flowering plants and about 35% of food crops worldwide depend on bees, butterflies, birds, bats and other pollinators to reproduce or set fruit, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports at usda.gov. Many pollinator species have declined because of habitat loss, pesticide use, disease and other causes. In July, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature added the monarch butterfly to its Red List of threatened species.
Municipalities are in a unique position to enhance pollinator survival because of the land they manage and the programming they provide their residents.
Make an impact
Parks and recreation departments manage about 11 million acres of land across the United States, said Michele White, senior program manager with the National Recreation and Park Association in Ashburn, Va. Planting pollinator-friendly native plants not only benefits pollinators, it also saves money because the plants need less maintenance, White said. Preserving pollinators is also popular with the public.
An NRPA Park Pulse survey in summer 2018 found 95% of U.S. adults ages 18 and older who responded agree that communities should create designated pollinator habitat. However, 66% of respondents weren’t “very confident” about what they can do to help pollinators.
The township of Montclair began its efforts to conserve nature and wildlife in 2005 when the Northeast Earth Coalition proposed seeking a Community Wildlife Habitat designation from the National Wildlife Federation, German-Gomez said. Additionally, local organizers had to interest 250 homeowners and several schools, parks and houses of worship in both planting native habitat and ceasing use of pesticides and herbicides. They succeeded, and Montclair received its designation in 2008.
“That project started an environmental movement in town,” German-Gomez said.
Montclair became a key New Jersey community for the Northeast Pollinator Pathway Project. Locations along the Pollinator Pathway install pollinator-friendly native plant habitat spaced closely enough for typical travel distances for bees, butterflies and other pollinators, according to the project website, pollinator-pathway.org.
In 2017, the Northeast Earth Coalition and volunteers transformed a neglected plot of downtown land into Crane Park. The site’s pollinator and vegetable gardens beautify the area and serve as an outdoor classroom for school students, German-Gomez said. At another park, township leaders gave the coalition initial approval to build a community garden and a pollinator garden, both of which will be accessible to people of all abilities.
This spring, the township passed an ordinance requiring use of native trees, shrubs and plants for at least 70% of all new plantings in public spaces.
The impact reaches beyond the township’s borders. “Everything that we do here has an implication in neighboring towns, which is great,” German-Gomez said.
Pull people together
After the city of Bemidji, Minn., decided a few years ago to participate in the National Wildlife Federation’s Mayor’s Monarch Pledge, leaders asked the parks and recreation department to lead planning to fulfill the requirements of planting native habitat for monarchs and other pollinators and educate residents on how to help pollinators.
Parks department Director Marcia Larson invited collaboration by several local groups already working on native habitat issues. They include the Mississippi Headwaters Audubon Society; Bemidji State University sustainability office; Master Naturalist and Master Gardener volunteers; Bemidji Garden Club; and the local soil and water conservation district. Early on, members decided to promote pollinator efforts jointly and to brand it as the Birds, Bees, Butterflies-Bemidji initiative.
“The people in the group are just really motivated and passionate,” Larson said. “So once they come up with an idea, a lot of them run with it, and we just try to support them how we can.”
“It’s one of these kind of collaborative initiatives where everybody is still an independent party,” said Peter Buesseler, the Mississippi Headwaters Audubon Society president. “But you just kind of tie what you are doing together with what other similarly minded folks are doing. It just has a bigger community impact.”
Use existing spaces
After deciding to put a greater emphasis on aiding pollinators, the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy has begun converting some of its annual flower gardens to pollinator gardens featuring native plants, said Art DeMeo, the nonprofit’s director of community greenspace services. The conservancy maintains about 130 community gardens in 20 counties in western Pennsylvania, including about 90 gardens in the Pittsburgh area. Partners include the city of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh Public Schools, neighborhoods, corporate sponsors and several thousand volunteers.
This summer, for example, the conservancy formally dedicated a garden in the Larimore neighborhood in northeast Pittsburgh where renovation added a rain garden to an existing flower garden. Students and parents from the adjacent school plant the garden each spring, DeMeo said. The students wanted to use native plants in the rain garden to support pollinators, so the conservancy did.
Similarly, the city of Bemidji began planting demonstration pollinator gardens in existing areas, such as in parks, along the shore of Lake Bemidji, by a water tower and in gardens outside the local historical society and art center, according to Larson.
“We just try to incorporate them in many different locations,” she said. “It’s such a great way to build habitat. People love the birds and the butterflies.”
This spring, the Bemidji City Council also passed a “No Mow May” resolution that permits property owners, during May, to register with the parks department to grow their lawns taller than the normal 6-inch maximum height. Delayed mowing allows pollinators to feed on early-spring lawn flowers, such as violets and dandelions. Nearly 50 residents registered for No Mow May this spring, Larson said.
Using native plants is a more sustainable way to manage landscaping, Larson and DeMeo said. Installing a pollinator garden may cost a little more initially than using annual flowers, but the cost evens out over five years, DeMeo said. The minimal ongoing maintenance is cheaper than paying someone to mow large tracts of land regularly, Larson noted.
Keep it simple
To expand community participation, provide opportunities for residents to get involved.
The Northeast Earth Coalition in Montclair, the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy and Birds, Bees, Butterflies-Bemidji groups all rely heavily on volunteers. The involvement teaches people about planting to preserve pollinators.
Community events, such as Bemidji’s annual Monarch Festival in September, offer opportunities for groups like Birds, Bees, Butterflies-Bemidji members to set up booths and share information with people, Larson and Buesseler said. The groups also have organized workshops to teach people how to plant and care for pollinator gardens and worked with local nurseries to make more native trees, shrubs and plants available for purchase.
“Whether you are planting a single plant or you are planting your whole yard, all of that is a help,” Buesseler said.
As with pollinator preservation efforts in Montclair and Pittsburgh, he believes Bemidji’s work benefits the community. “The idea is to make this a piece of a broader sense of why people think Bemidji is special,” he said. “What does it take for an area like this to retain people and attract people? What are folks looking for? They are looking for a brewery, a coffeehouse, a vibrant sense of community, good schools and job opportunities. Just having a good, healthy environment is a big part of it and in one way contributes to that sense that this is a good place to live.”
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