While in the midst of another development boom, now is a good time to think proactively about long-term stewardship of common areas preserved to meet current local, state, and federal stormwater, land development, and environmental regulations. How can these areas be better managed to maintain their natural integrity and environmental services, especially when these areas are rarely addressed by regulatory agencies once the conservation easement is put into place or has met permitted success criteria and is no longer required to be monitored (usually beginning 3 to 5 years post construction)? How can wetland mitigation areas be managed in the long-term to continue to meet permitted success criteria? How can upland and wetland conservation easement areas be managed long-term to prevent conversion or nuisance/exotic species infestation?
As a former Senior Scientist working at the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD) from 2000-2007, I witnessed firsthand the condition of many of the areas I permitted now, over 10 years later. Too often these areas become infested with nuisance and exotic species, and if fragments of fire dependent native landscapes are preserved, they transform into another vegetative community type altogether (i.e. hardwood encroachment into pine flatwoods). In the long run, these effects neither accomplish the original intent of the regulations for preserving them, nor accomplish the actual preservation of the original vegetative species assemblages of these areas. These areas typically become a “nuisance” to the homeowner’s association (HOA), Community Development District (CDC), or other entity inheriting the upkeep and management of these areas. Moreover, management is often left with little or no information regarding their purpose or intent other than highly technical permitting documents. Yet, if managed properly, these areas could ultimately provide important refugia for local wildlife, help restore local songbird and pollinator populations, provide water quality treatment benefits, and bring natural beauty and joy to our developed environments.
This is both a hugely overlooked sustainability challenge and opportunity. The challenge is preventing the depreciation of ecological value and degradation of these landscapes post-development through the introduction of exotic species and pollution. The opportunity lies in the thousands of acres of existing conserved areas but remain improperly managed. No doubt, most HOAs are ill-equipped or educated to meet these challenges, and the dominant aesthetic in the built landscape is often the very driver that results in the eventual degradation of preserved or conserved natural areas.
Few landscape companies specialize in managing native landscapes; however, there is a tremendous amount of research available from public agencies which manage larger tracts of native lands and ecological restoration practitioners. These resources are available through professional associations such as the Society of Ecological Restoration (SER) and Society of Wetland Scientists (SWS), two prominent sources of practice and research. If we are to truly conserve Florida’s rich native biodiversity, a planned approach to development must include planned approaches to sustainability. This means willingness as well on the part of restoration practitioners, scientists, landscape architects, planners, and landscape maintenance professionals to reach out to each other for knowledge and practice experience.
One such approach could involve the preparation of an explicit management plan for common areas (stormwater treatment, wetland mitigation, upland preservation, or other natural areas under conservation easement). These plans would specifically outline the ecological and natural resource goals and functions to be maintained, as well as frequency and methods of maintenance. This is a crucial initial step to ensure the entities inheriting the long-term maintenance and management responsibilities have a road-map written in understandable terms. This set of instructions would include guideposts and signs to better ensure these areas continue to provide the ecological functions, values, and services for which they were preserved.
In turn, the management plan could also aid HOAs and CDCs in proper vetting of contracted maintenance companies to determine if they have the knowledge and expertise to manage these areas. This could evolve a whole new breed of landscape maintenance services with on-staff ecologists helping HOAs and CDCs prepare and implement management plans, management actions, and survey the effectiveness of the results.
Perhaps the best place to begin is within existing developed areas, particularly projects permitted from the beginning of the state ERP program in the 1980s through 2011. Identifying some significant pilot projects in local communities would be one way to ignite interest. Restoration projects could provide hands-on demonstrations such as nuisance and exotic plant removal and treatment, native groundcovers that can substitute or replace turf in common areas such as stormwater pond berms and roadsides, installation of bioswales within roadside ditch networks to improve both water quality treatment and native wetland species diversity, and installation of native understory plants and shrubs within preserved mesic hammock areas or buffers.
Surveys of species use by volunteer citizen scientists within neighborhoods and planned development communities post-restoration could also act as another means for measuring and demonstrating the value of restoring and managing these common areas and resources for ecological value and function. There is no better incentive than engaging people with their local natural areas. In these coming weeks as we approach OUTSIDE Collab 2021, I invite my colleagues and fellow practitioners to think about ways in which we can encourage and implement better stewardship of existing, preserved natural areas within developed landscapes.
by Pamela Fetterman