Missourians Making A Difference: Interview with Linda Lehrbaum

October 26, 2023 | Missourians Making a Difference, News

Missourians Making a Difference: Linda Lehrbaum, Program Manager of Kansas City Wildlands

Photo Credit: Matt Garrett

Throughout Missouri, there are many individuals making significant progress in the early detection and control of invasive plants. MoIP is pleased to highlight their work! 

Linda Lehrbaum, Program Manager of Kansas City WildLands, (pictured above, at far left) took time out of her busy schedule to describe her work. Enjoy! 

—Carol Davit, MoIP Chair

How long have you been with Kansas City WildLands, and for those who are not familiar with the program, can you describe it? 

I have been the program manager for Kansas City WildLands (KCWL), a program of the Kanas City’s region’s environmental organization, Bridging The Gap, since 2002. Over the past 20+ years, I have been developing and growing KCWL’s work—with input and action from KCWL partners—into what this program is today.

Kansas City WildLands is powered by passionate partners from corporate, academic, government, parks, and nonprofit sectors working to “restore, protect and conserve the remnants of Kansas City’s original landscape by involving people in the stewardship of the land.” That’s our mission, and has been our north star from the beginning. Especially in an urban setting, you can’t succeed in conserving wild place health nor win the battle against invasives if you don’t involve the people who live there. You need folks to realize what they could lose to invasive plants—wild places they may not have previously appreciated, but don’t want to be without once they understand!

What is your professional background?

My academic background was diverse. I spent 3.5 years at the University of Missouri-Columbia studying animal science and pre-vet medicine, followed by 3.5 years getting a Bachelor of Fine Arts at the Kansas City Art Institute with an emphasis in sculpture. I believe this diverse approach to higher education— intentional or not—actually helped me in this field … a strong science-based education coupled with a formal approach to creativity was very helpful in coming up with a well-rounded perspective in battling with invasives and restoring our native wild places, especially when we need to get ALL people on board in the effort!

My entry into KCWL and its mission to restore intact, biologically diverse native lands came through my passion as a (very) amateur herpetologist and natural systems educator. I came to know Kansas City’s habitats from immersion, observation, and studying (books!), especially in relation to the reptiles and amphibians I was so curious about and loved. In my education role, I reveled in turning little humans on to the woods and glades, watching them make their own connections to different habitats while teaching them about our responsibility to take good care of these places. By the time I met the wonderful people creating a new organization, Kansas City WildLands in 2001, I was becoming exceptionally interested in protecting the places my beloved, niche, reptilian friends needed to thrive. Connecting people to the land and restoring remnant wild places . . . hmmm. I jumped at the chance when KCWL went looking for its first staff person! Since that time, my personal natural resource education has come from all the wonderful resource professional partners with whom I work, conferences, networking, and hands-on learning. And of course, more reading (the internet!). It takes a village, especially as we all learn about new invasives coming down the line.

What are some of the invasive plant control projects you have led over the years? Why are they important? What has been the impact?

KCWL works on several different public remnant landscapes in the bi-state Kansas City region, and each is managed by different public park systems. Much of the work must involve those land managers, that is, burn bosses for controlled burns, grounds crews for brush-hogging, mowing, and large-scale spraying. Much of the work, however, is initiated by KCWL’s volunteers. We started with the manual removal of invasive plants, providing much of the labor-intensive work that most parks departments simply didn’t have the understanding of or resources for, including spot-spraying sericea lespedeza, cutting and stump treating acres of cut bush honeysuckle, pulling garlic mustard, and providing ample human-power for prescribed burns. 

Having so many partner organizations and hundreds of volunteers putting in the time and passion to removing invasive plants and conserving these remnant sites helps parks departments stay on top of the threat of invasive plants. KCMO Parks has started a Conservation Corps to battle invasive plants on their lands, and Johnson County, KS, parks has devoted huge resources to its natural resources, in great part due to the education and efforts of KCWL and its partners/volunteers. We have a long way to go in regaining our healthy native landscape sans invasives, but the commitment of parks departments is a big success!

How do you prioritize invasive species work? With whom do you partner? Tell us about the role of volunteers in KCWL’s invasive plant control work. 

Relatively undisturbed, biologically diverse remnants on public land that have many original plant species, especially plants of a 7 or higher Coefficient of Conservatism value, are our highest priority. If a site has been plowed or otherwise developed, or invaded heavily by invasives for many decades, the native plants and the corresponding wildlife/pollinators the plants support would no longer exist there. 

From there, we prioritize based on the response of the site to our initial efforts (how much the native seed bank can rebound post-invasive plant removal), and also on how many needed resources we can pull together from our partners—for example, if a glade needs fire management and/or significant invasive plant control treatment to succeed in its restoration. If land managers and/or grant funds aren’t available to help with that aspect of restoration, or we can’t count on necessary non-volunteer resources after one year, we will prioritize another site. We put most efforts into sites that have the best long-term conservation prospects. As most who are reading this know, there is no “one and done” in eradicating invasive plants … management of sites after invasive eradication can be successful, but only if you have a plan in place to steward the sites long into the future!

Volunteers are the lifeblood of our work. They come from area universities, corporations, Missouri Master Naturalist chapters, and the public at large. Hundreds of volunteers spend many thousands of hours each year manually removing and treating invasive plants, as well as collecting local ecotype seed for restoration sites, helping with prescribed burns, and surveying remnant sites for native and invasive plants. The efforts and successes of KCWL lie squarely on the shoulders of our volunteers.

A bonus, actually an imperative, outcome in the volunteer-driven fight against invasive plants is an educated public. All volunteers who work with us—both those new to connecting with nature and long-time conservation veterans—get an on-the-ground education about the damage invasive plants are doing to our wild places, and the importance of those intact, healthy habitats!

Please share one of your favorite invasive plant success stories.

My favorite story to tell: When we first started our volunteer-driven workdays cutting and treating shrub honeysuckle two decades ago, very, very few people recognized or knew of the tenacious threat of bush honeysuckle to our native habitats, including 99% of the parks departments. After one of our early workdays, one of my volunteers dropped off a 9″ diameter honeysuckle stump to my office… from his backyard!! After working with us, he was horrified to see that his entire wooded backyard was filled with this plant, and then proceeded to remove every bit of itI’ve heard these stories from volunteers so many times since then (and received many a stump!), and the Aha! moments are always very satisfying. Volunteers are not only helping the wild places directly, but learning how invasive plant threats can start in their own landscapes, and then doing something about it!

I also have a metrics-based story to share. Some years ago, we started a garlic mustard volunteer hand-removal effort within 70 acres of woodlands surrounding a remnant limestone glade system in the middle of Kansas CityBy the third year of this effort, we had 120+ volunteers pulling and bagging this invasive plant in late April, to the tune of 1 ton of garlic mustard per year!!! Then one spring about eight years after the start… 100 pounds—that was all my workday of 80 volunteers could find. Garlic mustard is a biennial, so I figured the following year would be heavy with the smelly plant. Nope. We haven’t pulled more than 30 pounds of garlic mustard a year from this site in the past six years!!! Win!! Note: this site was dormant-season burned every two to three years, but the dramatic shift in the lessening of garlic mustard infestation didn’t happen until the volunteers came in.

You can read more about Linda in this MoIP news release about her MoIP Invasive Plant Action Award in 2021. In December 2023, Linda will be retiring from KCWL—and very deservedly so! Thank you, Linda, for your tireless efforts to protect the wild places you love, and for building a community of urban natural community advocates!

Support MoIP, the Grow Native! Program, and the Missouri Prairie Foundation

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