Lawrence Parks and Rec management: Staff turnover, lack of plan led to remnant prairie herbicide spray

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All the people who knew how to care for the remnant prairie behind Prairie Park Nature Center have retired or resigned in the past few years, city staff members said Monday, and there was no firm plan in place to share that knowledge with newer staff.

The prairie has never been plowed and has been growing in that area for thousands of years. Lawrence Parks and Recreation Department staff members on April 27 sprayed essentially the whole area with broadleaf herbicide spray, which has killed and is killing millions of flowers and plants. The grasses are expected to survive.

Derek Rogers, director of LPRD, and Mark Hecker, assistant director of parks, addressed what happened with the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board on Monday evening.

Hecker said in the last week, he has been trying to find out how and why the spray happened. He wanted to find out what staff members were trying to do, what the intention was and whether they followed city policy.

The city lost a lot of institutional knowledge in the last three years with the retirements or resignations of the manager, supervisor and field staff of that division, Hecker said.

Hecker said it was his fault that the information about how to properly care for the remnant prairie did not get passed down to newer staff members.

“That information didn’t get passed from person to person,” Hecker said. “So the people doing the spraying thought, ‘Let’s clean up’ — ‘the weeds,’ was their term — in the prairie that they were managing as a grassland. We manage thousands of acres of grassland, and in many cases, we are trying to eradicate the broadleaf weeds in those prairies. This one is specifically different than other grasslands we’ve managed throughout the city.”

He said the supervisor didn’t know that this was a remnant prairie that should have been treated differently.

“This (prairie) is unique, and I wish we would have recognized that it was unique before we did what we did,” Hecker said.

Derek Rogers, director of the Lawrence Parks and Recreation Department (seated at the far end of the table), speaks to the LPRD Advisory Board during the May 8, 2023 meeting. (Screenshot)

He said city staff members are working with local and regional experts to work on writing policy and educating staff about how to care for the prairie. That could include spot-spraying to manage invasive species, as the city has done in the past.

The city is also working on updating the city’s integrated pest management plan, Rogers said. The plan was developed in 2005, according to Hecker.

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“We’ve been running with that management practice since that time,” Hecker said. “Now, in that policy, there’s also a gap, so it doesn’t specifically talk about remnant prairies, which it should. So there’s a gap that needs to be written, and that needs to happen.”

Brett Ramey (Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska), spoke during public comment to say that the “invisibilization and lack of inclusion of Native people in stewardship practices and decisionmaking really makes things like this more possible.” He asked that LPRD include Native people in stewarding the land going forward.

Others who provided public comment raised concerns about how this had happened within a year after the city had cut Prairie Park Nature Center from the budget proposed for this year. It was included in the budget following outcry from dozens of community members. Some who spoke Monday said they were afraid the city was going to try to get rid of the center.

Rogers told the advisory board he didn’t typically respond to public comment, but “I do want to stick a fork in the conspiracy theories.”

“We have no intention of closing the building,” he said. “We have not talked with developers. It’s parkland that will remain parkland. We’re not trying to get the property sold out there, so we need to put that to bed.”

That didn’t answer some other questions that members of the public have raised, however. Some who spoke Monday, and during last week’s Lawrence City Commission meeting, raised questions about the Prairie Park Nature Center gift shop closing, the center no longer accepting injured wildlife for treatment, the donation box being “taken away” and more.

Board member Jacki Becker asked staff members to provide some information about those concerns. Rogers said details will be included in an upcoming memo to the Lawrence City Commission, but he said donations are now online, so “we are streamlining the way we do some of our processes.”

Board member John Blazek asked why staff hadn’t followed up on a brainstorming session held in October. He pointed to the LPRD management team’s salaries — more than $100,000 annually — and noted that property taxes have been increasing yearly.

“All I hear is excuses. Somebody’s got to make answers,” Blazek said. “Derek, Mark, Lindsay (Hart, assistant director of recreation) — somebody’s got to answer the community members, or maybe we need a change.”

August Rudisell/Lawrence Times Plants wither and die at the remnant prairie behind Prairie Park Nature Center, Sunday, May 7, 2023, about 10 days after they were sprayed with herbicide.
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Other community members said they would like to see more transparency and be able to find out ahead of sprays in public areas.

Hecker said it is the city’s policy to put up signage at entrances to park areas for 24 hours before and after herbicide sprays. In this case, however, he said signage was not used.

“This was done in error,” Rogers said. “It was not done intentionally or maliciously, and we are committed to learning from this. We’ll do everything we can to rectify the decision, or the situation, to the best of our ability.”

Daniel Lassman, a restoration ecologist, said it may be possible to get some of the prairie flowers and plants back.

“But this will never recover — that’s just fact,” he said. He called for a full investigation independent of LPRD.

The Parks and Recreation Advisory Board meets on the second Mondays of each month at the LPRD offices, 1141 Massachusetts St.

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Related posts:

Ken Lassman: My interview with the prairie (Column)

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”It has been just more than one year since the old growth prairie that grows next to the Prairie Park Nature Center was sprayed … I decided: why not go to the source and interview the prairie itself?” Ken Lassman writes in this anthropomorphic column.

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Mackenzie Clark (she/her), reporter/founder of The Lawrence Times, can be reached at mclark (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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