Community Conservation: Interview with Ronda Burnett

February 8, 2021 | Uncategorized

In 2020, Ronda Burnett became the new chair of MPF’s Grow Native! Committee. A native of Monett, MO, Ronda has worked as a community conservation planner with the Missouri Department of Conservation in Springfield, MO since 2005. Ronda is also the author of Conservation Planning Tools for Missouri Communities: A Reference Manual. In the following interview with MPF Executive Director Carol Davit, Ronda shares aspects of her work, in which native plants play a critical role.

Davit: Please describe the kinds of work you do as a conservation community planner.
Burnett: The strategic plan of the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) includes the goals of taking care of nature and connecting people with nature. My job duties as a community conservation planner allow me to pursue these goals through a combination of consulting with communities and coordinating with non-profit organizations. A request by a community for planning advice typically falls into one of two categories: either how to manage public property or how to guide development of private property in ways that protect fish, forest, and wildlife resources. Communities also reach out when they are seeking funding to cover conservation planning and project implementation costs. When funding is needed, I am able to help communities apply for both MDC cost-share programs and for grants from other agencies. Coordination with non-profit organizations, including professional associations, enables me to leverage my time and reach a broader audience than I can on my own. Over the years, my work with both communities and non-profits has provided me with opportunities to develop new educational materials, conduct training sessions, and promote community conservation practices throughout the state and beyond.

Davit: You wrote Conservation Planning Tools for Missouri Communities: A Reference Manual in 2018. How does your publication help planners and other municipal professionals enhance or even transform communities?
Burnett: Over the years it became apparent that my bookshelf—both printed publications and digital computer files— was filled to overflowing with go-to resources for all the sundry aspects of community conservation planning and construction practices. When I traveled for meetings I found myself hauling ten or more books along for the ride, and when responding to requests for technical information, my emails would contain a list of books, articles, and websites along with my own recommendations. I didn’t set out to write a reference manual, but I wanted one—one publication (to replace the many) that would cover all the pertinent information needed for planners interested in community conservation. To be helpful, I took great pains to accurately define each planning term in the way it is most often used in the field of community conservation planning. To be relevant, I incorporated as many case studies as possible to illustrate real-world applications of the planning tools included in the manual. My stated purpose for the manual, as included in the executive summary, is to inspire planners—because a planner who is inspired to practice community conservation planning is one who will plan for both people and nature, and that is a beautiful thing.

Davit: Please share a community conservation project that you think our readers would enjoy visiting, and why it is especially noteworthy.
Burnett: Known as Government Plaza, the heart of government administration for the City of Springfield, Missouri is located at 840 N Boonville Avenue. Renovation of the parking lot for this municipal district was completed in 2015 and includes rain gardens, bioswales, and landscaping beds full of native plants that have been well-maintained in the intervening years. If visitors are lucky enough to be there when it is raining, they can easily track the runoff from one rainwater management practice to another as it is processed through a treatment train and then leaves the property on its way to Jordan Creek, mere blocks away. This community conservation project was implemented as a precursor to an even grander one underway today. A two-block section of Jordan Creek between Boonville and Main avenues is being daylighted after years buried in a culvert. Soon, the rain that is filtered through native plants growing at Government Plaza will enter Jordan Creek and flow within a tree-lined riparian corridor instead of being plunged into darkness and surrounded by concrete.

Davit: Why is community conservation planning important to municipalities and other communities in MO?
Burnett: To implement community conservation planning tools is to know the natural resources of your community and to understand how people benefit from them. This knowledge is instrumental in connecting people to where they live through a shared sense of identity, culture, and natural heritage. There are community science programs that engage residents by having them monitor native wildlife species in public parks and upload sightings via an app that can be accessed by park personnel who consider the data when updating vegetation management plans. This is an efficient way to determine where within a citywide park system wildlife habitat management zones would be best located.

Davit: In your manual, you write Planners today understand the importance of planning for the three E’s: equity, economy, and environment. Can you share examples of how planners use native plants, habitat protection, and other aspects of green infrastructure in Missouri, not just in large cities, but small towns too?
Burnett: Neosho, a small town in southwestern Missouri, manages natural resources, in part, as economic development amenities. Each spring, the Dogwood Days festival attracts eco-tourists who soak in the beautiful blooms of native flowering dogwood trees that were purposefully planted throughout the community. City staff also serve as stewards of beautiful springs and lively creeks that delight visitors at several public parks. The riparian corridor of Hickory Creek is maintained with native trees and ground cover to protect the water quality in the stream. Hickory Creek is stocked with trout and draws anglers year-round who spend their time and money in this community that has embraced conservation as a way of life.

The nearby village of Stella hosts a different type of community conservation event in January of each year. Instead of a native plant, the Eagle Days celebration draws crowds for some of the best wintertime viewing of bald eagles in the nation. Eagles nest along the fish-filled streams in the area, including one that flows through the village. If the streams become degraded and the fish populations decline, the eagles will leave. Stella and Neosho may be small communities, but they understand that managing for quality wildlife habitat and healthy native plants results in quality habitat for people too. These are but two examples in Missouri where an investment in the maintenance of environmental resources in public spaces where there is equitable access is contributing to a stronger local economy.

If you are a community in Missouri and would like to implement community conservation goals, contact Ronda Burnett at ronda.burnett@mdc.mo.gov. Other community conservation planners with the Missouri Department of Conservation are in Kansas City, St. Louis, and Columbia.

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