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WV parks growing wildlife habitat by mowing less


Charleston Gazette-Mail

LAVALETTE, W.Va.  — At state parks throughout West Virginia, wildflowers bloom where once only grass grew.

Some of the flowers were planted, but most grew simply because workers stopped mowing them. Parks officials call it “habitat restoration through reduced mowing,” and examples are popping up everywhere.

At this time last year, Beech Fork State Park Superintendent Dillard Price would have been kneeling on freshly mowed grass. Now, because the state Parks Section is seeking to create wildlife habitat by cutting back on mowing, Price kneels in a pasture filled with milkweed and other wildlife-attracting plants.
(Photo by John McCoy)

At Beech Fork State Park in Wayne County, a former softball field and a grassy area near a popular trailhead have been allowed to grow. Milkweed, Joe Pye weed, ironweed and other butterfly-attracting meadow plants are starting to sprout.

Dillard Price, Beech Fork’s superintendent, hopes eventually that the newly created meadows become magnets for butterflies, honeybees and other pollen-spreading insects, as well as moles, voles, rabbits, wild turkeys and deer.

“When that happens, these areas are going to become really popular with our visitors,” Price said.

That’s one of the main goals of a statewide initiative launched three years ago by parks chief Sam England.

“It started when I was still a superintendent at Stonewall Jackson State Park,” England recalled. “We were mowing everywhere, even in places the public never saw. I took a hard look at all the mowing we were doing and asked the staff to cut back, and to use the time savings to concentrate on other things that needed maintenance.

“Now you go to Stonewall and you see some fields where the grass is taller and other plants are coming in. The staff still has to go in from time to time to keep invasive species such as bittersweet vine, barberry, autumn olive and Japanese stiltgrass from taking over; but that’s an every two-or-three-year thing instead of all summer, every summer.”

When he became chief, England inherited a system in a budget crisis. He realized that by cutting back on the amount of mowing being done, he could kill two birds with one stone — use staff time formerly spent on mowing to perform much-needed maintenance on infrastructure, and at the same time restore a type of wildlife habitat that most parks lacked.

“Basically, we had manicured grass and mature forest, with nothing in between,” he said. “The forest edges weren’t buffered by meadows like they used to be. Grass and mature forest aren’t great for wildlife. Meadows are.”

England asked park superintendents to reduce mowing by 10 percent. This year, he challenged them to reduce it a little bit more if possible. He asked an assistant, Sissie Summers, to organize and coordinate the creation of new wildlife habitat.

Summers envisions a system-wide effort to erect interpretive signs so that visitors will view the un-mowed areas as burgeoning wildlife habitat. She said individual parks are free to experiment with different approaches.

“At Beech Fork, for example, they’re transplanting milkweed from areas that have it to areas that don’t,” she explained. “They even have a campground host who’s growing wildflowers from seeds to transplant into the meadows.

“At Camp Creek State Forest, they’ve planted wildflowers so they’ll get this huge bloom of color later in the summer. At Cacapon State Park, they started with 5 acres of reduced mowing and this year they expanded it to 10 acres. The new 5 acres were disked and planted with seed to create a pollinator zone.”

Summers said parks with large meadow areas could have specialized meadow-exploration nature trails simply by having the staff mow narrow, winding paths through the tall grass, much like a farmer’s corn maze.

“That would encourage people to see these plants and butterflies and wildlife up close,” she added. “I think visitors would love it. Our [park] naturalists are crazy about the idea. So are the state’s master naturalists; they’ll have new plants and critters to study.”

Summers said the initiative’s greatest challenge could come from park visitors who misunderstand what’s going on.

“It’s not that we’re shirking our duties or being lazy,” she said. “Our maintenance people are still working as hard as they ever did, just on different things. At the same time, we’re just swinging back to [parks’] original purpose, which is to create natural habitat.”

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