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Friday, February 22, 2019

How to Help Endangered Plants and Animals

Ten "how to" stories, below. Of course, you can support conservation at the voting booth, and in your life choices. But if you want to help specific nearby rare or endangered species, go to restoration workdays (see also, below). Meet people. Get educated and find a mentor who will help you plan and secure any needed approvals. 

You can learn a lot from the stories and data in the links below. Don’t hesitate to ask questions and join in the discussions under "Comments". 

Restoration Workdays
Some sample schedules below.

Citizens For Conservation - Barrington area

North Branch Restoration Project

Orland Grassland Volunteers

Poplar Creek Prairie Stewards

Palos Restoration Project

To find other opportunities near you go to habitat restoration groups and click the county you live in.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

When, How, and Why to Plant Woodland Seed

A healthy bur or white oak woodland on good soil seems to be as rare as a fine prairie or savanna. Lack of fire has killed most species.

Even if an apparently thriving April and May flora survives, the June flora is weak, and the July through September floras are nearly or entirely gone. Thus, gone too are the animals - especially the invertebrates - that depend on those missing floras. Thus, such neglected woodlands have lost or are losing the vast majority of their species.

At Somme we rush to save the patient. We gather seed every year of more than 200 mostly rare plants. Decades ago, we found the now-rare species hanging on along the edges of railroads, power lines, highways, and mowed paths - where their diminishing, unnatural populations had enough light to hold on for a while. These days, most of those populations are gone, but we gather from their descendants that bloom and set seed in the growing "under restoration" areas.

We probably gather $100,000 dollars worth of rare seed every summer through fall (if we were to buy it - but then we would not be saving the local ecotype - and most species aren't even commercially available). And we probably put work that's worth that much into cutting brush from planting areas every winter. We don't want to waste our seed or work.

We plant woodland seeds after a fall burn if possible. But there were no good days for a woodland burn in fall 2018. The burn will have to wait until spring 2019, and we'll somewhat reluctantly plant most seed in burned areas then. But some species don't do well unless their seeds have lain in the cold, wet, alternately frozen/unfrozen ground all winter long. (Would seeds filter down through those leaves and do well after a spring burn? For most areas, we doubt it, but that's an important question we haven't tested.) So we'll keep much of our woodland seed cold over the winter and get those precious embryos into the cold wet ground as early as possible after the spring burn.

Soon after the burn we broadcast many mixes of roughly prepped seed. Shown here
are bags of WMC (wet-mesic closed) and the emotionally named WOW (wet open woods) mixes. 

After thinning brush and pole trees, to complete recovery of the shaded-out ecosystem, we broadcast diverse seed mixes that include many rare, conservative species. 

We have found that, in our oak woods, the unburned leaves are often so thick that very few seedlings come up through them, without a burn (see tests, below). So, if we don’t get a fall burn, we plant some of our seeds (in newly thinned woods) in spots where we rake leaves away, so the seeded species can establish without being smothered. They then will begin to spread their own seed year after year. Orders of magnitude more seed will then be produced annually and in time be everywhere, finding every niche. 
On slopes, we rake narrow (two or three feet wide) lines along contours. Any other approach could result in unacceptable amounts of erosion. If a rich spring flora survives on a south-facing slope without a turf, many bulbs and corms can "frost heave" out of the ground and die after a fall burn or raking. So we try to leave some such areas unraked and unburned.   

Prairie planting is different. We plant most of that seed in the fall. Prairie leaves don't mat as thickly or completely as woodland leaves.

Most species we plant by seed - rather than plugs. Seeds produce results slower, but those results, for most species, are much better – because we can spread seeds so much more diversely over so much larger an area. Diverse seeds become established in their best niches.

Since it's difficult to get wetter areas burned, in fall we often find we have to rake leaves there to get the best results. It's not our most fun work, but subsequent years' thriving ecosystems inspire us. 
Our initial scientific tests of raking vs. not-raking took place in December 2013; see diagram below for one example:

We raked the leaves off ten similar patches and spread seed in them. For the five patches north of a line marked by two white oaks, we then raked the leaves back on top
In August 2014, the circular patches (which show up green, above) that had little leaf litter show success for many species. The patches smothered by leaves were still just bare ground (leaves much rotted away by this late-summer photo) and dead leaves. (You can see the two white oaks that marked the line behind the red oak in the foreground.)
The difference between the leaf-covered and leaf-uncovered patches was night and day. We checked again in 2015, following a burn, to see in the seeds might just have remained dormant, waiting for better conditions. But the leaf-covered patches (marked by circles of dead sticks) were still mostly dry leaves and bare dirt.

More variations on this kind of experiment would help us make better plans. But for now, we plant in burned or raked areas whenever we can, especially when restoring mesic woods with a dense mat of oak leaves.

