Magazine article Parks & Recreation

Better Living through Conservation

Magazine article Parks & Recreation

Better Living through Conservation

Article excerpt

Jill Erickson has made conservation her life's mission, and with the Heartland Conservation Alliance, she's well-prepared to tackle one of the country's largest urban watersheds

It's a refrain commonly echoed throughout our industry: Parks and recreation does it all. From providing safe, pleasant and engaging places to recreate, to running feeding programs and activities for at-risk youth, park and recreation professionals have a hand in multiple and varied aspects of building and sustaining our communities. But, despite our seemingly boundless energy and enthusiasm, we can't do it all. We need effective partners to help support our activities and aspirations. Jill Erickson, co-founder and program manager for the Heartland Conservation Alliance (HCA), is one such partner. Alongside local, regional and national affiliates, Erickson works tirelessly to coordinate efforts in Kansas City, Missouri's Blue River Watershed that will have a huge impact on the quality of life for all area residents.

Identifying the Need

Erickson has deep roots in her local conservation movement. Formerly the development and communications director with Cultivate Kansas City (CKC), an urban agriculture organization working to establish sustainable, community-engaged farms in the Kansas City area, Erickson knows how powerful a group of determined individuals with a mission can be. While there, she set up systems and protocols, raised funding for projects and managed the recruitment of volunteers and community leaders. Through her efforts, CKC has established a number of urban farms and educated hundreds of people about the value of growing their own food. She also managed to find the time to develop initial plans for HCA, which first began to take shape some seven years ago.

"[HCA's] roots reach back to 2008 when a local nonprofit organization, Kansas City WildLands, received funding from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation to convene stakeholders of a specific important natural area in our urban core and create a long-term action plan to protect this area," Erickson explains. At the outset, Kansas City (Missouri) Parks and Recreation, Jackson County Parks and Recreation and the Johnson County Parks and Recreation District all were involved in brainstorming, but as plans began to take shape, "two needs bubbled up to the surface over and over: Kansas City needed an urban land trust to protect land in perpetuity and had a lot of plans that were not getting implemented because there was not a hub organization with dedicated staffworking to implement the plans," Erickson says. A core group of stakeholders decided forming HCA would be the most effective way to address those needs.

Getting Offthe Ground

HCA was formally incorporated in 2012 and received its 501(c)(3) status shortly after in 2013. Initially, operations were all volunteer-based, but with receipt of an EPA Urban Waters grant, HCA was able to hire its first full-time employee in 2013. In May of that year, Kansas City's Middle Blue River was added to the list of Urban Waters Federal Partnership projects, designed to "reconnect urban communities, particularly those that are overburdened or economically distressed, with their waterways by improving coordination among federal agencies and collaborating with community-led revitalization efforts to improve our nation's water systems and promote their economic, environmental and social benefits," according to an Urban Waters Federal Partnership statement. (NRPA also recently signed on to the Urban Waters Federal Partnership - learn more at With that, HCA acquired additional partners in conservation and was able to bring more than $150,000 in new conservation funding to the area. "HCA is a co-lead of the Middle Blue River project [along with the] Mid-America Regional Council," Erickson says. "Our focus is the Upper Blue River Conservation Opportunity Area and providing the connection between the 'federal family' and the 'local family. …

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