Thursday, March 14, 2024

Blooming Success

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Celebrating the hard work of creating pollinator-friendly habitat in Oregon and Texas

Residents of Portland, Oregon, don’t have to travel far to immerse themselves in the unique natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest. In the northwest corner of the city lies the nearly 5,200-acre Forest Park, the largest urban park in the United States. Originally conceived by John Charles Olmsted—son of Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect behind New York’s Central Park and Jackson Park in Chicago—Forest Park attracts about one million visits each year from cyclists, walkers, birders, and runners drawn to the park’s 80 miles of trails and dense canopy of Douglas fir, Western red cedar, and other trees.

Already treasured by Portlanders, Forest Park is unique for a new reason. A 67-acre portion of the park now provides an important habitat for pollinators, resulting from a novel collaboration between Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), Portland Parks and Recreation, and Metro, a regional governance agency. In 2023, the project was awarded the EPRI & North American Pollinator Protection Campaign’s (NAPPC) Electric Power Award, which annually recognizes successful and sustainable initiatives in the electric power industry that benefit pollinators.

“The North American Pollinator Protection Campaign, managed by Pollinator Partnership, has been recognizing pollinator champions in various categories for 24 years. In collaboration with EPRI in 2020, we created an award for the electric power sector,” said Kelly Bills, executive director of the Pollinator Partnership. This non-profit works with farmers, gardeners, land managers, scientists, and industry to develop tools to promote pollinator health.

Winners of the award are chosen by a panel of scientists who evaluate applicants based on a project’s tangible benefits to pollinators, which includes commitments to bolster pollinators over the long term. Past winners have included American Electric Power (AEP), Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA), and Disney, which earned recognition for co-locating pollinator habitat and solar power plants at Disney World in Florida.

Good for Pollinators, Good for Vegetation Management

BPA’s involvement in the Forest Park pollinator project, better known as the P3 Project, had its roots in the federal government’s recognition of the critical importance of pollinators to the economy and acknowledgment that populations of many bees, pollinator insects, birds, and bats were in dangerous decline. For example, in 2014, the Obama administration issued a presidential memorandum to create a federal strategy to bolster the health of pollinators, which resulted in the development of pollinator-friendly best management practices on federal lands and a host of other actions.

“Because BPA is a federal agency within the Department of Energy (DOE), recognition of the peril facing pollinators and their importance to the economy was shared throughout DOE,” said Nancy Wittpenn, environmental protection specialist at BPA.

Within BPA, Wittpenn and other concerned staff launched a pollinator workgroup when the agency became a founding member of EPRI’s Power-in-Pollinators Initiative, which began in 2018 and is the largest collaboration of U.S. power companies and agencies working collectively to support pollinators.

For Chris Morse, who oversaw vegetation management in the region at the time, the decision to participate in the project was easy because it promised to reduce the risks posed to BPA’s transmission system infrastructure located in Forest Park. “We eradicate any vegetation that is tall enough to grow and cause issues with our lines,” said Morse, a BPA supervisory natural resource specialist. “We maintain our rights-of-way to eliminate incompatible species that have outage potential and identify and eradicate invasive and noxious weeds. Replacing them with low-growing pollinator-friendly species and native flora makes strategic and economic sense because less need for management usually equates to lower costs. There’s really no reason not to do it.”

A Commitment to Collaboration

But transitioning from an agreement that made 67 acres of Forest Park BPA owns into both a haven for pollinators and less susceptible to vegetation-caused outages required years of advanced planning and collaboration. Indeed, once BPA agreed to participate in the effort, representatives from the city of Portland and Metro held outreach meetings to drive planning and cooperation. “Within a year, we had phases of the project identified and determined who was responsible for what, from maintenance to funding to planning,” said Morse.