What does success look like?
Two photos of restored, replanted woods below:

Wild geranium, golden Alexanders, and wild hyacinth blooming in early summer.

By mid summer, great blue lobelia, cardinal flower, and sweet black-eyed Susan (above) have over-topped the May and June flora (which yet needs the open-woods light to set seed, down below). This is a young restoration, which we expect to become more diverse in time. 

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Useless Staff - a kinda funny, true story by Pete Leki

about Forest Preserve "patronage" staff in the dim, dark 40 years ago
with some ecosystem photos and comments at the end 

Way back in the last century! ....
The North Branch volunteers had a seed production garden 
(to raise seed of rare plants for ecosystem restoration)
at the Forest Preserve division headquarters 
on Willow Road and the Edens.

It was a time when I was full of fire, 
more youthful,
willing to devote that much less time to my kids and partner, 
my mom and dad,  
because I was driven by this inspiration, 
by the power of this idea, 
and maybe the calm, zen, quiet of garden work (by the Edens!)

For a year or so I made regular trips up there, 
and organized some family groups to help. 
It was... 
what it was. 
not large, 
not overly tended (no Botanic Gardens there).
The funny thing was that this was the "public works" HQ for this northern region, 
in the era of Stroger the Elder,
and the license that we obtained through the CCFPD was...
our position unsure.
when I would drive up there to check things out,
on a week day 
(I worked shift work and a revolving schedule, then)
the thing I saw, 
and this I swear is true as far as my wits remember,
was that, 
during the day, 
during working hours,
the "HQ" was full of workers. 
Of "guys" (all guys, as far as I could see)
hanging out.
Hanging out. 

The more sedentary hung out in the "lounge"?
watching television,
legs over couches, 
I don't know. 
It was a no-go zone. 

But other, 
more industrious workers 
were in the bays, 
doing oil changes on their cars or trucks, 
or washing and waxing them. 
It was a bizarre scene. 
These were County public workers, 
during their work time.

And our ecosystem sites, 
mine, I know,
Sauganash and LaBagh
were a maintenance disaster. 
The "bathrooms"
were totally beyond use except for drug dealers 
and desperate homeless.
Nothing was done, 

these were patronage workers, 
political jobs, 
reward jobs for loyal supporters.
This was not a workforce;
it was a political force. 
And they felt it. 

Once, I went-a-looking for someone to show me how to turn on the faucet, 
for to water our seed garden. 
I asked a few "workers" who looked dazed, 
and uncomprehending. 
"Water for the outside spigot on the west side of the bay. 
For the garden out there."
Humped shoulders, 
off with a bucket of soapy water for the SUV.

I went into the Superintendent's Office, 
and asked for some help.
He raised his eyebrows and sighed.
He got up and walked me into the employee "lounge,"
TV's on LOUD.
"Hey! HEY! Can somebody turn on the water spigot for the south side of the building? 
Absolutely no one paid attention. 
He looked at me, 
embarrassed, flushed. 
"Come on."
He walked me through the facility, 
bustling with car maintenance activity, 
found the valve. 
found a long hose, 
and got me set up. 

I was not naive about patronage, 
and corruption. 
But seeing this supervisor, 
so ashamed, 
and these working class "brothers"
so without shame, 
and the needs of the preserves so intense, 
and the complete dysfunction of this corrupt, 
corrupt system.

The garden eventually was sent packing, 
and our comrades came to dig up plants for home gardens and transplants for the preserves. 
Our most needed plants, carefully tended, and easy to harvest.

Today? Things have changed so much. 
There is such a different feel in the FPD -  
so much real work going on by dedicated and qualified staff. 

Just good to remember from where we came, 
so … we do all we can to never let it go back to that way again. 


Our forest preserves grace a county where the politics tended to be rough-and-tumble. When he became board president, Dan Ryan did not seem wanting to project a “kinder, gentler” image in his photo for the preserves’ report book. 

When volunteer stewardship started, Forest Preserve staff in the Maintenance Department (as colorfully described by Pete Leki) were very different from the staff of the Conservation Department. The few Conservation staff struggled valiantly, but the massive Maintenance staff had most of the muscle. Below is a view of the Miami Woods Prairie, the year after we appealed to the Conservation Department to stop the mowing. They agreed. We started caring for it. But apparently Maintenance was not “with the program.” 

The next photo shows the same scene a bit later, after Maintenance took a whack at it …
Part of the problem may have been that the well-connected Maintenance folks guessed that we stewards might include “good government” types, who would blow whistles on stuff. In fact, we had not the remotest hope or interest in fighting “the Machine.” We stayed far away from anything that might seem political. We just worked to take care of nature. 

The North Branch Restoration Project was 100% positive, as much as we could be. The shocking mow-down of our recovering prairies was an exception. But still, none of us attacked anyone. A great many advocates and supporters deluged the staff and board with concerns for the ecosystem – and the sites were never mowed again. 

