The other “new normal”- natural disasters

Recovery in natural lands

In September 2021, Upper Dublin Township was hit by an EF-2 tornado which ripped through several parks, devastating natural areas. I was responsible for overseeing debris removal and restoration in these natural areas. With strong storms predicted to increase, we can’t assume they won’t affect us. Nothing can make the recovery process easy, but here are a few tips I’ve learned from our experience.

Tannerie Run Park, September 2021. This 8.5-acre park was directly in the path of the tornado.

Keep a log of culverts, trails, and other infrastructure in the natural areas of your parks. Take photos and keep records of any upkeep, for example, cleaning debris out of culverts or removing hazardous trees.

Clearly mark your property boundaries. Under our emergency debris management contract, contractors could only work on public property. We had many of our park boundaries clearly marked in advance. This made it easier for crews to work efficiently, without constant guidance on property lines, and to keep heavy equipment off of neighbors’ properties, especially when it was difficult to see through thick debris. You may not have access to maps or computers after a storm, so familiarize yourself and other staff with property lines before a storm hits.

Take photographs. Always remember to photograph damaged amenities, including hazardous trees, before beginning cleanup.

Determine your course of action for restoration. Will you replant an area, clear debris but let it regrow naturally, or leave it as-is? Here are a few things to consider:

 Is the park heavily trafficked? Will amenities or previous investments be undermined by doing nothing? These parks may be priorities for restoration.

● Successful plantings require regular mowing, maintenance, and invasive species control for several years. If your organization doesn’t have the capacity to absorb this additional work, replanting may be a wasted investment.

● How many trees survived? In forests that kept the majority of their tree canopy, we opted to let them repopulate the area on their own. Forests that lost most of their trees needed a jumpstart through planting.

● How many invasive plants were present? In forests that have dense invasive species populations, native species may struggle to regenerate.

Plan erosion control measures with long-term maintenance in mind. Erosion control measures may be needed, and some of these can be integrated with long-term site plans to reduce future headaches. For example, we seeded one park with winter rye for erosion control, which is less persistent and weedy than the more commonly used annual rye, to avoid excessive competition as we re-establish native trees.

Retention tree

Retain some trees- even if they aren’t pretty. We planned to retain as many trees as possible. Though they won’t fully recover, they provide wildlife habitat, continued shade, root sprouts and seeds to speed regeneration, and large root systems to stabilize soil.

We stuck to a few guidelines when choosing which trees to retain:

● Don’t retain trees that could hit private property, trails, or other targets if they fail.

● Retain as many trees as possible along streams.

● Shoot for 3-6 snags per acre for wildlife, with particular attention to den trees (trees with cavities).

Research prior to planting. If you are planning to replant, check out sources on successful large-scale planting, such as  Stroud Water Resource Center (which focuses on streamside plantings, but many of the same practices apply on uplands).

Don’t give up on your parks. I was amazed at how quickly nature began to recover, and our parks began flourishing again. Don’t write them off too soon.

Tannerie Run Park, November 2021. Logs from the site were used to slow water on steep slopes.
March 2022, following erosion control, seeding, and planting. Trees were planted in rows for easier mowing, and tubes were installed for deer protection.
August 2022, the site has begun to recover and over 200 trees are sprouting above the tops of their tubes.
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Think spring: Steps to take now for easy spring planting

by Colleen Kenny, Upper Dublin Township

The snow may be falling outside, and you may be looking no further than a warm blanket at the end of the day. But this is the perfect time to begin planning for spring tree planting. In fact, many nurseries sell out of popular tree species by March, so early planning can ensure that your spring plantings run smoothly.

The first step in planning is to identify priority areas. I like to keep a running list of highest priority and second priority options for planting. On the highest priority list are areas with big aesthetic impact (such as building entrances), important functional needs (for example, providing shade to bleachers at sports fields), or important ecological areas. Stream corridors, in particular, benefit from added tree cover (called “forest buffers”). The greatest benefit for water quality is often seen with at least 100-foot-wide forest buffers. Planting these buffers falls on my high priority list. My department in Upper Dublin Township also aims to reduce grass mowing operations by converting unused turf areas to forest. Turf conversion areas are generally second priority, and I will pull from their list as corporate or volunteer groups come forward seeking projects.

