How every Kansan can help build a DIY national park

Photographer Wayne Rhodus took this image of an Eastern Tiger Swallowtail on bee balm at the Rhodus family native plant garden in Basehor, Kansas. (Wayne Rhodus)

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Margy Stewart and husband Ron Young are the proprietors of a native-prairie preserve on McDowell Creek and are restoring 70 acres of former crop ground to bottomland tall grass prairie.  

It’s planting season, folks, and here we have a chance to do something not only for ourselves but for the planet, for each other and for future generations.

We can plant native plants.

Of course, many people are already doing just that.

Manhattan, Kansas, for example, is now planting “pollinator pockets” in its city parks, while the annual native plant sales sponsored by Dyck Arboretum in Hesston, the Milford Nature Center in Geary County and the Burroughs Audubon Society in Kansas City are eagerly anticipated and ever more popular.

The scale of plantings ranges from tiny to vast and everything in between: Apartment-dwellers are putting pots of milkweed on their balconies to support Monarch butterflies, while large landowners are placing conservation easements on thousands of acres of native grasslands, wetlands and woodlands. Museums, schools, businesses and places of worship are hosting native plant gardens, while individual homeowners are reducing the size of their lawns, eschewing garden chemicals and adding native plants to their property — all to attract the birds, butterflies and other wildlife that they love.

But these haphazard developments have been occurring on parallel tracks, never connecting with each other.

Now we have an opportunity to link them synergistically through an initiative called the Homegrown National Park, a term coined by Douglas Tallamy in his best-selling book,   “Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation that Starts in Your Yard.”

Tallamy explains how replacing non-native ornamentals and lawns with native plants can support a healthy biosphere and actually reverse the dangerous decline of plant and animal species.

We can find suggestions for regionally appropriate plants by entering our zip codes into a Wildlife Federation web site. The recommendations there are for species that provide the biggest bang-for-the-buck — species that Tallamy and his fellow researchers have discovered support more caterpillars than others (birds need caterpillars to feed their young).

These heavy-hitter species will immediately support populations of butterflies, moths, flower-flies and birds.

A carpenter bee on partridge pea at the Rhodus family native plant garden in Basehor. (Wayne Rhodus)

Then we should enter our plantings into the map on the Homegrown National Park web site — 41 Kansans from 15 counties have already registered their plantings.

Mapping is important as it reveals where possibilities exist to create corridors, linking isolated patches of habitat with each other.

Perhaps that apartment complex with milkweeds on the balconies and American Plums in the courtyard can be connected by native plantings on a roadside right-of-way to the pollinator pockets in a city park. And perhaps that park can be linked through re-wilded rights-of-way and yards to the native-plant field buffers on farms at the edge of town. Those wildlife friendly farms can then be linked to each other and to native pastures, and so on, until our great national parks and local preserves are no longer ecological islands with isolated and therefore threatened populations of plants and animals, but are part of a thriving cross-country network of habitats.

Equally important is that native plantings where we live and work can make nature experiences accessible to all.

However, many people don’t want nature experiences. Tallamy quotes Aldo Leopold: “There are some who can live without wild things and some who cannot.” To those who can live without, Tallamy replies, no, you can’t. We cannot live without breathable air, drinkable water,  fertile soil, crop pollination, carbon sequestration, flood moderation, drought mitigation or pathogen control. These “ecosystem services” can only be provided by ecosystems that depend for their health on native plants.

Many others will discover that, though they are glad to do something positive for the planet, they are powerfully drawn to the experiences of the moment, the all-fulfilling here and now, that come from encounters with the natural world.

The Eudora-based Len Scotto, a fabulous nature photographer, says that birds, returning during migration, “feel like family” to him. “It feels like a reunion to see them after a long and cold winter,” he says.

This emotional dimension is something Tallamy emphasizes. “As you become familiar with the natural cycles that occur in your yard, you will start to anticipate them, subconsciously at first, but then as something you eagerly await,” he writes.

If you watch “the parade of butterflies, native bees, beetles, wasps, ants, and flies seeking nectar from your blooming (plants),” he adds, you may well experience feelings of joy, hope and belonging.

“I am willing to bet that by helping to build Homegrown National Park, you will build a connection to place more powerfully and quicker than you ever have in the past,” Tallamy writes. “By restoring the plant and animal communities that belong where you are, you will develop an intimate connection with each community.”

We build a sense of belonging by bringing back what else belongs.

Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.