Black River Audubon’s 2018 Burke “Plants for Birds” Project

Black River Planting - Elyria HS Students (Photo Allison Farrand)

The work finally begins! Elyria High students are shown planting a small evergreen at Black River Audubon Park. This photo was used during David Yarnold’s keynote address at the 2019 convention in Milwaukee.

The Place

In early 2018, Black River Audubon was granted a $2,500 Burke Plants for Birds grant. We put it to good use restoring a small piece of land that had been given to the City of Elyria by our founder Jack Smith. Earlier, he had acquired the land which had been an informal dumping ground at between the downtown area and the Black River. His intent was to clear the trash and create a passive nature park before turning it over to the city to maintain. His stipulations were that it would always be a park and it would always carry the Black River Audubon name.

That goal was reached by 2011 when it was given to the Parks and Recreation department during a small naming ceremony. Jack, who died less than a year later, gave explicit instructions that his name was not to be used for the park or anything on it. He wanted to emphasize the Audubon chapter he founded in 1958.

Chapter members continued, with the help of other local organizations, to more thoroughly clean the woods sloping down to the river. A good deal of trash had also accumulated among the trees. It took years, but by the fall of 2017 it was considered ready for planting to begin. However, no firm plans had been made when National announced the Plants for Birds grant competition in early January 2018.

The Grant

With about three weeks allowed before the grant deadline, Andy Lance, our conservation chairperson at the time, was asked if he would write it. He immediately agreed. Kate Pilacky, a BRAS board member and employee of Western Reserve Land Conservancy was asked to assist in planning the work of the project. As chapter president, but lacking in nature skills and knowledge, I took on the role of rounding up other social service organizations to cooperate with us in planting the trees on Elyria Pride Day on May 18.

Although I can’t speak to the specifics of the actual planting, I can address some aspects  of  a successful proposal. In organizing the event, I quickly realized we would need volunteers from a number of organizations. I wanted only non-profit organizations dedicated to a variety of goals. Finally, it seemed we should try to broaden the range of volunteers further by emphasizing a diversity of age, gender and ethnicity. In common with most Audubon chapters, our membership is largely older and white, a homogeneity that needs to change. Fortunately, I was successful in achieving all three of these goals.

Black River Planting - Mayor and Volounteers

Holly Brinda, Elyria mayor at the time of planting, addresses just some of the volunteers near the beginning of work at Black River Audubon Park, May 18, 2018.

Knowing that high school students often have community service obligations, I contacted Elyria High School’s (EHS) National Honors Society advisor. She agreed to mention it to the juniors in NHS who would be looking for just such an activity to meet their obligation. Four or five agreed.

I also knew that local service organizations were always looking for community projects. A friend of mine in Elyria Sunshine Rotary told me that group would definitely agree to help. He also mentioned their program at the high school in which local businesspeople mentor EHS minority students. Another five African American students volunteered.

Western Reserve Land Conservancy (WRLC and the Nord Foundation, which had assisted annually in cleaning the trash, agreed to send volunteers to the project once again. Finally, we publicized the coming event in the local paper and residents appeared to help on the day of planting. All of my diversity goals were met.

Meanwhile, Andy and Kate quickly put together a well-detailed plan for the actual restoration. Andy selected twelve trees, native to this area, but rarely seen here today, while Kate developed a wild garden project designed to attract pollinators.

The proposal Andy wrote included the variety of trees and wildflowers to be planted and provided the names and nature of the groups that agreed to help.  I was confident we would receive a grant and that assurance wasn’t misplaced. National informed us some time later of the acceptance of our proposal. The letter also mentioned that National considered our proposal to be one of the best. Accordingly, we were told that National would send a videographer and reporter to the planting so it could be used in publicizing the Burke program!

The Work

Black River Planting - Elyria HS Students (Photo Allison Farrand)

The work finally begins! Elyria High students are shown planting a small evergreen at Black River Audubon Park. This photo was used during David Yarnold’s keynote address at the 2019 convention in Milwaukee.

The day went smoothly for a project involving so many organizations.  The honors students all appeared, as did volunteers from WRLC and Nord Foundation. Rotary adult members and students came directly from a project of their own the same morning. Due to that commitment, they arrived late, but we had that covered. Since the grant enabled us to buy more trees than needed for our inner-city park, the Rotary volunteers went to a recreational park and planted six more.

The event went perfectly. All of our promised volunteers, and more, appeared and we finished more quickly than expected. The students thoroughly enjoyed the tree and wildflower plantings, things none of them had done before. National’s reporter and photographer were there to cover the event from beginning to end. Eventually, the resulting story, titled “Once a Polluted Mess, Now a Healthy Riverside Park,” appeared in the Audubon website. Anyone interested can google the title and easily find the story. Then, at the 2019 convention in Milwaukee, David Yarnold highlighted our project as a local chapter success story in his keynote address.

The Takeaways

What should be taken from our experience? A successful proposal requires outlining the desired project in detail, something that Andy and Kate had experience doing. It also needs to demonstrate widespread community interest and direct involvement in the proposed project. Finally, the expected volunteers should be diverse in in age, gender and ethnicity since the birding movement needs to strengthen its appeal to all people. We didn’t achieve our goal of diversifying our membership.  That was due to a lack of follow up with the participating groups, especially the students, a mistake that needs to be corrected in any future projects.

What’s Next?

Black River Audubon, building on the success of its 2018 grant proposal, repeated it in 2019, receiving a second grant for the restoration of an historic piece of land in nearby Oberlin, Ohio.

Black River Planting - Original
After the work is done. Two trees shown to give an idea of their size at planting, most were approximately five feet in height.
Black River Planting - Two Years Later
Two years later! The planting appears to have been successful! This tree was no higher than its fencing when planted. The trees in the background are atop a sharp cliff that slopes down to the Black River which bisects both Elyria and Lorain. Pollinator-attracting flowers were planted along the tree line by Elyria High students. The invasive burdock shown to the left on the tree line presents a continuing challenge to eradicate.
Black River Planting - Rotary and Students
Sunshine Rotary Club members show students proper tree planting techniques. The man shown sitting to the right is Frank Whitfield, Lorain County Urban League president at the time. Ironically, he upset Mayor Brinda (shown in the first photo addressing the volunteers) in Elyria’s 2019 mayor’s race. He ran as an independent to became the city’s first elected African American mayor.
Black River Planting - Two Year Maintenance
Black River Audubon board members weeded, mulched and adjusted the trees’ protective fencing on June 7, 2020 two years after the original planting. Shown, to the left of the tree, are Larry Wilson, programming and kestrel program chairman, Danielle Squire, incoming head of the conservation committee, and Dick Lee, education chairperson. To the right are outgoing conservation chair Andy Lance, who wrote the successful Burke Plants for Birds proposal in 2018. He has since taken a job with a land conservancy in the Buffalo area but returns to Elyria on weekends for the time being. Charlie Weil and Kevin McGuinn are both new board members, as is Danielle Squire. Jim Jablonski organized the volunteer day and took this photo.