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Saturday, July 29, 2017

TED talk. Part 2. Politics and Science.

Part 2 contrasts political challenges with scientific ones.
Both involved critics and conflicts of various kinds.
We met both kinds of challenges with positive vision and hard work.

The TED talk on which this post is based is at:

Yet we worried about public perception.  With our best intentions,
we were changing landscapes that people had grown accustomed to. 
In our early days, we just used loppers to cut the small brush that was invading prairie remnants. But our advisors encouraged us to look also at larger invasive trees. In oak woodlands, as many as 90% of the trees (invasive or out-of-balance species) need to be culled in order to re-start natural processes. Many environmentally sensitive people have a long and proud history of objecting to tree cutting. When we have the opportunity to explain - and show people "before" and "after" - most people strongly support this work. But Cook County has five million citizens - who own these preserves. Reaching them is challenging and crucial.

Only mass media reaches them quickly. As the "stewardship movement" grew in both scientific knowledge and on-the-ground influence, we started running up against other social forces. We appealed to the public through the media - as did forces opposed to us.

For many people, the image of the forest preserve was partly "nature" but predominantly "dangerous", "dirty", and "another corrupt part of the county political machine." It was our job to get more focus on the nature.

I remember the time when about twenty of us assembled to burn half a dozen small prairies in the forest preserves. It was a rare day when the winds, humidity, and temperature were right for safe and effective burns. I emphasized to the all-volunteer crew (except me, at that point working for the Illinois Nature Preserve Commission) that they were heroic to take time off from work at short notice to do these critically important burns - that the ecosystem needed them because the forest preserve staff was spread too thin. The need for the volunteers was genuine. But the implication about the staff was, at best, charitable. Many of the staff were, at that time, not interested, not competent, lazy, or all of the above.

My contact was Division Superintendent John Mark, a good man who did care. He did his best with the patronage workers he was sent. He seemed to think what I was doing was okay as long as it didn't make trouble. I explained that we had enough good people to do the little burns quickly, leave a couple of people behind for mop up, and move to the next one. He said, "Let me know before you start each burn." He didn't say, "Don't start until I approve" - although I could imagine that it might come to that. These were the days before cell phones, so I had to find pay phones between prairies. That worked for the first three burns. Then no one answered the forest preserve phone.

It was important work, so I made the decision to go ahead and have one of the crew do the "check in" by personally driving down to the forest preserve office, about 15 minutes away. The volunteer who made the run returned with smoke blowing out of his ears. "You told us they were too busy to help," he stormed, "and they're all sitting around playing pinochle!" I calmed him down. I explained that if we rode on our high horses, making moral criticisms of the political machine, we'd be shut down. So our obligation to nature was to stay positive and do the good work only we could do.

As the volunteer community expanded and appreciation of our mission became more publicly acknowledged, it became harder to isolate what we were doing from the larger political currents. Some liberal Commissioners saw us as allies. Some corrupt ones saw us as dangerous do-gooders. That increased the potential for us to get drawn into political factional conflict.

For example, mountain bikers and horseback riders in the Palos preserves had for years made their own trails in violation of nature preserve laws and good sense - and without approval. Some staff resented what they saw as abuses, but felt powerless, as their supervisors told them not to rock the boat. So they'd encourage volunteers to confront rule-breakers and raise complaints to Commissioners. There were many examples of this kind of thing. Bad blood developed between the conservation program and various influential interests.

In the Palos case, District staffer Dave Eubanks effectively brought the stewards together with the mountain bikers and developed a positive consensus. But the process took many months, was a lot of work, and there were a great many such issues. Much-needed deer control programs also grew (in part thanks to volunteer support) and became ferociously contentious in Lake, DuPage, and Cook counties.

Might our cutting and burning provoke controversy?     
It came to a head when some Commissioners wanted to do a deal (apparently corrupt) to sell forest preserve land for a casino, and stewards were among the most visible opponents. The casino folks joined forces with some neighbors who stirred racist fears about restoration programs bussing in "kids who didn't look like theirs" to their neighborhoods. In this context, a highly political Chicago Sun-Times columnist ran a series of attack articles. Suddenly many people in one influential neighborhood rose to oppose tree cutting, burning, and using herbicides. Restoration was halted for a few weeks to a few months to ten years in the Edgebrook-Sauganash neighborhood that was the main seat of the opposition. (See: the discussion of "The Moratorium" in:

We reached out through  leaflets, media, guided tours, however we could. 
It took years to work through the politics. But stewards stayed focused on the positive vision, and gradually put the hard times behind us.

