Invasive Species Become Christmas Trees in Conservation ProjectDecember 23, 2013

Though the sight of a field full of Christmas trees should not seem out of place at this time of year, at least one assistant professor of biology at Rockhurst University said when those trees are an invasive species, it can be cause for concern.

That’s why Mindy Walker, Ph.D., along with a number of Rockhurst students and other volunteers worked on behalf of Kansas City WildLands, an organization dedicated to the preservation of the area’s natural landscape, to clear an area of Shawnee Mission Park of invasive native red cedar trees, holiday style.

“We find a grassland or prairie that is a remnant natural habitat that has these red cedars taking over, we set up shop and let people come in and cut down their own Christmas tree,” Walker said.

Walker said Kansas City WildLands, on whose steering committee she serves, has organized the event for a number of years in conjunction with municipal parks and recreation departments around the Kansas City metropolitan area. More than 400 visitors came to this year’s event on Saturday, Dec. 6, to claim their tree with the help of volunteers, netting donations of about $3,400 for Kansas City WildLands and its parent organization, Bridging the Gap, in the process.

Though this species of red cedar is native to the area, Walker said patterns of modern residential and commercial development have made periodically culling their numbers necessary in order to prevent the trees from choking out the rest of the native landscape.

“We don’t maintain our prairies and natural ecosystems the way they used to be maintained naturally. In the past, fires would sweep through and take out all these invasive trees and plants and then the prairie would grow back itself,” she said. “Well, now we have Shawnee Mission Park in the middle of Johnson County and if a fire shows up, you’re going to put it out. We just don’t have the natural controls anymore.”

In addition to eliminating the need to dispose of the trees outright, Walker said the event gave KC WildLands volunteers a chance to educate the public on those changes to the environment. For the Rockhurst science students that made up the majority of the volunteer force at the event, it also made for a unique opportunity for service learning. And those who came equipped with saws and rope to secure their own fresh-cut Christmas tree got an opportunity to take part in a holiday tradition.

“People love it,” Walker said. “Some of them spend a lot of time out there trying to pick out the perfect tree.”

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