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Improving the ecological health of natural areas within your park system

Improving the ecological health of natural areas within your park system A natural resource management plan assesses the ecological quality of natural areas and prioritizes recommendations for preserving, restoring, and maintaining native plant communities.

Millions of people take advantage of local parks every year. To protect precious natural areas within parks and to mitigate the negative impacts of people, invasive species, and climate change, park systems require a strategic approach to long-term care. But how do you know where to start? We recommend starting with a natural resource management plan to identify and map out native plant communities and assess ecological quality. Knowing what you have can help you prioritize the restoration of natural features within your unique park system.

What about funding? Various grants are available to cities to restore native plant communities. A natural resource management plan will provide agencies with a clear understanding of your intent, increasing your likelihood of obtaining grant funding.

Here are four simple steps to create a natural resource management plan for your park system.

1. Establish your goals.

Think about natural areas in your park system and the level of effort you’re willing to expend to preserve and restore them. Are pristine plant communities achievable? Should that be your goal? Are you simply aiming to lose no ground to invasive species? Are you seeking to increase biodiversity? Is it important to direct resources to natural areas within neighborhoods that are home to disadvantaged people? The first step toward prioritizing restoration in your park system is establishing a shared understanding of what you’re hoping to achieve.

2. Perform an ecological inventory of each park.

Conduct a plant community inventory and assessment of each natural area of your park system. Are your parks composed of wetlands, forests, or degraded grasslands? Where are the most biodiverse areas of the park that contain native plant communities? Where are invasive species (e.g., buckthorn, tamarisk, knapweed, or reed canary grass) most prevalent? Are there other negative impacts on natural areas—unplanned trails, erosion, deer herbivory, or insect and disease damage? This inventory and assessment will help you map out existing plant communities and evaluate their level of ecological quality and biodiversity.

3. Prioritize the parks for restoration and management.

After conducting the ecological inventory, identify the pertinent social factors to score each park in order of priority for restoration and management. This may include the number of visitors or popularity of the park, whether the park serves vulnerable communities, etc. Ecologists assign prioritization values to the social and ecological characteristics that you decide pertains to your park system, which are then used to prioritize park management. The result of this step is an objective calculation of your parks from highest natural resource value (allocated the most management resources) to those of lowest value (allocated the fewest management resources).

4. Develop a natural resource restoration/management plan for each park.

Plan a phased approach for restoration efforts within each park, beginning with the most intact plant communities to protect the highest value assets first. Then move your restoration efforts to more degraded areas in successive order. This approach is cost effective, allowing you to focus on protecting the highest ecological quality and social value areas first to preserve them for future generations.

Once you have your parks prioritized and restoration areas outlined, you can then develop cost estimates. This gives you a clear path to actionable improvements within your park system and serves as a great tool to leverage for grant funding.

At Barr, our landscape architects, ecologists, and civil engineers can help you develop resilient, maintainable parklands that build on the natural strengths of your site. Contact us to learn more about how a natural resource management plan can help you achieve lasting outcomes in your park system for people to gather, learn, play, and relax.

About the author

Fred Rozumalski is a landscape architect and ecologist with more than three decades of experience in landscape architecture, ecology, horticulture, native-landscape design and restoration, and lake and wetland shoreline restoration. Working with a broad range of public and private clients, he strives to work with nature to create economically viable, low-maintenance landscapes that are beautiful and functional for people while also supporting plant and animal diversity and providing climate resilience.

Related projects

Bloomington natural resources prioritization and management

Barr worked with the City of Bloomington, Minnesota, to create a Parks Natural Areas Management Plan to prioritize areas of restoration and management, as well as to establish restoration strategies within top ranked parks. With a clear path forward, the City of Bloomington was able to leverage this plan to receive increased budget from City Council and to back grant applications to support park natural areas.

Natural resources management plan for recreational area

In 2020, the City of Winona, Minnesota, wrote the Bluffs Traverse Master Plan, a roadmap for recreation and park uses that recommended ecological planning to balance park enjoyment with ecological preservation. As a first step, the city hired Barr to conduct a natural resources inventory and develop a stewardship plan to help the city and stakeholders better understand the park’s native plant communities and determine the best placement of trails.

City of Minnetonka natural resources management plan

The City of Minnetonka, Minnesota, partnered with Barr to set direction and priorities for natural resources protection and enhancements for the city. With a holistic understanding of the historic and present state of Minnetonka’s natural resources, Barr developed urban ecology management strategies through a comprehensive plan. The final natural resources management plan presents suggestions for ecosystem regeneration and practical strategies for mitigating negative impacts.

Spring Lake Park Reserve natural resources management plan

Barr assisted Dakota County in developing a natural resources management plan for Spring Lake Park Reserve, a scenic 1,200-acre park overlooking the Mississippi River in Minnesota, to help staff ecologists and park planners determine priorities for ecological protection and regeneration. With a better understanding of ecological issues and opportunities, the County Board and Planning Commission used the plan to further prioritize and fund natural resources improvement in Spring Lake Park Reserve.

Image gallery (below):

  1. It’s best to prioritize the management of high-quality natural areas first to protect existing biodiversity.

  2. Management can also be prioritized to include cultural resources such as public access or number of visitors.


Fred Rozumalski, Landscape Architect and Ecologist
Fred Rozumalski
Landscape Architect and Ecologist
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