And the work progressed. 
Working together with great, generous people and seeing the inspiring changes - week after week -
is what sustains us.

Over time, many volunteers developed special skills. No-holds-barred brush cutter,
Lisa Culp Musgrave
 on weekdays is a tennis pro and coach. 
Here the focus changes from politics to science - more specifically, how some volunteers learned bit by bit to make important contributions to science.

Inspired by Somme, she took up nature photography. First wildflowers …    
Violet wood sorrel grows in high quality prairies, savannas, and open woods. 

... then animals. 
Tiger swallowtail feeding on spotted Joe-Pye-weed. To label her photographs, Lisa learned to identify, first the wildflowers, then butterflies and dragonflies, then birds, and in time a great deal more.

Ruby-throated hummingbird male feeding on the nectar (and insects) of Michigan lily.

Ruby-throated hummingbird female feeding on a cardinal flower.

She became a master. 
The coyote is an important part of the ecosystem. Our biggest predator. Without coyotes, excessive numbers of raccoons, opossums, and foxes devastate the ground-nesting birds and more. Coyotes have improved the balance for many species. As Lisa learns more by doing, she wants to do more with what she's learned.

But what inspired her most was learning that she could physically restore needed plants – the base of the ecosystem. She started with the declining fringed gentian. Somme had very few – and those few were typically eaten by white-tailed deer. 
Fringed gentian was once a common and beloved species. But it was harvested mercilessly by florists for a quick buck, until it could no longer be found in most of its previous haunts. Too little fire and too many deer continued to deplete populations that survived. The managers of two preserves gave us the okay to gather small amounts of seed, and a little population was launched at Somme.

Lisa and friends protected the gentians with deer exclusion cages.
Then she broadcast the seed that now matured,
and soon the gentians were widespread. 
Lisa learned how to construct and install two kinds of cages to protect against both deer and voles. She got a chance to feel how profound a difference her stewardship could make. 

Lisa moved on to Somme’s rarest plant – the federal-endangered
prairie white-fringed orchid. We’d seen a few here and there, for decades,
but a very few, as the deer liked these even more. 
When she agreed to tackle the white-fringed orchid (actually "Threatened" rather than "Endangered" - sorry about that error), its conservation needs were poorly understood. At the time when we planted the seed of these orchids at Somme and other North Branch sites, no one had successfully raised them (including botanic gardens and orchid growers, who had tried hard). We simply broadcast the tiny seeds in appropriate habitat. Our seeds came from another population that was gradually being (and now has been) eliminated by white-tailed deer. (For more detail, see:

Cages helped. But there was a bigger problem.
This small population didn’t attract its specialized pollinators.
Most flowers failed to set seed.
Our success wasn't quick. Initially, we had simply broadcast seed. As with many species, we saw no results at all for years. Our first orchid was noticed by Dr. Ron Panzer as he did his insect work. Before it finished blooming, the deer had eaten it. Getting a little smarter, over the next few years, we tried to find orchids as soon as they emerged - and clap cages over them. We learned to recognize them at younger and younger stages, until we could recognize their first shoots at an inch or two high. Caging early worked well, but for many years we would find only three or four plants, or in some years none. Next step: learning to be pollinators.

Lisa hand-pollinated, by toothpick, and taught others to do so. 
Botanist Marlin Bowles taught us how. He was on the expert team a decade later when this orchid was added to the U.S. Endangered and Threatened Species program in 1989.

Musician and computer wiz Will Freyman also threw himself into the work.
Then he used open-source software to develop and improve ecosystem-monitoring programs that have since been widely adopted by agencies and businesses.
This is a new field. We contribute what we can. 
This 'side trip' into the wizardry of Will Freyman may seem like a diversion. But the theme of this talk is the development of community. Lisa, Will, Ron, and hundreds of other professionals and amateurs contribute to this evolving mission and discipline.

