Linn County to create better habitat for the butterflies, other pollinators

Make way for the monarchs

A recently hatched monarch waits to be released from the monarch butterfly nursery in the yard of Irene Fishburn in NE Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, July 21, 2010. Fishburn releases the butterflies into her yard, which is a certified monarch waystation, about a day after it emerges from the chrysalis. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
A recently hatched monarch waits to be released from the monarch butterfly nursery in the yard of Irene Fishburn in NE Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, July 21, 2010. Fishburn releases the butterflies into her yard, which is a certified monarch waystation, about a day after it emerges from the chrysalis. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — The city of Cedar Rapids plans to convert 1,000 acres of unused, unproductive city property — mostly lawn that has to be regularly mowed and sprayed at considerable expense — to habitat for monarch butterflies and other pollinators.

The 1,000 Acres Pollinator Initiative will “promote a rapid, substantial increase in native pollinator habitat throughout our community,” Mayor Ron Corbett said.

He intends later this month to sign a pledge supporting initiatives promoting monarchs and other pollinators.

“This is good stewardship — no mow, no spray. We’ll end up money ahead while improving the environment and creating enjoyable green space,” Cedar Rapids Parks Superintendent Daniel Gibbins said.

“We want to be a statewide leader in the effort to create more sustainable communities,” added Gibbins, who is spearheading the project.

The initiative, which will be phased in over five years, “uniquely combines public/private partnerships that will form a strong model for other Iowa communities to use as a resource and template to promote the rapid changes to our environment critical to the future of both pollinators and people,” Corbett said.

Initiated by Cedar Rapids and the Monarch Research Project, the effort includes the Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation, Linn County and the cities of Marion and Hiawatha.

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“We have to create a movement for this to work,” said Clark McLeod, co-founder of the Monarch Research Project.

Established initially to help the butterflies recover, the research group since has expanded its focus to include all species of pollinator insects, which are in jeopardy because of habitat loss and overuse of pesticides and herbicides, among other causes.

‘Something we can fix’

McLeod said the gravity of the pollinators’ plight has been impressed upon him by a statement attributed to Albert Einstein — that people have but four years to live after the demise of pollinators.

The number of bees, butterflies and other pollinator insects has declined by 50 percent in the past 70 years, with the monarch population falling 90 percent in the last 20 years.

“This is something hugely significant to the planet and something we can fix,” McLeod said.

Master gardener Becki Lynch, the Monarch Research Project’s habitat director, said spraying, mowing and replacement of native plants with non-native species has turned cities into toxic zones for insects.

“Lawns are not just zero habitat. They are minus 10s because we spray toxins on them,” McLeod said.

Through the practice of “poliscaping” — creating environments friendly to pollinators — “we plan to reverse that with a well designed network of plantings that are pleasing to both insects and people,” Lynch said.

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In conjunction with the effort, Linn County Master Gardeners have designated 2016 as the Year of the Pollinator.

The plan calls for city employees to convert half the eventual 1,000 acres while private contractors paid for by grant proceeds and private funds to change over the other half, Gibbins said.

As the areas are converted, they will be marked with signs indicating their status as pollinator zones, monarch zones or both.

McLeod said he is confident the plan will make Cedar Rapids and Linn County an oasis for pollinators.

“But we can be successful only if we make Cedar Rapids a model for cities all over the continent,” he added.

Noting that sustainability is a hot topic, City Manager Jeff Pomeranz said the pollinator initiative is consistent with other city efforts to improve ecosystem services.

Those efforts, he said, include new stormwater fees and incentives to reduce runoff from heavy rains, conservation practices installed on city-owned farmland near The Eastern Iowa Airport, and the city’s leadership in the $4.3 million Middle Cedar Partnership Project, designed to reduce nutrient pollution upstream on the Cedar River.

All city departments that manage public land — parks, golf courses, utilities, sewers, airport, for example — have identified properties to be seeded with a mixture of native forbs, grasses, sedges and wildflowers.

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Dennis Goemaat, deputy director of the Linn County Conservation Department, said pollinator seed mixes have been or will be planted this spring at Morgan Creek and Squaw Creek parks.

The thousand acres will be converted at no cost to city taxpayers. The Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation is seeking federal and private foundation grants to cover the conversion costs, which range from about $1,000 to $1,700 per acre.

Private donations will cover any matching funds required for grants.

Gibbins said the plantings not only will benefit pollinators and other wildlife species but also make the land more absorbent. That will help to improve water quality and reduce erosion and flash flooding, while making it more esthetically pleasing with a summer long succession of blooms.

Gibbins said the pollinator zones will require less mowing and maintenance, saving the city money in the long run.

“We are going to return land to nature and change the perception of what constitutes natural beauty,” Gibbins said.

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