The initial phase of the project was devoted to site preparation. Specifically, that meant the removal of Scotch broom in 2016 and the eradication of Himalayan blackberry, work that continued through 2017 and 2018. The City of Portland contractors also targeted invasive grasses and herbaceous species. Planting new, native, and pollinator-friendly vegetation started in the fall of 2018. Elaine Stewart, a botanist with Metro, led the work. Stewart collaborated closely with BPA and the city in devising her vegetation plan.

For example, while supporting pollinators was paramount, the new plants and flowers also needed to be resilient to BPA’s vegetation management activities. “The planting had to work within the constraints of the infrastructure of the access roads and the structures that keep the transmission system off the ground with necessary clearances,” said Morse. “For example, we have to mow around each structure up to a distance of 30 to 50 feet and maintain the roads, and we didn’t want to plant something that can’t sustain the impact of mowers and trucks and boots on the ground.”

To help guide plant selection, BPA’s geospatial professionals developed topographic style maps called isoclearance maps that showed how tall vegetation could be across the site without violating BPA’s vegetation clearance criteria. The planting plan also considered the unique needs of pollinators in the Pacific Northwest.

“Pollinators have evolved to access types of plants and vegetation, and that is done via color, flower shape, bloom time, and nectar availability,” said Wittpenn. “We have three growing seasons, spring, summer, and fall, so it was important to have plant variety and nectar that would attract pollinators whenever they were active.”

In 2018, nearly 250 pounds of native wildflower and grass seed mixes were added to the area’s existing native vegetation. In early 2019, about 6,000 native shrubs were also planted. For example, wildflowers like the Prairie shooting star, Showy milkweed, and Blue-eyed Mary were planted along with shrubs like the Red-flowering currant and Willow and grasses such as Dewey’s sedge.

A Model for the Future

The third phase of the project began in May of 2019. It focused on preventing the return of non-native vegetation and the implementation of a long-term vegetation management plan, which is done in collaboration with Portland Parks and Recreation. This includes eradicating any vegetation that could threaten transmission system infrastructure in the park every three years. Mowing schedules and techniques have also been adjusted to control vegetation while promoting pollinator health, and workers tasked with removing weeds are trained to identify native plants.

The benefits to pollinators because of the project are well-documented. Indeed, the non-profit Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation was hired by Metro to monitor and document pollinator abundance between 2016 and 2021—a timeframe that included the three years before project planting took place and three years after. In addition, the Xerces Society also compared the BPA rights-of-way in Forest Park that benefitted from pollinator habitat restoration and similar rights of way that were left untouched. The results confirmed greater overall pollinator abundance in BPA’s rights of way.

Both Morse and Wittpenn are gratified by the improvement in pollinator health in Forest Park. But perhaps the most significant benefit of the project is that it has created a blueprint BPA can follow to benefit pollinators in other rights-of-way. “This project is a model for us and our partners and has laid the foundation for future work,” said Wittpenn. “We now use this area to show other groups that may want to initiate a pollinator project on rights-of-way we own how it can be done.”

In another collaboration with Metro, BPA is following the same approach it used on the P3 project to create a pollinator-friendly habitat in a transmission line right-of-way along the Willamette River. BPA is also working with a local soil and water conservation district and a regional park and recreation district to apply this model to other rights-of-way in the Portland area.

The success of these initial projects continues to build momentum for future pollinator initiatives. “There are plenty of BPA-owned rights-of-way in the Portland area,” said Morse. “It’s a straightforward thing for us to do now. If it fits into the work the crews are doing anyway, it’s very easy for them to work with other partners to make a project work and help pollinators.”

A Hill Country Revival

New Braunfels, Texas, is home to a remarkable comeback story—for pollinators, the plants that support them, and a unique Hill Country ecosystem. The Headwaters at the Comal are a short distance from downtown New Braunfels, which is located between Austin and San Antonio. The 16-acre site is where the Comal River—the shortest navigable river in Texas—begins. The river is fed by the Comal Springs, the largest naturally occurring springs in the state.

Today, Headwaters at the Comal is a haven for those keen to experience the natural environment in a way that inhabitants of the Hill Country from thousands of years ago would recognize.