In 1999 (nearly two decades after we started working to conserve these orchids) the federal "Recovery Plan" was adopted and funded. John Rogner, a former volunteer steward and now Chicago region director of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, reached out to us stewards to help apply what we had learned. Some scientists complained that Fish & Wildlife should devote all their initial funds to basic research on the orchid. But Rogner decided that the stewards had already learned enough that we could get started on science-based species recovery. Some funding rightly went to research. But also, outstanding steward June Keibler was hired to establish a pilot program of volunteer-empowered endangered species conservation. Soon agency landowners were authorizing trained volunteers to do widely what we'd been doing at Somme.
But for those rare orchids, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service was concerned ...
because, on most sites, fewer and fewer of them survived.
Illinois, the Prairie State, has the most in the world.
But by 2006, only 109 plants could be found in the state.
The Fish & Wildlife folks recommended Lisa’s can-do approach
to other preserve managers. 
At first the program had been a success, but it required continuing leadership. During the "Moratorium" years, the Conservancy changed focus, dropping the volunteer program as we had known it, and the orchid program was lost in the shuffle. During the four years after 2002 (partly because of weather?) orchid numbers declined dramatically. The program was revived with support from Audubon (where some of us had gone when the Conservancy changed direction).

Lisa's efforts did pay off.
By 2013, Somme had 460 white-fringed orchids,
more than four times the state-wide total seven years earlier.  
Lisa modestly points out that the upswing in orchid numbers began with seeds planted well before she took over the reins on this effort. But Lisa's dedication and skill - and that of the team she pulled together to pollinate and cage the hundreds of plants - explains those huge numbers.

When some species become numerous and widespread enough, it may then become time to brace ourselves and remove the "intensive care" protections - and see how well a given species of plant or animal can survive without help. Lisa has decided to leave some plants un-caged and un-hand-pollinated. In cases of species on the U.S. Endangered and Threatened list, it makes sense to be cautious.

We've learned a lot more since we prepared the above graph and last analyzed Somme's orchid results. We hope to post a blog update after the 2017 results are in.

This is the end of Part 2 of the blog supplement
to the TED talk:

Part 3 will consider "Big Machines and other Big Changes."

Thanks for joining us on this adventure. Please spread the word to interested people.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

July 9, 2017: Restoration Tour of Somme Prairie Grove

The Somme Facebook sites announced a tour with a limit of twenty people. Great people came. We decided to divide into three groups for good discussions. Leaders: Eriko Kojima, Linda Masters, and Stephen Packard.

This post is mostly the “script” we prepared for the walk. We invite you to take this walk virtually - or bring these notes with you as you hike the trail.

To make it easier to find the numbered focal points, they are forks in the footpaths. 

POINT 1: Introduction

The Somme preserves harbor 501 native plant species. These include 17 on the Endangered or Threatened lists (ten present when we started and seven restored from other remnants) and many other uncommon or rare plants and animals. Of the plant species, 141 are thought to be “restored” from other remnants (some now destroyed) by seeding. But more important than the individual species, this area and its stewards conserve and restore a rare ecosystem.

Conserving original “Natural Areas” is a new concept – partly originating with the Illinois Natural Areas Inventory of the 1970s. Eastern states basically don’t have them (except for species that live in places like bogs and mountain tops). All their good soil was transformed into agriculture or some other “biodiversity challenged” state long ago. Somme Prairie Grove is one of the first places on the planet where an attempt is under way to restore remnants of a nearly vanished natural community – the black-soil bur oak savanna.
A major challenge at Somme (and so many natural areas) is too many deer.
These beautiful animals are a natural and valuable part of the ecosystem.
But in the absence of predation excessive numbers can badly damage the habitat for many other species.
We walk today entirely in the area burned this spring. This is much richer and more flowery than unburned areas. (The north half was unburned this year but was burned two years ago.) Lightning (and, in the last few thousand years, indigenous people) ignited the fires which shaped these species and this type of community for about five million years. The savanna we now call Somme Prairie Grove was here for thousands of years evolving into what we today call a natural area following the last glaciation, 12,000 years ago.

Waukegan Road follows the crest of the Deerfield Lobe of the Lake Border Moraine. To the east, at one point, was Glacial Lake Chicago. But we’ll be walking on the western slope of the moraine, going gradually down the whole slope.

In this first section, we’ll be walking through a young restoration of wet prairie with too much big bluestem grass and impressive amounts of tuberous Indian plantain and smooth phlox. When we go up a slight rise, as we get closer to the trees, there will be drier ground with the more conservative prairie dropseed grass (shorter tufts of thin leaves). Then we go past natural shrub thickets and into a woodland with some old bur oaks and shagbark hickories. Restoration here started with removing dense buckthorn, but the grove is still overly shady with too many young pole trees, that became over-common in the decades without fire. (We started burning the woodlands here in 1985.) It's a young restoration (most parts less than three decades old), and much is still unbalanced. 