Another fond memory: Above is the center of one of the floristically richest areas of Somme Prairie Grove, believe it or not, when volunteer stewardship started.  

The next rare time volunteers protested was when the board was poised to turn 500 acres of the Poplar Creek preserves into a landfill (as DuPage Forest Preserves had done). We organized well-informed letters and meeting testimony – to be capped by a huge rally at the site. As it turned out, our opposition was sufficiently muscular that the board pulled the plug on that bad project before the event. President George Dunne showed up to speak – although the rally, on a very cold day, with the issue already resolved, drew few. But Dunne knew he was speaking to some effective people, and we organizers celebrated. In the photo, from left, Dunne, Steve Packard, and the Sierra Club’s Sue Lannin. I wish I could credit this photo, but I have no idea who took it. 

What’s the current state of Forest Preserve staff? Well, no government agency, company, university, or family for that matter is ever perfect. We can always do better. But the improvements are night to day. What was the “Conservation Department” is today the “Department of Resource Management.” Thanks to support from President Toni Preckwinkle and Superintendent Arnold Randall, and thanks to leadership from Director John McCabe, Resource Management thrives. Pete Leki summarized it well: “There is such a different feel in the FPD - so much real work going on by dedicated and qualified staff.” Thanks, everyone. And Happy Holidays!

Friday, December 14, 2018

Getting Bigger For Birds (and a universe more)

The high quality Somme Prairie is increasing from two acres to seventy acres. Hundreds of vulnerable species that have been hovering on the edge of oblivion because of fragmentation, now may have a sustainable future.

If you had stood on the highpoint of Somme Prairie two hundred years ago (or 2,000 years ago), you would have seen rich treeless grassland rolling majestically to the horizon – to the south, the west, and the north. To the east, you would have seen a mile of prairie backed up by savanna and woodland on the moraine. Today from that same spot, off to the south, west, and north, you see businesses, parks, roads, and homes for people. Many of those people are glad a prairie survives and can recover. 

Forty years ago at Somme, two acres of very high quality prairie remained, in scattered patches. Most plant and animal species are not sustainable in a two acre habitat. The prairie species, you can imagine, were shivering in fear. When we first started to rescue biodiversity here, the surrounding brush was gobbling up more prairie every year. In the absence of fire, brush kills every grass, flower, bird, butterfly, nematode, and fungus of the prairie. For forty years, volunteers cut back shrubs and trees. Brush tried to grow back as fast as we could cut it. We concentrated on the biggest and best quality openings. We lost some. Brush obliterated some, but most of those remnant patches recovered more and more, year by year. Yet, we didn’t have as many troops (or as much fire and seed) as we needed to make faster progress. 
When we first saw Somme Prairie, the best parts looked like this. I took this photo standing in the edge of one brush wall, looking past a few shrubs and out into a high quality prairie opening. Behind the prairie, you see a few trees and a narrow wall of shrubs. Behind that is another opening (hidden behind the brush), and then further back, bigger, taller brush again. 
By 2010, Steward Laurel Ross and the volunteers of the North Branch Restoration Project had about thirty acres of prairie under restoration. But forty acres were still under shade. Volunteers are mighty, but we are spread over many sites. Thousands of generous friends and neighbors have contributed here, from a few hours to hundreds of hours each, but we have only been able to do so much. 

Increasingly in recent years, Forest Preserve staff and contractors have focused resources on Somme. In 2014, President Preckwinkle and the Forest Preserves board approved its “Next Century Plan.” By 2020, according to the resulting project plan, there will be no brush in Somme Prairie. This is huge.

On September 20, 2018, conservationists met to refine bird conservation elements of the plan. Shown here, from left, are Laurel Ross (volunteer steward), Dr. Doug Stotz (ornithologist, Field Museum), Becky Collings (Senior Resource Ecologist for the Forest Preserves), Debbie Antlitz (Forest Preserve ecologist for the northeast region), and Dr. Jim Herkert (ornithologist, Illinois Audubon Society).  (See Endnote 1.)

This work is a model of collaboration. Forest Preserve staff, volunteers, partners, and scientists work together. (See Endnote 2.) The following is a summary of the discussions the bird conservation planning group had that day. Bird conservation was just one part of the overall plan. (See Endnotes 3 and 4.)

1.    The most important overall conservation goal for the 70-acre Somme Prairie is the restoration of its original prairie community – as large and fully diverse as possible. The birds are just one part of that community, but our main goal today is to focus on the birds part.  

2.    The basic bird-conservation objective is a large and unbroken grassland of good structure for breeding prairie birds, especially Henslow’s sparrow, dickcissel, sedge wren, savanna sparrow and possibly meadowlark.

