Parks and Rec leader says early diagnosis from ecological experts on the health of herbicide-sprayed prairie remnant is ‘encouraging’

photo by: Austin Hornbostel/Journal-World

Mark Hecker, one of the Lawrence Parks and Recreation Department's three assistant directors, speaks during a Parks and Recreation Advisory Board meeting Monday, June 12, 2023.

It’s been about a month and a half since Lawrence Parks and Recreation staff erroneously sprayed herbicide across the five-acre native prairie remnant behind Prairie Park Nature Center. Now, the department’s working with ecological experts to properly assess the damage.

As the Journal-World reported, city employees failed to spot-spray the prairie remnant — an area of native prairie that hasn’t been plowed or otherwise significantly altered by humans despite existing for thousands of years. The misstep was followed by ample public outcry, after which folks like Mark Hecker, one of the Parks and Rec department’s three assistant directors, vowed to make sure it won’t happen again.

At the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board’s monthly meeting Monday evening, Hecker said work was underway to achieve that goal. Parks and Rec staff had their first meeting with a group of ecological experts with the Kansas State University Research and Extension office, the Kansas Biological Survey and ecologist Courtney Masterson of Native Lands LLC earlier in the day about their next steps.

“We have basically three sources of expertise that we can tap into, as well as our staff,” Hecker told the board. “We have a great deal of expertise on our staff. It’s pretty encouraging, honestly.”

Hecker said along with continuously monitoring the prairie, the plan is to let the prairie rest for now and then start working to eradicate some invasive species on the site such as honeysuckle. But that could ultimately be a year-long process, he said.

To that end, Hecker said the Kansas Biological Survey has established a work station on-site and has launched a website where it plans to post updates about its ongoing work to monitor the prairie remnant.

“We think these pages can serve as a valuable resources for the public about this prairie and as a window into field research generally,” Kirsten Bosnak, the communications coordinator for the Kansas Biological Survey, told the Journal-World earlier in the day Monday. “Our approach with the city is cooperative, and we are in direct communication with the city about these pages.”

Hecker said the experts that met with Parks and Rec staff found that not all native plant species were affected, which was one piece of good news. The Kansas Biological Survey website includes a list of 35 native plants that are currently being monitored, but Hecker said researchers identified nearly 280 species of native plants on the prairie in total.

The most recent update on the Kansas Biological Survey website from May 31, which details the state of the prairie after the research team’s initial surveys, offers some additional optimism.

“There were some observations of resprouting among our hardier prairie species, and several species seem to have only been lightly affected by the herbicide spraying,” the report reads. “This, combined with incomplete coverage of the site, gives us some hope for, at the very least, a partial recovery.”

But it’s also too early to draw any conclusions about the long-term effects of the spraying, according to that same update, and it’ll be a while yet before the team has a full picture to help it determine what measures are needed to assist the prairie in its recovery.

According to the update, the team will return to sample again in July and September and a full year from now in June of 2024 to further assess the recovery of the plant community.

The Parks and Recreation Advisory Board agenda for Monday also mentions a partnership with Haskell Indian Nations University, but that seems to be more related to programming at Prairie Park Nature Center, rather than the effort to restore the native prairie.


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