Most Midwestern woods today are degenerate. They are so dark (from lack of natural fire) that few summer or fall grasses or wildflowers survive. Few or none of the oaks that make up the canopy are reproducing. This woods was colorful during spring. Today, early summer, is an ‘in-between’ time, with  ripening spring seeds of sedges, trilliums, etc., but few showy flowers. Soon though, it will be flowery again and will have many waves of different kinds of wildflowers and grasses blooming all the way through September and into October. Birds that have returned to breed in these woods include wood pewee, flicker, indigo bunting, and scarlet tanager.

POINT 2: To restore complexity, it can help to understand some of it.

Here we start to see a great diversity of flowers and grasses. Indeed, we’re on the edge of a big patch of the unusual shrub, New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus), mixed with blooming butterfly-weed, wild quinine, leadplant, rattlesnake master, flowering spurge, and compass plant.

This tea has history. It got the name “revolutionary tea” when adopted by the patriots after they threw the British tea into Boston Harbor. Its known history in modern Somme started with a few plants that grew under the trees just south of this fork in 1980 when we started the restoration. We learned to germinate the tea’s unusual seeds by pouring boiling water over them. We did not learn to inoculate those seeds with the needed Frankia bacteria, and our plantings of this species did poorly. The new plants seemed to do okay for some years but gradually fade out.  (Like legumes depending on a Rhizobium bacterium to fix nitrogen, New Jersey tea has a similar symbiotic bacterium on which it depends.)
"Revolutionary tea" became historic after the British tea landed in Boston Harbor.
It's history here has its revolutionary aspects too. 
On the other hand, in this area, where we did not help the New Jersey tea, it has prospered beyond all expectations. The patch has spread to the north and northwest for about fifty yards and now includes many hundreds of thriving shrubs. This year we started experimentally to spread the soil from the roots of the main patch to some recently emerged plants in other parts of the preserve, to see if they will benefit. (The original plants have died out near the trees, as the patch spread. Why?)

Entomologist Dr. Ron Panzer says that New Jersey tea is a highly valuable nectar plant for many bee and butterfly species.
Our inter-seeded former pastures are now much richer than areas where we cut the brush and seeded bare soil.
As we walk to the next point we’ll pass through some quality restoration areas, where seeds were broadcast long ago, and some poorer areas, where they weren’t. Notice patches of shrubs (gray dogwood) – some of which have been “top-killed” by fire and are re-sprouting.

Keep your eyes open for some Michigan lilies in bloom.

Just before entering the next woods, we’ll walk through a large area of mostly just big bluestem grass – poor diversity. Inter-seeding is needed here to restore higher quality.

This is a young woodland restoration. Both the trees and the planting of understory grasses and wildflowers are new.

Note flowering Michigan lily here in the woods. This is one of many species that are not limited to one habitat; you’ll find them growing in high quality prairies, savannas, and woodlands. Others include shooting star, wood betony, and golden Alexanders.

Young bur oaks are a special feature here – largely absent from many original bur oak woods or savannas. (Bur oaks are not successfully reproducing in most places because invasives make it too dark.) Some of the quality plants that were originally in this scrappy-looking little woods include Michigan lily, purple milkweed, Kalm’s brome, and woodland puccoon.

As we walk to the next point, we’ll pass through high quality grassland with an abundance of smooth phlox, prairie dropseed, and little bluestem. Then we enter a shrub patch we call “The Bird Thicket” – which has been a special focus of restoration in recent years. Birds that are regularly seen here during the nesting season include ruby-throated hummingbird, orchard oriole, kingbird, brown thrasher, yellow warbler, and indigo bunting. 
We walked through dense patches: smooth phlox, then New Jersey tea, then prairie clover.
A week later, many of today's flowers will be replaced by maturing seeds.
Years later, many of these patches will have spread out and mingled with each other. 
The Bird Thicket was mostly buckthorn – and indeed it still is. But had nannyberry, black haw, prickly ash, wild plum, Iowa crab, hawthorns, young oaks, sumac, gray and silky dogwood, and many species of roses. Natural thickets have been almost entirely wiped out everywhere by buckthorn etc. Few attempts are under way to restore them.
Oaks here were not reproducing, in part because deer ate them down to foot-tall shrubs. Exclusion cages (as above) protected saplings from the deer. But fire remained a challenge (note leafless outer limbs from this spring's fire).
Over the years, these classic savanna trees gradually surmount deer and fire pressures and become maturing bur oaks.
Quality herb vegetation here includes cream gentian (Gentiana flavida) and slender wheatgrass (Elymus trachycaulus) (endangered). 