3.    Currently no prairie birds nest in Somme Prairie. But with increasing size and quality of habitat, breeding birds can be expected, in time. Currently, some prairie species breed at Air-Station Prairie (a few miles to the south) and Willow-Sanders preserve (a few miles to the southwest).
The rare Henslow’s sparrow, if you get a good look, has a greenish head and rufous wings. It’s considered a high priority for conservation, as its habitat is the eastern tallgrass prairie. Currently much of this species survives on agricultural lands – in temporary habitats. Populations in preserved grasslands may be crucial to this bird – and to the quality of the grassland.
4.    Grassland areas the size of Somme may have significant contributions to make. There are potentially about 100 acres of quality prairie habitat here, if we remove the brush barrier that separates Somme Prairie from formerly contiguous habitat in Somme Prairie Grove to the east. Recent studies suggest that the value of smaller urban grasslands can be higher than previously thought. The proposed work at Somme could combine with, inform, and inspire similar work at scores of existing and potential grassland bird breeding sites in the Chicago Wilderness region.

5.    Would we be wise also to save shrublands here? No. For a site of this size, a single focus on grassland bird habitat is far superior to a compromise that would attempt to restore both grassland and shrubland. Other sites (including the adjacent Somme Prairie Grove) are successful and superior for shrubland bird conservation. More importantly, shrubs are a main threat to grassland birds – and challenging to manage. The agreed-on best strategy here is for the entire site to be restored as prairie.    
In the photo above, the 19 acres of brush to be removed in winter 2020 have black backgrounds. The brush and trees removed by contractors last year have white hatched lines. The pale areas are original and recovering prairie. The darker areas are trees, brush, tall goldenrod, or other prairie-destroying invaders. As you can see, even after the brush has been cut, the “seeds and weeds” stewards have a lot of work to do. 
6.    After trees and brush have been cleared, there’s still a lot of work to do to eliminate such malignant and habitat-destroying invasives as crown vetch, reed-canary grass, purple loosestrife, and teasel. 

7.    But the major first-step threat here is shrubs and trees. When just a foot or two tall, shrubs are not in themselves a detriment to the grassland birds. But, in two or three years, between burns, woody plants with well-developed root systems tend to grow sufficiently to shade out the species of grasses and other conservative plant diversity that make for successful grassland bird nesting habitat. The plan is to treat shrubs, trees, invasive weeds, and seed planting in a step-by-step process. (See Endnote 3.)

8.    Another principal threat is aggressive forbs such as tall goldenrod (Solidago altissima) and saw-tooth sunflower (Helianthus grosseseratus). These and other rank species can create a vegetation structure that blocks or retards the desirable establishment of natural prairie. Such “thug” vegetation is also not nesting habitat for most grassland birds. These areas frequently do not burn under the moderately flammable conditions of most controlled burns, as the fuel quality is low. The rank species are thought to obstruct better quality vegetation by shading it out and possibly by emitting chemicals from their roots that inhibit the growth of other species. One solution to this problem that has been effective in some cases is to seed diverse prairie vegetation and then mow the rank growth when it becomes too dense for the survival of desirable seedlings. 
The new Forest Preserve plan (above) shows Somme Prairie outlined in red, Somme Prairie Grove in orange, Somme Woods in yellow and green, and Chipilly Woods in blue. 
9.    We next visited the 85-acre Somme Prairie Grove (adjacent to the east) and considered relationships between it and Somme Prairie. A coordinated plan for the two preserves now makes more sense. The prairie portions of these two preserves are divided from each other by the North Branch of the Chicago River (which flows unnaturally in a deep, straight ditch) as well as by the Metra railroad tracks. Neither the ditch nor the tracks would impede prairie birds from using both sides as one larger grassland. (More on the opportunities here will come in a later post.)

Most prairie birds have lost 90% or more of their numbers. This dickcissel could one day return to the Somme preserves. The five bird species likely to return here feed their young mostly on insects that few birds are now eating. The return of prairie birds may thus restore a component of the natural balance to the prairie here. 
10.  A special feature of Somme is a continuum from quality prairie to quality savanna and shrubland to quality woodland (as we go east from Somme Prairie to Somme Prairie Grove and the adjacent 450 acres of Somme and Chipilly Woods. The restoration of such a rare continuum would benefit birds, plants, invertebrates, herptiles, and the ecosystem generally. (See Endnote 4.)

11.  Relative conservation priority of shrubland, savanna, and prairie birds: They’re all important, but the prairie species are a higher priority, especially for Somme Prairie. Birds of shrubland and savanna are second priority. 

12.  We were entertained during our walk in Somme Prairie by a merlin (an uncommon mid-size falcon) which was being mobbed by blue jays in between bouts of the feisty merlin harassing a kestrel (a smaller falcon) and a sharp-shinned hawk. Perhaps this performance was a good omen for our bird conservation planning efforts here. 

