A new ten-year JCPRD Natural Resource Plan called ‘A Conservation Tool for a Sustainable Future,” was recently approved and funded for a first year of implementation.
“The key is that 8,700 acres of our 10,000 acres are park natural areas, and the focus for a long time has been on maintaining the developed areas,” said JCPRD Field Biologist Matt Garrett. “This plan will allow us to shift our focus to being able to preserve ecological functions and work on increasing biodiversity. We’re trying to use good planning and proper management so county residents will be ensured that all of our past investments are protected.”
The Johnson County Board of Park and Recreation Commissioners approved the JCPRD Natural Resource Plan and allocated $579,715 towards implementing it in 2020 during its April 17 regular meeting.
If the entire plan is fully funded, JCPRD will spend a little under $7 million towards restoring and improving natural areas through 2029.
“A commitment to natural area management is important because without it, the ecological functions, recreational potential, economic benefits, and attractiveness of natural areas will deteriorate,” the plan states in its introduction. “Carrying out management takes highly-qualified people with a deep understanding of ecology and ecosystem processes, extensive experience with prescribed burning, knowledge of other management methods, the ability to identify invasive species and control them, and native plant, animal and soil identification.”
“One of the biggest things to come out of the entire plan, is that we’ve designated our approach to natural resource management,” Garrett said. “Our first priority is to protect and preserve high-quality natural areas, our second priority is converting agricultural land to prairie and creating manageable habitat corridors, and our third priority is managing invasive species and improving lower-quality areas. It’s really helping us quantify how we manage natural resources for the next ten years, and it puts dollar amounts on it and helps us budget.”
The process of preparing the 187-page plan took about one and one-half years, and built off of previous JCPRD planning documents including the 2002 MAP (Master Action Plan) 2020, the 2015 Legacy Plan, and the 2019 operations and maintenance plan.
District staff were assisted by a stakeholder advisory committee involving representatives of the county, local cities, nonprofit organizations, and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. JCPRD also worked with consultants including Applied Ecological Services of Prior Lake, Minn.; Vireo of Kansas City, Mo.; and Norman Ecological Consulting LLC of Lawrence.
The planning process also sought and received thousands of responses from the public through a robust public engagement effort.
“One of the biggest purposes of the plan is to identify natural areas that are owned or managed by JCPRD, specify how to restore and regularly manage the areas to preserve the ecological function,” Garrett said.
Towards this end, staff and consultants went out into the field and quantified all the different land covers. They found that JCPRD’s parklands (including streamway parks and trails) contain about 4,300 acres of forest, 540 acres of shrub-scrub, 1,000 acres of prairie, 2,400 acres of non-native grassland, 7 acres of non-forested wetlands, and 400 acres of water.
“Before this, we couldn’t quantify what JCPRD had in the system,” Garrett said. “We rated the habitat types and broke the parks up into natural resource management units where we do the work. JCPRD is going to be doing long-term monitoring where we begin to look at invasive coverage and high-quality natural areas, and then we’re going to begin monitoring plant communities every five years to see how they’re progressing to make sure management is working. Basically, we’re trying to keep our high-quality areas high; if it’s a jewel, keep it a jewel; convert our former agricultural lease land into prairie at a rate we can take care of it; manage the invasives; and improve lower-quality areas; take care of our lakes; work with volunteers and land stewards to do natural resource management.”
Another important aspect of the plan was benchmarking against other comparable communities. Johnson County was compared to Dakota County, Minn.; Dane County, Wisc.; Anoka County, Minn.; and Collin County, Texas.
“We looked at land base, budget, management cost per acre, where they get their funds, sources of management dollars, how many staff they have,” Garrett said. “We benchmarked against comparable park systems and looked at where JCPRD fell, and we were not spending as much on natural resource management.”
Compared to some other counties managing natural resources, JCPRD has taken a go-slow approach to funding ecological restoration and management.
“It (JCPRD) currently spends about one percent of the district budget on this work, while other counties spend a greater proportion,” the report states. “While the intention is to eventually bring all 8,700 acres of natural areas into a program of regular management, only recently has it been realized that more resources are needed to accomplish this ambitious goal.”
Garrett noted that it is the nature of this type of work that the costs of the initial stages are highest, and then decrease considerably.
“The first three years of a restoration project is the hard work, then you have a mid-term cost, and then the price drops off after that, and it becomes just cost efficient long term maintenance on the back end,” he said. “We want our acres under management going up, and our cost per acre going down. So the goal long-term, once these areas are restored, it’s going to cost us less to maintain them versus the front-end restoration which is expensive.”
It is anticipated the entire natural resource plan will be available online at JCPRD.com in early June.