We’ve just passed through some rich restoration, but this area immediately around this trail intersection is poorer. It received little or no seed, and is probably improving its diversity very slowly from chance arrivals of new species. 

Notice an area of low-statured plants a few yards northwest of the trail intersection. This area was a patch of big bluestem that had spread to a dozen or so yards across, with little or no other diversity in it. We were concerned about areas like this, which are typical of poor restorations. The path divided this patch in two. As an experiment, we seeded both sides equally and repeatedly scythed away the tall grass from only the west side of trail. We wondered whether the mowing would handicap the over-abundant big bluestem and foster more diversity. For many years, it seemed that the mowed side of the trail was getting much more diverse, and the un-mowed side was not. Certainly, the shooting stars and prairie betonies are much more common on side that had been mowed for a few years. But looking today at the un-mowed side, it too is getting more diverse, with prairie clovers and other quality species. This has been and will be an interesting area to watch over the years.

On the way to the next point we’ll pass three plants of New Jersey tea (can you spot them?) Also purple and (the less common) white prairie clovers (Dalea purpurea and candida). In the early years of restoration, we found very little white prairie-clover seed to broadcast, and the little we found didn’t seem to do very well. But in recent years the white seems to be increasing at a rapid pace – perhaps because it competes better among higher-quality associates? In this 1927 book, H.S.Pepoon commented that the white prairie clover was “ordinarily more common.” Today white prairie clover is rarely found, except in a few very high quality prairies. Will the white catch up to the purple in this savanna over time?
The rare white prairie clover increasingly competes with the only-slightly-less-rare purple.

Also along this path notice Canada milk vetch in bloom. Notice also the rich bronze – short clumps of June grass in seed.


Now we’re near the bottom of the moraine (near the West Fork of the North Branch of the Chicago River). From here west, all the trees you see were invaders (or planted before the era of prairie and savanna restoration). From this spot two hundred years ago (and perhaps two thousand or five thousand years ago) – unbroken prairie stretched to the horizon.

The former pastures in this area have responded especially well to restoration. They started with a kind of diversity – mostly of such “old field” species as the blue grasses, timothy, poverty oats, goldenrod, daisy, etc. (They may also have retained some of the soil biota that was lost in the darker shade of brush?) Here we broadcast rare prairie seed right into the that “weedy” turf. Diverse species thrived, as you see. In contrast, in areas where we cut the former brush and seeded into bare ground, progress toward quality has generally been slower. But some rare species have done especially well there, for now at least.
Milk vetch and other species that spread by roots has often done best in former brush-cut areas. 

Also note many burned-off (last spring) and re-sprouting bur and scarlet oaks and hazelnut shrubs. These species are typical of savanna rather than prairie. Other common species here that suggest savanna rather than prairie include cream gentian, purple milkweed, Maryland snakeroot, carrion-flower, and purple vetch.   


Here we see distinctly morainal topography. The soils are probably gravelly. Savannas were especially common on the moraines. Many plants in this area may be more typical of savannas – or at least we don’t find them so often in the woodlands or prairies at Somme. These include Seneca snakeroot, grove sandwort, meadow parsnip (Thaspium trifoliatum), yellow false foxglove, wild licorice, savanna blazing star, robin plantain, wood rush, and rue anemone.

As we walk to the next point, notice starry campion and wide-leaved panic grass in the open area – and then when we enter the woods, notice such now-uncommon plants as: long-awned woodgrass, blue-stemmed goldenrod, woodland puccoon, woodland thistle, and woodland milkweed.


(This point is where the stream crosses the path.)
Michigan lily can be found in woodland, savanna, or prairie. In times of lower deer populations,
a single stem may have ten or twenty blooms. This year most had just one - a barometer of deer numbers. 
This oak woodland is the focus of the book “Miracle Under the Oaks” by New York Times science writer William K. Stevens. There are no large old trees in the water course. We also see this lack of old trees in the wetter areas along some of the water courses in Somme Woods. It could be that during some fires there was so much heat from the lush grasses and sedges in the wetlands that trees burned off.

