Thursday, June 03, 2010

Loss of manager a setback for natural areas at Allerton

Loss of manager a setback for natural areas at Allerton

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By late May the grass pathway adjacent to the prairie restoration at Allerton Park has usually been mowed a couple of times already, but that’s not the case this year. When I was there last week the vegetation on the path was thigh high in places. Why? Budget cuts. The position of the person who would have mowed the path has been discontinued.

That position, Natural Areas Manager, was held most recently by Drew Becker, a native of Watseka, Illinois, who grew into the job at Allerton as he completed a Master’s degree in Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences at the UI.

(There’s no need to worry for Becker about the loss of his job. In June he will begin work as a wildlife biologist with the National Park Service at Haleakala National Park on the island of Maui, which represents a step up professionally, and a golden opportunity to experience a different part of the world.)

I was at Allerton with Becker last week to get his perspective of the impact on the park of not having a natural areas manager there anymore.

He pointed out that some routine work, such as mowing trails and clearing them of fallen trees, will likely get done on a delayed basis, or not at all. That will make the natural areas of the park less hospitable to visitors, but probably won’t result in any lasting damage.

Other work, especially long term projects aimed at restoring and protecting the ecological integrity of Allerton’s natural areas, is more likely to be neglected altogether, resulting in losses that will be difficult to make up.

To illustrate this point, Becker took me to a section of woods where intensive efforts over the past five years have drastically reduced populations of invasive plants, especially garlic mustard and bush honeysuckle, and thereby promoted a resurgence of native woodland flowers-- spring beauty, Dutchman’s breeches and Jack-in-the-pulpit among them.

The current, desirable state of affairs in this section of woods could be maintained with a minimal amount of effort in the years to come, provided that effort is consistent, since invasive plants are easier to manage before they become established. Without that effort—if it is nobody’s job anymore—invasive plants will come to dominate again in just a couple of years—far less time than it took to get them in check in the first place.

In a similar vein, Becker pointed out that without a natural areas manager at Allerton it will not be possible to maintain the special character of the deer management and research program that has been developed there over the past six years. That program has greatly benefited the natural vegetation and ornamental plantings at the park, both of which were being destroyed by unsustainably high numbers of deer in the years prior to its implementation. In addition, the deer program has provided important research opportunities for UI scientists, and allowed park management to cultivate a skilled and motivated cadre of volunteers, since each person who hunts at the park has also been required to contribute time toward its upkeep.

I should emphasize that I do not mean to suggest that somehow some way someone should have managed to keep Drew Becker on the job at Allerton. If the money’s not there, it’s not there. But I do mean to call attention to the real losses we, the public, will experience there as the jobs of a natural areas manager are left undone.