Government

Cedar Rapids befriends the pollinator, and the nation notices

People calling about conversion of 1,000 acres to prairie, wildflowers

Wildflowers grow along a sidewalk in the McGrath Amphitheatre along the Cedar River in downtown Cedar Rapids last summer. The city is increasing the acres in native grasses and wildflowers in the 1,000 Acre Pollinator Initiative, an effort attracting national attention. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Wildflowers grow along a sidewalk in the McGrath Amphitheatre along the Cedar River in downtown Cedar Rapids last summer. The city is increasing the acres in native grasses and wildflowers in the 1,000 Acre Pollinator Initiative, an effort attracting national attention. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Devoting 1,000 acres of public land for urban pollinator zones — wildflower-rich prairie attractive to bees and butterflies — doesn’t happen very often.

That could be why Cedar Rapids officials have been getting calls from near and far from community organizations, government leaders and national media for information about the 1,000 Acre Pollinator Initiative, which began last year and is hitting full swing this spring.

How did they pull it off?

“What Daniel Gibbins did down there amazed me,” said Mark Sherwood, who runs a garden center in Chaska, Minn. “I asked, can you give me some pointers on this? We love politics, but we also know there’s a certain approach you need to take to work with government.”

Gibbins, the Cedar Rapids parks superintendent, has helped coordinate the 1,000 Acre Pollinator Initiative.

Cedar Rapids, partnering with Linn County Conservation and the city of Marion with backing from the Linn County-based Monarch Research Project, has committed to convert 1,000 acres of underused land into prairie sprinkled with some 37 species of wildflowers and seven types of grasses over five years.

This will include parks, golf courses, stretches of right of way along roads, land by The Eastern Iowa Airport, along trails and by utilities.

The effort not only will restore habitat but also will aid stormwater control, reduce the chemicals used to maintain lawns and ease demand on water treatment, Gibbins said.

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“The neat thing about pollinator habitat is it’s absolutely gorgeous,” he said.

ENDANGERED

Iowa’s native landscape was dominated by prairie but most of the land has been converted to agriculture, lawns and pavement. While some prairie has been restored, the loss of habitat and use of herbicides and pesticides has been deadly to pollinators, which are crucial to our food supply.

The rusty patched bumblebee was added to the U.S. endangered species list last week, after seeing its population decline by more than 90 percent since the late 1990s. Meanwhile, the Monarch butterfly population in North America is less than 10 percent of what it was in the early 1990s.

“There’s a growing number of people very concerned with the pollinators that have helped keep us alive,” Gibbins said. “Every third bite of food is a result of pollination. A lot of people think it is high time we return the favor and take care of pollinators.”

INSPIRING OTHERS

The Cedar Rapids project has gained national attention.

A February Popular Science article on the effort spread on social media and was picked up by Fox News, Huffington Post and elsewhere.

Sherwood, in Minnesota, learned about the effort through a newsletter from the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation and is using Cedar Rapids as a model to launch something similar in Chaska, population 24,000, this summer.

Gibbins welcomes the attention and said he hopes Cedar Rapids can serve as a demonstration for others to follow.

NONPROFIT HELP

Monarch Research Project spurred the initiative and urged Cedar Rapids to commit to set aside 1,000 acres. It’s actually a small portion of the organization’s overall vision of converting 10,000 acres of land in Linn County to pollinator habitat.

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The nonprofit has begun a rear and release program for monarchs and has contacted 4,400 Linn County property owners — those with three acres of land or more — about converting some of their land to prairie. A landowner forum is scheduled for 9 a.m. April 29 at Clearwater Farms, 4970 Lakeside Rd., Marion.

The group has been meeting with large corporations with sprawling properties to urge participation.

As for the 1,000 acre initiative, the Monarch Research Project has been a financial backer, along with $96,480 from a state Resource Enhancement and Protection grant, to cover the $168,000 in seeds for the first year of the program. The cost to taxpayers is staff time.

“(The) 1,000 acres is an attempt by the government to show private landowners and corporate landowners we need to put our natural habitat back in place,” said Clark McLeod, president and co-founder of the Monarch Research Project. “As a county, if we create and make a movement, we will have the habitat needed to bring population back.”

DOING IT

Last year, Cedar Rapids began on the 1,000-acre effort with clearing, using targeted herbicide applications and grubbing to eliminate competitor and invasive species, which can choke out young prairie.

This spring, staffers have conducted controlled burns at Beverly Park and Seminole Valley Park and may also burn along the Cedar River near McGrath Amphitheatre if the winds cooperate. In the coming weeks, the first round of seeding will begin — about nine pounds per acre — followed by a second round in the fall.

The plan is to convert 340 acres to pollinator zones, including 182 acres in Cedar Rapids, this year. Of that, 82 acres will be along the Sac and Fox Trail, while smaller patches are scattered around, such as 9.5 acres at Squaw Creek Park, 17 acres at Gardner Golf Course, 21.5 acres at Seminole Valley Park and 8 acres at Noelridge Park.

THREE YEARS

Cedar Rapids worked with five seed companies and United Seeds of Omaha, Neb., to concoct a seed mix of asters, clover, cone flowers, prairie milkweed and several others. The blend will intersperse blooms early, middle and late in the season to provide a continuous habitat and nice aesthetics, Gibbins said.

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This year, evidence of the wildflowers will be limited, Gibbins said. Next year they will mow, and some wildflowers will start popping. By the third year, the prairie should be healthy, with the full spectrum of perennials taking hold, he said. Controlled burns every three or four years is critical to maintaining healthy prairies, he said.

CONCERNS ABOUT BEES

While Gibbins said he’s mainly received positive feedback, he has fielded some questions.

Janelle Roe, 46, of Cedar Rapids, recalled a couple of years ago when her husband and dog stepped on a bee’s nest in the ground and were stung 20 or 30 times. She supports expanding pollinator habitat but questions placing these areas so close to where people, particularly children, use for recreation. What about stings and allergic reactions, she wonders.

“There’s a large space dedicated to it and really close to playgrounds and pool areas,” she said, specifically referring to Noelridge Park. “There’s always going to be bees out in nature, but it seems like we are intentionally bringing them closer to people and kids.”

It’s a fair concern but also a misperception Gibbins said he hopes to dispel. The pollinator zones will in some cases be close to playgrounds and, in fact, the city is planning walking trails through the prairie, he said. But bees are only aggressive if threatened, such as if a nest is stepped on or if a bee gets trapped inside a person’s shirt, he said.

“It’s a misperception,” Gibbins said. “Bees don’t just come after people. ... They are beautiful creatures.”

l Comments: (319) 339-3177; brian.morelli@thegazette.com

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