All the biggest old trees in the grove (indeed in all of Somme Prairie Grove) are bur oaks. This oak has the bark and trunk best adapted to withstand hot fires. Another original oak here, scarlet oak or Hill’s oak, is naturally a tree that burns off and re-sprouts indefinitely, often acting like a shrub. The huge old Hill’s oaks in the grove may be mostly a result of fire suppression.
We had thought heart-leaved Alexanders (Zizia aptera) was gone from the site. But we found a few likely leaves,
 caged them, and the caged plants came roaring back. Careful use of management techniques like caging, fire,
thinning pole trees, seed introduction, and deer control are central to the stewardship of this site. 
Conclusion: Somme Prairie Grove is an experiment – a test of how much largely self-sustaining natural biodiversity it is possible to restore for an original black soil savanna (and associated prairie, woodland, and wetland patches). A very high quality (“Grade A”) or even high quality ("Grade B”) remnant of this kind of natural area no longer exists on the planet. The words “largely self-sustaining” represent part of the experiment. Stewards will certainly need to control fire and deer for the foreseeable future. But we hope that weed-pulling, planting, and caging are just temporary needs. The Somme experiment will take decades to mature – but results are already promising.
One of the three tour groups that contributed ideas to this post.
They are pioneers - as are all of us involved in the early years of the discipline of ecosystem conservation.
We stewards appreciate your interest. We appreciate the dedication of all partners. Anyone who might like to help is invited to attend our “workdays” or take on a special project – as many people have.

Post script: Other interesting plants in bloom along the trail today: glade mallow (Napaea dioica), great St.Johnswort (Hypericum pyramidatum), pale Indian plantain (Cacalia atriplicafolia), prairie Indian plantain (Cacalia tuberosa), winged loosestrife (Lithrum alatum), prairie loosestrife (Lysimachia quadriflora), and fringed loosestrife (Lysimachia ciliata).
(Our apologies for not-the-latest scientific names in some cases.)

Sunday, June 25, 2017

TED Talk tech notes 1: Discovering Eco-Restoration

This adds to a TEDx talk I gave at the Northbrook Library on May 20, 2017.
That actual talk can be seen at:

The post covers the first few minutes (22 slides) of this 17 minute (80 slide) talk.
On August 6, 1977, a dozen of us newly authorized volunteer stewards
gathered our first rare seed. 
For the record, we gathered smooth phlox on land owned by the U.S. Coast Guard. The following week we planted those seeds in Bunker Hill, Miami Woods, and Wayside forest preserves. Experts told us it wouldn't work. Rare prairie plants are too weak to compete with dense weeds, they claimed. But the effort turned out to be dramatically successful. (Yet we saw no sign of that success until scores of phlox plants started blooming - five years later.)

We might have looked kind of random.
But decades later, books would record
that we helped launch a community with a mission
that would that would have its influence from coast to coast, and across continents.

The "community" and the "mission" will be recurring themes in this TED talk. The dedicated volunteers of the North Branch Prairie Project - along with the expert mentors and agencies that adopted and empowered us - established a model that would be widely publicized, copied, and improved upon over the next few decades.
In time, the seeds we gathered and planted came
to symbolize something new about this planet:
we hold the future of its ecosystems in our hands. 

Indeed, one of the biggest "controversies" and challenges to this new vision was around symbols and concepts. Does nature mean: just let things go? Some people argued that "whatever happens without human meddling" is "nature." But some of us were pointing out to the "Nature Preserves Commission" and "The Nature Conservancy" that what they thought they had "preserved" was seriously degrading. It gradually became accepted that the millions of years of heritage embodied in biodiversity is now utterly dependent on the precautionary foresight and action of people who care.

We now know that the natural richness
of an ancient prairie Nature Preserve
like this one at Somme – without skilled care …
This photo of Somme Prairie may be pretty at a glance, but it does not show richness very well. There are twenty to twenty-five species of rare plants in the average random quarter-meter of the Grade A prairie here.

… would get blotted out and replaced entirely, by invasive brush.    
This photo actually shows a high quality prairie that was entirely replaced by brush. This prairie - "preserved" in a Cook County forest preserve - was the subject of a study by early ecologist hero Victor Shelford. For his haunting 1959 paper, see:
When I visited the site in the 1980s, I could not find a single prairie plant beyond a few nodding onions in the mowed right of way of 1st Avenue.
In recent years, John Kolar has been trying to restore this prairie.