Then, one last thought:

Will Somme Prairie someday truly revel in 70 acres of very high quality prairie? No one knows. No one has ever seen very high quality prairie restored. But even “good” prairie would be a blessed improvement over the formerly advancing brush – and many plant and animal species are already thriving in some of the restored areas. How fast and how much the ecosystem can recover will be a fascination and inspiration to experience over the years ahead.  


Endnote 1

The planning session on bird conservation was assembled by Becky Collings and Laurel Ross. The full roster for that field meeting included: 

Forest Preserve staff: Becky Collings and Debbie Antlitz
Bird conservation and ecology: Jim Herkert (Illinois Audubon), Doug Stotz 
and Dave Willard (Field Museum)
Stewards: Laurel Ross, Lisa Culp Musgrave, and Stephen Packard

Steward Laurel Ross has also long been a conservation leader as staff of The Nature Conservancy and the Field Museum. She is also on the Conservation and Policy Council that helps guide the implementing of the Next Century Plan. Thus, many contributions make a difference. 

Endnote 2

In case "model of collaboration" sounds Pollyanna to anyone, let me hasten to assure you that "collaboration" does not mean an absence of problems. It means we all pitch in, respect each other, and work problems out, as best we can.

Endnote 3

Step by step. 

Most of what was rich prairie long ago had degenerated into solid brush, as seen behind the sign below. 

The transformation of Somme Prairie became visible from Dundee Road on December 13th, 2018 with step one. A large "mower" chopped up the understory brush, as shown below: 

Step one, as seen from Dundee Road, looking north, with the small brush clearing just completed. The existing prairie is that pale horizontal line behind the trees.
Photo by Forest Preserve resource project manager Troy Showerman.
This is the machine that did the work.
Photo by Troy Showerman.
Above, from the Post Office parking lot, you see the mowed area compared to a still untreated area on the right. One of the next big challenges will be to keep the brush from growing back by herbiciding brush re-sprouts and seedlings, to be done during the 2019 growing season. Those invading trees will be cleared when the ground is frozen solid enough to support heavy equipment. Starting in fall 2019 and continuing for some years, rare prairie seed will be broadcast. Staff and stewards will combat new infestations of invasives. The ecosystem is temporarily in an "intensive care" stage. Well into the future, when the scene is all waving flowers, grasses, butterflies, and birds, people will find it hard to believe that the prairie was for a time reduced to this.

Endnote 4

Does this post make too much of a fuss over birds, compared to the rest of the ecosystem? Yes, but. Birds often rightly get extra attention because the data for them is especially clear and strong. We know better how big preserves need to be (and what vegetation structure needs to be) for bird conservation than we do for most other species. Part of the reason for that, is that people have done more research on birds, in part because they have more constituency and support. Birds bring more supporters to conservation efforts than do rare walking sticks or snakes.

As conservationists, we care equally for now-rare ants, weasels, slime molds, etc. - but we have less complete data on their conservation needs. But there's data for many species in many habitat types that confirm the value of larger habitats. Thus, restoring size and quality for birds will likely help many other plants and animals for which we have less detailed knowledge.

Midwest invertebrate expert Dr. Ron Panzer, who studied Somme years ago, published data that strongly supported the value of large habitats and higher quality vegetation for invertebrate conservation. But he cautioned against relying on size and vegetation alone. Burn regimes and other features may be equally or more important. Conservation will be on increasingly solid footing as we learn more about the needs of more and more species.


Beyond those already mentioned in this post, as always, there are many more who deserve recognition. To mention a few, let’s acknowledge:

John McCarter, Wendy Paulson, Arthur Velasquez, and Eric Whitaker: co-chairs of the Next Century Conservation Plan Commission – along with the scores of people who contributed to the planning process. And forest preserve President Toni Preckwinkle who coordinated the adoption of the plan. 

Dozens of Forest Preserve staff and contractors as supervised by John McCabe who has much upgraded the professionalism of the Forest Preserve’s Resource Management Division.

Volunteers by the hundreds, including Somme Prairie co-steward Lisa Musgrave and Eileen Sutter who, with many leaders and volunteers, has headed up the seed-gathering crews of the North Branch Restoration Project.

Jeanne Muellner who took the great photos of the Henslow’s sparrow and the dickcissel at the Orland Grassland, where they both thrive in restored habitat. 

Thanks for proofing and edits of this post to Becky Collings, Troy ShowermanLisa MusgraveEriko Kojima, and Kathy Garness.


For an introduction to Somme Prairie Nature Preserve, check out captions and photos of Somme Prairie from a walk in late May - and a set of very different photos and comments from July.

Summary of the Somme Prairie plan

Chicago Region “Bird Conservation Network” birds of concern

The birds of conservation concern of the Somme preserves:

Woodland birds regularly breeding in Somme Woods include red-headed woodpecker, American woodcock, and northern flicker.

