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Community Members Becoming Champions for Nature in City

“I really did not know what was overtaking some of the vacant properties and now I not only know what it is, but how bad it is and how to remove it so I can make these vacant properties healthier,” avowed Belinda Caldwell-Shelby, 49. Caldwell-Shelby is taking part in an afternoon community program hosted by Heartland Conservation Alliance to learn how to be an environmental steward in her neighborhood. The program, Green Guard, is funded by the Missouri Department of Conservation.

ABOVE: Green Guard Stewardship Teacher, Kristen Bontrager (far right), leads Stewards on a hike through a forest patch to learn about the importance of biodiversity. Bontrager, an ecologist at Earth Works, also provides mentorship to stewards. BELOW: Teachers help students identify yellow flicker bird feathers discovered on a hike.

Honeysuckle, both bush and japanese, present major problems for native ecosystems throughout Kansas City. These Lonicera spp. were introduced in the 1800’s for their curb appeal and are now invasive throughout Missouri. Fast forward 200 years and we can see that this plant increases erosion through its shallow root system and is not suitable for the native wildlife.

“It's drowning out all the other native plants," explained Trania Thomas, 14. Thomas, a student at East High School, Kansas City Mo., is interested in environmental engineering and enjoys being out in nature to read and find peace.

The Green Guard stewards and HCA Youth Council invite the community to join them in this important work on Saturday, April 14 from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. at the main pavilion at Blue Valley Park. Attendees will learn to identify invasive honeysuckle and help restore health to this community treasure. We will also have environmental education activities throughout the day for the whole family to enjoy. Come learn what stewardship can mean for you.

When our community loses native plants, we lose the ecosystem services that provide oxygen and water free of heavy metals, toxins and pollutants; we lose the wildlife; and we lose the potential for discovery. Some of the key benefits nature provides are mental peace and well being.

“Invasive plants could be killing off important plants we could use for medicine or other resources we depend upon,” stressed Chloe Ross, 14, of North East High School, a current Green Guard Steward interested in helping give back to the planet that does so much for us.

The decline of bee and monarch populations has been well-documented and the threat of invasive plants displacing food sources for these key species is looming large. Insects pollinate the plants that provide one out of every three bites of food that we take.

And if you didn't have enough reasons to dislike these bad plants, they also prevent the growth of native plants with chemicals. And they further harm wildlife by providing less nutritious food sources and less suitable nesting habitat for birds. ​

“The bottom line is that if a pollinator is going to an invasive, it is not going to a native,” asserted HCA Education and Outreach Coordinator, Ayana Curran-Howes, 22. “Stepping out into nature has a transformative effect. As soon as we (the stewards) got out into the forest, there was an undeniable increase in attention, curiosity and connection to what was being taught," shared Curran-Howes. "This is what youth and communities need in order to connect with nature and turn the tide for environmental justice in the city.” Removing the invasive plants increases visibility, safety, accessibility and potential for community engagement and development. The Green Guard Stewardship Program has helped to improve five vacant lots to date and we are hopeful that this program can more fully address the problem of unused, unsafe space in communities, transforming them into oasis for wildlife and people.

“Honeysuckle affects all living organisms, including humans” argues Jonathan Riley, 25, a current Green Guard Steward, hitting on the truth that we are not separate from the natural world and reduced biodiversity does impact us, even if we cannot see it in our everyday lives.

These Green Guard Stewards are learning to see the impacts in their lives that are not often attributed to invasive plants, ecological devastation and climate change. They now “see it [invasive honeysuckle] everywhere” and they are telling their peers about its impact. Join us this Saturday to learn how you can have a positive impact. Join us at Blue Valley Park this Saturday, April 14 at 10 am to learn how you can have a positive impact.

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