Or, to look from a little more hopeful angle, this invasive-choked woods,
thanks to years of good work by generous stewards, could be and was …
This photo is typical of the original oak woodlands of the Somme preserves. The oak woods species that remained here were largely in scattered small areas with more light - on the edges of mowed trails or former pastures.

My greatest disappointment on how the final TED talk was edited is in these two slides. The contrast between the photo above and the one below should kick off the rest of the talk. "Health can come back!" - is the message. The contrast between these two slides should tell the story. But in the TED talk, the former slide was shown long before, as if that big oak were a part of the overgrown prairie. Oh, well.

… restored with the diverse plants and animals that for eons constituted oak woods biodiversity, its ecosystem services, and its very “nature.” 
Here I have to apologize again (though for the last time) for a slide in which conventional "beauty" stands in for "biodiversity." In fact, the biodiversity of this restored (or, to put it more accurately, "in the process of restoration") area is barely hinted at by the few species obvious here (oaks, hickories, Joe-Pye-weeds, pale-leaved sunflowers, and a few others). More than a hundred species of grasses and wildflowers (perhaps more than 200 in the area shown here) would emerge if we could watch this scene closely throughout the growing season. Add to that many hundreds of species of butterflies, beetles, birds, salamanders, snakes, walking sticks, mushrooms, soil biota, etc. etc. We'll get to more of that later.

Six years after we began our mission, politics in Springfield
 eliminated the entire budget of the Illinois Nature Preserves System. 
Suddenly without staff to protect approximately 100 important preserves, 
the commissioners asked us to organize a volunteer program. 
Within a year, little fellowships like the one at Somme were protecting 
more than 60 preserves. This network flourished quickly, 
because some people cared a lot.

Here the TED talk here lingers on the above slide for a summary of the beginning of the Volunteer Stewardship Network, sponsored by the The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and Illinois Nature Preserves Commission (INPC).

A principled and courageous agency, the INPC was semi-neutered in August 1982, when Springfield bureaucrats triumphed by firing director George Fell and his entire staff. Seeing this in the works, TNC had already hired me (for northeastern Illinois) - and after the firing temporarily took on the other field reps (who had different sorts of roles in the other parts of the state).

The "1979-1980 Report" of the Commission lists 79 preserves at that time. (There were about 100 in August '82 when the dedicated INPC staff was fired.) It also lists 142 "Areas of Commission Concern." Even that number pales beside the 610 surviving areas of high quality listed by the Illinois Natural Areas Inventory (INAI). The job taken on by TNC and the new "stewards" of the pioneering "Volunteer Stewardship Network" was to protect the nature preserves and publicly owned INAI prairies, wetlands, and woodlands in the six counties of northeastern Illinois.

To review the personal stories of some early volunteer leaders, see

The history of the early volunteer network is featured in "Miracle Under the Oaks: the revival of nature in America" by New York Times science writer William K. Stevens.

The account below covers the Volunteer Stewardship Network in the six-county Chicago region. So far as I know, little came of attempts to expand volunteer recruitment in the rest of the state at that time.

Soon, we volunteers were being coached and inspired by some of
the region’s most-respected ecosystem scientists and creative conservation officials.
Prairie expert, Prof. Robert F. Betz wears the beard. Roland Eisenbeis, forest preserve Superintendent of Conservation, has the pipe in his mouth. Eisenbeis told us to listen to Betz, coordinate with FPD-staff prairie-expert Chuck Westcott (a student of Dr. Betz), and go to work.

A much longer list of professors, conservation professionals, and expert amateurs came together to be part of the Volunteer Stewardship Network. Some of the most important mentors were the Morton Arboretum's Ray Schulenberg, Floyd Swink, George Ware, and Gerould Wilhelm; the Forest Preserve District's Paul Strand, Ralph Thornton, and Kelly Trease; Chicago Academy of Science's William Beecher and Doug Taron; Illinois Nature Preserves Commission's George Fell and Jerry Paulson; Audubon's Alan Anderson and Judy Pollock; Illinois Herpetological Society's Ken Mierzwa; and many many more.