Now that you have your priorities, think about site needs. Is there water available on-site, or will you need to use gator bags or a water tank? If areas are particularly dry, it may help to forestall planting until the fall. Is there any site preparation needed prior to planting? Do old stumps need to be ground, or invasive brush cleared?

The next step is to select and order trees. Be sure to consider site moisture, light levels, soil type, and space constraints (overhead wires, clearance around buildings) when selecting species. I aim to plant 100% native species for maximum ecological benefit. Many organizations have helpful tree-finder tools, such as Missouri Botanical Garden. When choosing size, consider who will be doing the planting. Small container trees work well for scout troops or students groups since they are easier for small hands. Bare-root trees work well for adult volunteer planting projects. Larger container or ball-and-burlap trees may need to be handled by staff or contractors. In the Philadelphia region, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society runs a Tree Tenders program which allows municipalities and volunteers to receive low-cost bare-root trees after completing a training course.

Bare-root trees, like this one from the PHS Tree Tenders Program, are large but not heavy, and are a great option for adult volunteers.

If using volunteers to help plant, get the word out early. Spring fills up quickly with weekend sports and activities. Many volunteers look for opportunities around Earth Day and Arbor Day, so these may be opportunities to leverage the extra hype.

A few other tips:

  • Always use deer protection, even if planting in a residential area.
  • Brush up on proper planting technique. There are many helpful videos on YouTube.
  • Spring plantings can be extra vulnerable to drought as we head into the hot summer months. Be sure to water regularly for at least the first two years after planting. This can be another great volunteer opportunity!

Oh, and don’t forget the shovels. Happy planting!

Setting priorities for invasive species management: Don’t get lost in the weeds

When managing invasive species, set priorities based on your resources and goals, and stick to them.

Stick to the plan. I recently found myself repeating this mantra as I worked to remove invasive plants in a township park. The park has been overgrown by invasive species for years. As a natural resource manager, I found myself easily distracted by all the work that needs to be done. I have often doled out advice to land managers about how to set priorities and break down projects into manageable tasks, but it was time to follow it myself.

Do what you can do. Don’t do what you can’t.

The challenge of managing invasive plants on your property can be daunting. It may seem obvious, but sometimes we need to remind ourselves: only do what you can do. Do what is manageable within the scope of your resources. If a project is too big- it might not be right to tackle at this time. Better to choose a project that can be done to completion, and will only require routine maintenance to sustain.

“Do nothing” is an option

Every area of our parks is managed for a certain goal, whether that be a forest, meadow, or ball field. Not every project will improve our ability to meet those goals. Does this project serve those goals? If not, it is ok to move onto the next one.

Break things down into manageable tasks

When faced with a large project, don’t be overwhelmed by the task in its entirety. Focus on what needs to be done this year or this month. Removing the vines. Cutting back the first 50 feet along the trail. Then next year, you can tackle the next step. Often, we don’t tackle a project because it seems too big. But once we change our perspective, the first steps become possible.

Make a plan, but know that the plan can change

Develop a invasive species management plan for your parks, but think of it as a living document. What areas need immediate attention, and which can be put off until later? Make a timeline for each step of your plan. As factors change, adjust your plan accordingly. Making a point to revisit and revise the plan 1-2 times a year can help to keep it realistic.

Never overlook the power of volunteers

I was recently working at a park that had a wall of thorny invasive plants. I wanted to tackle it with a volunteer group, but was worried that it would be overwhelming. But my volunteers were intrepid. Within only a few hours, we had broken through the wall. Never be the barrier to what your volunteers accomplish. Allow them to work to their full potential. For more info on developing your volunteer base, here are some great words of wisdom.

The task of managing natural areas can be overwhelming with all the challenges we face as parks and recreation professionals- from too many deer to too few staff. Look at your goals and set priorities to meet them. Plan ahead, but focus on the task at hand. And you may stay out of the weeds.

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