Shrubland and savanna birds regularly breeding in Somme Prairie Grove include brown thrasher, willow flycatcher, field sparrow, American woodcock, northern flicker, and eastern kingbird. 

Prairie birds currently breeding in Somme Prairie include none at all, for decades. The pitiful fragments of surviving prairie are too small. Thanks to all who are helping the recovery of the plants and animals of Somme Prairie. 

Friday, December 7, 2018

Impatient Hero of Natural Areas

Force of Nature: George Fell, Founder of the Natural Areas Movement. 
by Arthur Melville Pearson. 
University of Wisconsin Press. 2017.

It's a dramatic and important book - not simply because the man was great (though he was) but because it documents the launching of biodiversity conservation. 

I worked with Fell for a few years and then, for decades, with his organizations. So this post is initially a summary of Arthur Pearson’s book and then my own observations.

George had lofty ideals and was dedicated, introverted, and not the easiest person to get along with. 

Great Illinois academics like Cowles, Vestal, and Shelford seemed to be trying to establish biodiversity conservation in previous decades, but had little on-the-ground success to show for it (See Endnote 1). They worked through existing government and academic institutions but found, as William Hornaday’s 1914 address to the Yale School of Forestry put it, most of those people:

“… stick closely to their desk-work, soaring after the infinite and diving after the unfathomable, but never spending a dollar or lifting an active finger on the firing-line in defense of wildlife. I have talked to these men until I am tired, and most of them seem to be hopelessly sodden and apathetic.” 

Fell, after years of failing to interest politicians and potential donors in an Illinois nature preserves program, moved to Washington, D.C. and finagled an unpaid job with the struggling Ecologists’ Union (which had $300 in the bank). Thus, on failing at the state level, Fell went national. He first sought legislation to establish a federal Nature Conservancy agency by statute, despite his attitude toward government, which he expressed as: 

“I would, if I were running things, throw out of Washington about ¾ of all public employees to start with and then proceed to weed out the remainder of the crop. I am obviously very prejudiced about the matter, but it can’t exactly be said I don’t know what I’m talking about because I’ve worked under 3 departments of the federal government.” 

Yes, he’d had experience, and was fired or forced out all 3 times. He wanted to enlist the power of government, but he wanted effectiveness, not bureaucracy. His wife Barbara was equally dedicated and willful. While trying to make it in his unpaid Ecologists’ Union position, George searched for actual paying jobs in Washington but failed. Barbara got a job in a doctor's office and supported them both. When they went on the road for organizing or to work a conference, they packed enough sandwiches for the whole trip – and slept in the car – to save money.

Another iron George had in the fire was the private not-for-profit route, and here, in time, his efforts resulted in a powerful and effective national Nature Conservancy – launching its trajectory toward becoming the world’s biggest and richest conservation organization. But Fell’s singlemindedness was two-edged. He built power and effectiveness in part by recognizing and teaming with other dedicated, forceful people, but he often didn’t get along with them. Although promoting Nature Conservancy chapter leaders, he “didn’t play ball with these people and encourage them.” Soon “some wanted to break off from the Conservancy.” Instead the Conservancy fired him and hired a new director in 1957. 

Was he disappointed, after years of sandwiches and hard-won success? Yes, bitterly. Was he discouraged? No, he returned to Illinois and resumed efforts to establish an effective government nature agency. Barbara found a job as a lab tech. By 1960 he had established the not-for-profit Natural Land Institute, drafted a bill for an Illinois nature preserves commission, mailed copies to every garden club, conservation organization, and civic group, and set up a Citizens Committee for Nature Conservation (which lobbied for the bill). After great battles, in 1961 the bill was passed by the legislature and then vetoed by the governor, who found the creatively designed commission too independent.   

Two years later, with deeper support, his bill passed again, but a “similar” bill also passed – without the independence or funding. Thus the governor could veto Fell’s bill while pacifying the constituency by signing the similar-looking, weakened one.

Next, Fell sought ways to make the imperfect new Illinois Nature Preserves Commission (INPC) succeed. With no funds for staff and little support from the Department of Conservation, which now semi-controlled the Commission, Fell got himself elected “Secretary” to the Commission and worked full time for results. He received no pay, again. He recruited volunteer conservationists. He raised funds through the Natural Land Institute (NLI) to hire a skeleton staff. His not-for-profit NLI made the Commission effective. 

Once a piece of property is dedicated as an Illinois Nature Preserve, a healthy ecosystem there is legally protected as that land’s “highest and best use for public purpose.” It can’t be usurped for a road, a university campus, or a dog park. It is safe – unless “un-dedicated,” which requires the approval of the Commission, the Department of Natural Resources, and the Governor. Impressively, that has never happened during the Commission’s 57-year history (so far).