Eisenbeis supported us. But others on his staff sometimes worked to sabotage us. The photo above shows a meeting called by Eisenbeis after the Maintenance Department (a supervisor of which stands, back to the camera, in the foreground, above) unexpectedly mowed all the prairies we were restoring (and Eisenbeis had committed to protect) in 1978. Also in this photo are the Chief Forester (obscured, right) and me, taking notes, on the left. We reached a good consensus.

We cut invasive brush, we pulled aggressive weeds
and safely conducted controlled burns.
Volunteer leaders trained and learned rapidly, year after year. For controlled burns, we were trained by staff of the Illinois Department of Conservation and INPC (Marlin Bowles and Fran Harty) and The Nature Conservancy (many years of intensive training workshops). During the '80s and early 90s, expert volunteer teams did a large part of the region's ecological burning - over eight counties. None of our fires ever got out of control or did damage to any adjacent property (neither through fire, smoke, nor any other impact). We may not have worn what are now considered proper uniforms or had fancy equipment. But we were energetic, well-organized, smart, fast, and careful.

In time, many brush patches that had looked like this …    
Typical partly-surviving grasslands and oak woods went through decades when they were grazed by farm animals. Most species survived in reduced numbers but then, in many cases, were wiped out, ironically, when conservation agencies bought the land and "left it to nature". In the absence of (what is now seen as natural) fire - trees and shrubs (alien and 'native') killed off the understory. Here the "brush" is buckthorn, but "native" ash, basswood, maple, and others can do the same.

… became natural prairies once again. We volunteer stewards became known
for public lands ecosystem restoration. Press coverage was great.
People in surrounding states (and soon countries) sought our support and guidance. Some of us were hired by conservation agencies to head up new programs.
But there would never be remotely enough paid folks
to do all the needed work – with all the needed care
The diverse grassland in this photo replaces dense brush. After cutting the trees and shrubs, we gathered seeds (spring, summer, and fall), prepped them for planting (in a dozen separate mixes according to wetness, shade, and weediness), and broadcast them (that is, in this case, the early successional mesic prairie mix) here and in other areas that were in the early years of restoration. We seeded for many seasons - later with the later-successional "turf" mix. About half of Somme Prairie Grove was burned every year - for decades - before rich biodiversity like this gradually triumphed. Common weeds were the first species to flourish after removal of the brush.

One bit of the magic of the Illinois Nature Preserve law was that conservationists could advocate that a ecological gem be "dedicated" into the system by any agency that owned it. Once dedicated, the woodland or prairie was legally protected from exploitation or maltreatment; only later did conservationists come to realize that expert care was also needed. Yet little restoration was done by the many agencies that owned preserves but did not have staff experts in ecological land management. In those days, it was not difficult for a bright, energetic person to learn more than people with no training - and who may have had little interest.
I chose the place we now call Somme Prairie Grove as the preserve
where I’d be volunteer steward. 
Other people could best tell the restoration story with reference to other sites, which they know as I know Somme. I hope they will.

I initially focused on Somme because the local library's TED series seemed like a good opportunity to find more local volunteers. But even for a broad general audience, my intimate relationship with this challenging site seemed to help me figure out how to tell the story.

Somme Prairie Grove benefitted from persistence. But it often went begging, as my job as Illinois Nature Conservancy's Director of Science and Stewardship required me to spend most of my time on hundreds of other important natural areas. I stuck with Somme in part because I didn't want to lose touch with what it's like to be an individual steward. Often I felt like a "bad parent" - as "my site" was neglected on the basis of state-wide challenges - budgets, staffing, regulations, media, other sites, etc. etc.

But whenever I could get free, I was at Somme, pulling invasive weeds, gathering seeds, noticing failures and successes, struggling with off-road-vehicle challenges and development proposals, and trying to figure out many levels of priorities.

At Somme, we did some good – learned some lessons – and were credited
with some discoveries. We thought we were restoring prairie. Some experts
encouraged us to cut back all the trees, to expand the precious prairie
to a more sustainable size. But, as we cut, we found scattered oaks –
and rare non-prairie plants and animals. We began to suspect that we were
uncovering a poorly understood and even more endangered ecosystem –
the oak savanna.  In time, research at Somme and many sites confirmed
our suspicions. This was really fun – kind of like eco-archeology,
or finding grimy Rembrandts at garage sales.
At first, Somme Prairie Grove was called "Somme Woods Prairie." In time, we came to know that it was not mostly prairie. This work is experimental. We need to be constantly testing and learning. