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Success at The Parklands: A Story of Habitat Restoration

As many would guess, spring is a very busy and productive time of year at The Parklands. With over 2,000 acres of forestland, 400 acres of restored meadowland and acres of formal tree plantings and gardens, the Horticulture and Natural Areas crews have lots to do. Trees are leafing out, flowers are blooming, grasses are growing and--anyone who grows a garden or a flowerbed knows--the weeds are coming up with vigor, and in strong numbers.

As part of the natural areas team, a large portion of my job includes removing as many ‘weeds’ as possible throughout the parks, particularly exotic plants that are not native to this part of the country. Some of these exotic plants are extremely successful in their non-native environment, and they can be very aggressive. As a result, native plants are often pressured out, which can threaten and fragment wildlife habitat. Native food sources are replaced, and the physical habitat itself is transformed by exotic plants. By removing the exotic plants and promoting native species, the natural areas team aims to restore wildlife habitat in the parks.

Take a hike through Big Beech Woods, a stroll down the Humana Grand Allee, or a drive through the William F. Miles Oak Savanna, and you can see some examples of habitat restoration success stories. 

Big Beech Woods was treated for a very common invasive species- Lonicera maackii- or bush honeysuckle. The woods now boast impressive biodiversity and, more importantly, regeneration of native hardwoods and midstory trees--something that would not have been possible with competition from bush honeysuckle.

The areas surrounding the Humana Grand Allee were formerly farmland. When the park acquired this land, the farm fields were restored and converted to meadowland with native warm season grasses and wildflowers. Last spring Bobwhite quail were first heard calling, and then they were spotted in this area of Beckley Creek Park. This reintroduction of a native species is a true indicator of habitat restoration success. In fact, ask a local birder and you might hear from them that the Humana Grand Allee meadows is their favorite spot to view songbrds.

The William F. Miles Oak Savanna can only be called that because of the habitat restoration efforts that went into that piece of land.  Prior to invasive species removal, those hillsides were blanketed in bush honeysuckle. After several months of invasive species removal, followed by installation of native warm season grasses, park visitors can now experience a unique habitat. Keep this in mind the next time you see the tall, dominant oak trees dappled among waving warm season grasses in this area.

I was excited to discover our most recent habitat restoration success story earlier this spring. Like many of the habitat restoration stories at The Parklands, this one begins with bush honeysuckle. Below our maintenance shop in Beckley Creek Park is a sweeping hillside dotted with healthy ash trees, bitternut hickory, black walnut, and shagbark hickory. The hill wraps down to a small, unnamed stream that eventually feeds into Floyds Fork. The site was beautiful--with one exception--it was covered with bush honeysuckle. This exotic shrub was shading out all native vegetation and preventing regeneration of native trees.

Over the past two summers, the natural areas team worked to remove the bush honeysuckle from this hillside.  After the first summer, the site looked much better. The midstory trees had been released from the honeysuckle stronghold. Sunlight was reaching the forest floor for the first time in decades. The work, however, was not done.  The team returned the next summer and cleared away the rest of the honeysuckle. Over the seasons, the skeletons of the cut honeysuckle began to decompose and the land began to recover. Signs of restoration came early- spring ephemeral flowers began to appear on the hillside where the exotic shrub once dominated. First, the small, white flowers of harbinger of spring began to bloom.  Next came the bloodroot, and then the trillium. The great reward, however, came this spring.

Only a few weeks ago, I came down the hill from our shop and followed the path to the treated hillside. As I rounded the slope, I was welcomed by a carpet of beautiful, lilac-tinted wild hyacinth, and violet-tinted dwarf larkspur, stretching from the bottom of the stream all the way to the top of the slope. I was astounded and jubilant. After months of hard work, the payoff was spectacular. 

The most rewarding aspect of this project (aside from the astounding beauty) was the fact that all this site needed was a push in the right direction. The natural areas team removed the pressure, and the site did the rest. The flowers that bloomed there did not come from purchased seed, they were not installed by a gardener, and they were not grown in a greenhouse. The flowers were staged to bloom; all they needed was the sunlight. Habitat restoration does not always mean a complete stripping and restart with every detail controlled by stewards. Sometimes, all a site needs is some direction, and nature will do the rest of the work for us.

It is moments like these, when I first laid eyes on the hillside covered in wildflowers, that truly make our efforts worthwhile. 

If you would like to visit this site, hop onto the eastern side of the Black Willow Trail and head south toward the maintenance shop access road.  Once you cross the access road, look for a small, unnamed stream.  Follow this stream east and you will find the hillside--but be fast! The flowers won’t be there much longer.

About the Author

Picture of Evan Patrick

Evan Patrick

Evan began his career with the Parklands in 2013 as a park attendant and part-time helper on Natural Areas projects. In 2014 he joined the Natural Areas team as a technician and in the spring of 2015 was promoted to Natural Areas Team Leader. While working he spends his time promoting healthy habitats for the plants and animals that live in the park. Patrick was born in Morehead, Kentucky near the Daniel Boone National Forest, where his appreciation for nature, conservation and stewardship was cultivated. Patrick is a graduate of the University of Louisville, where he earned a degree in anthropology. His interests include cooking, mushroom foraging, craft beer and the outdoors.

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