Photograph by Steven Higgs

The Bryan Park Naturalization Project provides habitat for a wide variety of plant and animal species. Native species predominate the ecosystem along the Bryan Park Creek.

Steve Cotter, the natural resources manager for the Bloomington Parks and Recreation Department, is at home in Bryan Park. He walks to the creek and leans against the wooden fence that protects the little-known but ecologically important wildlife habitat that exists in and around the creek.

"We had a problem with the creek here, it was badly eroded and very difficult to maintain," Cotter said. "It had steep, vertical slopes where every time it rained, the creek would undercut the bank, and then the bank would fall into the creek and go downstream. It's bad for the water quality, and it's not good for the park, either."

Part of the remedy was the Bryan Park Creek Naturalization Project, which was also one of the first steps toward Bloomington's certification as a Community Wildlife Habitat.

The project involved vegetating the creek bank, with the emphasis on native plant species, using the plants' natural abilities to protect the creek.

"The thinking was that the native plants provide their own type of beauty," said Cotter. "And it makes sense for the location, because they're adapted to it."

PHOTO ALBUM: Bryan Park Naturalization project, by Steven Higgs

High hopes for Bryan Park Creek

The goals of the Bryan Park Creek Naturalization Project are both ecologically and monetarily important. The primary goal was to improve water quality in the area. Others included reviving the wildlife habitat and reducing maintenance costs.

"The parks department recognizes that the cost of mowing is getting very high because of the cost of gas," said Lucille Bertuccio, president of the Center for Sustainable Living. "And mowing also increases the amount of global warming gases. The more you mow, the more problems you're going to have."

Bertuccio worked with Cotter on the Community Wildlife Habitat project. They both encourage the Bloomington community to get involved.

"We have periodic volunteer workdays out here on the first Wednesday of each month," said Cotter. "People can come out and help us maintain the planting."

Photograph by Steven Higgs

Bryan Park users can enjoy the natural beauty of the naturalization as they stroll through the park. The project also lowers maintenance costs for the city.

Cotter said that, over time, the naturalization project should also reduce the amount of labor that goes into the area's upkeep. This is a good thing because the slopes along the edge of the creek make it a hazardous place for mowing crews. Eventually the plants will take care of themselves.

Native plants bring beauty, help to creek

Another goal of the naturalization project is to reintroduce native plants into the park. In the past several decades, it has become popular for environmentalists to work with plants that are native to particular areas instead of exotic plants.

"For some reason people seem to like to look at things that come from somewhere else, and we sort of take this local stuff for granted sometimes," Cotter said. "It was a bit of a change in mindset to go back to native."

Yet, according to Cotter, a lot of beauty is found in native plants.

"There is a wide variety of native grasses and flowers mixed in with a lot of rye," he said of the naturalization project. "It's not necessarily a native plant, but it does come up quickly, which helps prevent weedy species from getting established."

Cotter calls the rye a "nurse crop" for the area.

"It helps by casting shade and competing with the weeds for nutrients and water," he said. "It also holds the soil while the slow-growing and slow-germinating natives have a chance to get started."

There's a lot of "cool stuff" in there, he added.

"One of my favorites is the cup plant, where the leaves join together at the stem and form a little cup that water can remain in. I've seen hummingbirds drinking from them, and during the drought it's a very popular spot."

Monarchs' return shows progress

Along with hummingbirds, goldfinches and blue jays, Bertuccio has noticed another animal revisiting the area around the Bryan Park Creek: the monarch butterfly. During its yearly migration from Canada to Mexico, the monarch must stop to eat and regain energy.

"We need to provide these places for the butterflies because they make a long trip," said Bertuccio. "They have to be able to find nectar as they make their way south and west, and if we don't provide their nectar in the fall, they are in trouble."

Photograph by Steven Higgs

The plants that grow along the creek are more than just beautiful, they also help improve water quality.

Bertuccio said that the monarchs are particularly attracted to the swamp milkweed that grows in the naturalization area.

"They (the larva) can't eat anything other than milkweed," she said. "The parents stop here because they know it's a place where they can get some nectar, and it allows them to plant their eggs and raise their larva and produce more monarchs."

Bertuccio believes the community can gain a lot from the presence of the monarchs and the other animals attracted to the Bryan Park Naturalization area.

"Children do not go out and look at the environment anymore," she said. "They don't know what the flowers or the birds or the butterflies look like. But when you have a habitat like this, it encourages the children to go outside."

Community wildlife habitat certification

Bertuccio devotes most of her time to helping the environment. One of her goals is to gain the Bloomington community a wildlife habitat certification from the Natural Wildlife Federation (NWF), of which the Bryan Park project is a part.

"We knew we had to do some kind of park rehabilitation to qualify," she said. "So we decided to try to make the little stream that goes through Bryan Park a little more natural so that it would encourage birds and amphibians to nest in the area."

For Bloomington to gain certification as a Community Wildlife Habitat, 200 residential homes must be certified as wildlife habitats. This means that they must meet a few basic standards: provide food, water and shelter for animals to raise their young; and discontinue the use of pesticides or herbicides that might pollute the water, soil or air.

"We just need about 25 more homes before we can become a wildlife habitat community," said Bertuccio. "We're hoping to certify these homes by the end of the summer and be certified as a community by next year."

Mal Hackleman can be reached at .