“The springs have supported people for 10,000 years or more,” said Nancy Pappas, managing director of the non-profit organization that operates the site and provides a wide range of educational and volunteer opportunities for residents and visitors. “It became the original drinking source for this growing community when German settlers started settling here.”

A few short years ago, however, the 16 acres were far from the natural, cultural, and historic idyll they are today. As the town grew, the municipal utility New Braunfels Utilities (NBU) was tasked with managing the precious water resource. Initially, that meant pumping water from the Comal Springs. Later, wells were drilled to directly access water from the Edwards Aquifer. NBU used the site for its operations and fleet facilities, covering much of it with asphalt and warehouses and expanding the working water plant.

A Higher and Better Purpose

Eventually, NBU decided to move its operations, a decision that began the transformation of the site from a retired operations and warehouse facility into an area recognized as runner-up for the 2023 NAPPC Electric Power Award. Pappas credits the original vision of NBU’s board of directors with kickstarting the metamorphosis. “It’s a municipal utility run by a board of directors who are community members appointed by the city council,” said Pappas. “The utility brought this property to the board and said, what are we going to do with this? Some board members said they would only support restoring the damage to that site and using it for a higher and better purpose.”

Once the decision was made in 2012 to transform the site, a master plan was developed with the help of partners like the architecture firm Lake-Flato, which specializes in connecting buildings to the natural environment, Ten Eyck Landscape Architects, and the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. The fundamental goal of the plan was to recreate the native prairie landscape that existed for thousands of years and protect the Comal Springs riparian area.

“It was essentially starting from zero to do our best to recreate what the habitat would have been,” said Jack Downey, program coordinator at Headwaters at the Comal. “What the restoration is attempting to do is add back the ecosystem services that the site would have provided, one of those specifically being the pollinator piece.”

Establishing a pollinator-friendly habitat required research about plants that were native not only to Texas, but specifically to the Hill Country. It also took some detective work because some of the species identified were not commercially available, such as the Gray Golden Aster, Rough Stoneseed, Texas Prairie Parsley, and Ozark Grass, which are all present on the site today. In the initial planting, Downey prioritized a mix of host plants where butterflies and other pollinators could live and raise their young and forage plants to feed on.

Another priority in selecting grasses, flowers, and other vegetation was ensuring a reliable food supply throughout the year. “We wanted to have a seasonal progression of flowering plants,” Downey said. “In the fall, when we have our Monarch butterflies migrating back through the area, we made intentional choices to have flowering species like Frostweed and Goldenrods that bloom when other species are fading out through the summer heat.”

One lesson that has emerged is that establishing a pollinator-friendly habitat is not a set-it-and-forget-it task. The ongoing maintenance involves enlisting volunteers to remove invasive species by hand. It also requires flexibility in vegetation management and planting. “The landscape is dynamic and will change from year to year, so some of the species we see this year might not show up again for another couple of years,” said Downey. “It’s definitely more of a process than a destination.”

The mission of Headwaters at the Comal is not just to restore the area’s habitat but also to engage the community and connect people to nature. Maintenance of pollinator habitat, educational tours, and documenting species provide ample opportunities for residents to experience and support the ecosystem. For instance, butterfly monitoring teams come to the site monthly to record the number of butterfly and moth species (to date, teams have observed 74 butterfly species and over 100 moth species). The non-profit partnered with New Braunfels Kids Club last year to install a pollinator garden at their site and has participated in the city’s annual Monarch Festival.

While supporting pollinator habitat is critical, it’s just one of many pieces that combine to create a thriving ecosystem. “Many of these different initiatives overlap and build on one another. As important as pollinators are to the ecosystem’s health, it’s just one part,” said Downey. “But that is what an ecosystem is. It’s all these different pieces that together have coherence, logic, beauty, and purpose. It’s exciting to see that all come together here.”

EPRI Technical Expert:

Jessica Fox
For more information, contact

Banner photo courtesy Bonneville Power Administration