The first protected land was 829 acres of sand prairie and savanna at Illinois Beach Nature Preserve. One of the most important biodiversity sites in the Midwest, Illinois Beach was recommended for protection by Jens Jensen in 1888. Many advocated for it over the years, but a vigorous Illinois Dunesland Preservation Society was organized in 1944. The first land was bought by the State in 1948. The preserve is a glorious example of persistence.

Any landowner can dedicate ecologically important land. The next eleven Nature Preserves were dedicated by the Forest Preserve District of Cook County. Soon other agencies and even private landowners stepped up. But battles continued – thanks to many people’s eagerness to “develop” or “improve” nature, bureaucratic tendency toward compromise, and the primitiveness of our culture’s understanding of ecology. Despite ecologists’ concerns about fragmentation, the DOC director opposed dedicating large areas. He cautioned against Fell’s ambitious proposals, writing: “The Commission should endeavor to secure dedication of … quality rather than … quantity.” He advocated “the utmost multiple use of all … areas and facilities for all types of outdoor recreation” The problem, of course, is that prairie birds can’t breed on grasslands that are mowed for equestrian contests. Rare fish and amphibians may not survive in ponds stocked with exotic game fish. 

Fell wanted as many and as large high-quality preserves as possible and eloquently rebutted arguments to restrict boundaries because of blemishes that could be nursed back toward good nature. He wrote that all Illinois natural areas:

“… are in jeopardy and in most cases the samples available are pitiful, partly mutilated remnants that have escaped complete destruction only by accident. Probably there is not an acre of ground in the State of Illinois that can be considered as virgin land, unchanged by the influence of civilized man.”

By 1973 there were 52 nature preserves totaling nearly 15,000 acres. In 1978 I had the great privilege of joining the growing, vigorous, dedicated staff (thanks to a major grant from the Joyce Foundation). I oversaw the dedication of Somme Prairie, Braidwood Dunes and Savanna, O’Hara Woods, and many more. By 1981 there were 80 woodlands, prairies, and wetlands dedicated – totaling 18,559 acres. Bit by bit, it seemed to be working as Fell envisioned it. Every preserve required work for research, debate, compromise (as little as possible), boundary decisions, and stewardship that took special needs and features into account. 

So far as I could tell in 1978, my boss Jerry Paulson then ran the organization. George did special projects, saving money by fiddling with equipment that didn’t work, lobbying Commissioners and other important people. Jerry supervised the staff and led our strategic planning. I helped write the 56 pages of the “Illinois Nature Preserves System 1979-1980 Report.” I’m impressed still by its grit and vision. The INPC now had ten “principal staff members,” eight Commissioners, twelve advisors and consultants – a list that included the most dedicated, expert, and influential conservationists in the state. But George Fell and those other nine “principal staff” were on the road to getting fired again. 

Reports like the one I helped write had been issued every two years. Coming across one had been part of what compelled me to take this mission to heart. The reports were outspoken about urgencies and needs. That frankness rankled many agencies that resented their failures being publicized. Here are examples from the 79-80 Report.

CRANBERRY SLOUGH NATURE PRESERVE: Part of the preserve is dominated by hawthorn and European swamp buckthorn. A dam maintains the water in the slough at an artificially high level. 
COLORED SANDS BLUFF NATURE PRESERVE: Damage to the sand bluff from erosion and disturbance by climbers should be controlled. 
CHESTNUT HILLS NATURE PRESERVE: Exotic species (black locust, Japanese honeysuckle, and multiflora rose) should be controlled. 
SAND RIDGE NATURE PRESERVE: Prairie Vegetation is being replaced by invading brush. A telephone anode field mistakenly installed in the preserve by Illinois Bell is being removed. 
THORNTON-LANSING ROAD NATURE PRESERVE: The high quality prairie and savanna areas have suffered badly from lack of fire. Poor supervision at the youth camping area in the preserve has resulted in the digging of pits, chopping of trees, and other vandalism. Trespass by off-road vehicles is a serious threat to the sand area…

Fell had continued to seek consensus on ambitious goals, define what was needed, and doggedly work to make the vision real. One sign that the bureaucracy was becoming restless was the politics surrounding the Illinois Natural Areas Inventory. It was clear that the Natural Land Institute's ecologist Jack White would be the best supervisor. But the DOC objected to so much Fell influence. White resigned; the University of Illinois got the $650,000; they then contracted with the NLI to staff the Inventory with White as supervisor. According to the INPC 1979-1980 Report, the Inventory recommended the preservation of 208 additional privately-owned sites totaling 38,563 acres and worth $24,000,000. The DOC, Nature Conservancy, and forest preserve districts started buying them. 

It is typical of the George Fell mentality that 32 areas were classified as being held by “charitable or quasi-public” entities. No funding to buy these - the idea was that "quasi-public" agencies should dedicate their land for free – being responsible to the public trust. These agencies included power companies, cemeteries, universities, railroads, etc. that saw themselves as businesses, responsible to their boards and stockholders. We negotiated. Many of them dedicated properties. But would they care for them in the long run? 

At one point Fell told me enigmatically the vultures were circling. Nature Conservancy urged me to come work for them, as Fell’s days were numbered. In 1982 the axe fell. DOC cut off all funding. Many Commissioners were now professionals that benefitted from DOC funding. Without any good alternatives, they voted to scrap NLI and its staff and turn the Nature Preserves Commission over to DOC. As Jack White said, “At least several of them looked scared and embarrassed, and they acted it all out as if they didn’t really want to admit what they were actually doing.”  

The Commission continued, with some outstanding staff (and some not so outstanding) hired through DOC (now DNR, the Department of Natural Resources). (See Endnote 2.) Many volunteers, staff, and partner agencies have continued the work. Pearson’s book has a hopeful conclusion – as is appropriate for a biography of this kind. But some reality checking is appropriate as follow up. 

My diagnosis is that INPC constituency (including people influential in business and politics) needs to be re-inspired. Especially during the terms of Governors Blagojevich and Rauner, the Nature Preserves program has suffered. 

According to the Commission itself, many goals are not being met because of:
“ … an aging INPC workforce, members of which are at or near retirement. The INPC is supported by IDNR, which also has high rates of retirement, placing high demands on the agency’s ability to fill positions. INPC vacancies have not been filled for retirees and for other key positions. Administrative capacity has been decimated. … The Commission has been … letting some critical work go unaddressed. It is in this dire economic and political environment, that this plan is being developed.” 
This grim analysis is from the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission 2015-2020 Strategic Plan, which was posted in draft on Sept. 15, 2015. As of December 2018, the unfinished draft is still posted. You can check it out at … 
 … perhaps only until someone notices it’s still on line.

George Fell’s life-long dedication produced The Nature Conservancy, Illinois Nature Preserves Commission, Natural Land Institute, Natural Areas Association, and more – including, by extension, according to Pearson, Chicago Wilderness and $1.3 billion in voter-approved referenda to buy and restore an additional 40,000 acres of forest preserve land.

Yes, many parts of the natural areas mission thrive. Other signs look ominous. Some examples have been presented by this blog - though not outspoken language – which perhaps we need more of.

Pearson’s book is wonderful. We need more of this history – and more vision for the future. (Well, see Endnote 3.)


Endnote 1

Henry Cowles “discovered” ecological community dynamics and inspired Chicago area folks to care about them. His students Arthur Vestal (botanist) and Victor Shelford (zoologist) did ground-breaking (no, ground-saving) research. Shelford played a major role in establishing the Ecological Society of America (which disappointed him), the Ecologist’s Union (which disappointed him), and ultimately The Nature Conservancy. 

These visionary people are worth studying. Does anyone have recommendations for early biodiversity conservation history books or articles? 

A quick summary is that, in the decades before George Fell, wildlands were protected for two reasons: 1) resources (for example, production of lumber and grazing for cows and sheep) and 2) recreation (for example hunting, fishing, boating, hiking in scenery, family vacations). In other words, the priority was put on immediate human use, often to the long-term detriment of the natural ecosystem, which was not then recognized as being worth much. These days, “biodiversity” and “nature as such” are also on the table. 

Endnote 2

Most of the time, bureaucracies don't hire dedicated, creative innovators. Following Fell's ouster, the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission went entirely without staff for some time. The first DOC-selected director was a first-rate leader, Karen Witter, who did much to restore dedication and resources to the Commission. She was followed by Brian Anderson, also an effective conservationist. But the constituency dwindled from what it was, for reasons worth exploring, sometime. I lost track of most Commission details in recent years, but many preserves have deteriorated. The strategic plan quoted above sounds like a cry for help. I wonder who is working on what - to engage our new governor.

Endnote 3

This blog is mostly about inspiring work and discoveries. Perhaps more balanced views can come from other kinds of books and articles. 

But sometimes, as here, we try to delve into the infinites of politics and biography. A summary of the history of Chicago region biodiversity conservation battles, successes, and setbacks from 1996 to 2016 can be found at:
Or, rather than “summary” – should I write “tidbits about”?

In case the timing of this post is not clear, I think Arthur Pearson's book is a good one for you to get yourself during this season of buying stuff – or to give to someone who might be inspired. 


Thanks to Arthur Pearson for generous edits and corrections. Thanks to Mark Kluge, Kathy Garness, and Eriko Kojima for more edits and corrections. 

Arthur's book is available at bookstores, Amazon of course, libraries, and through the University of Wisconsin Press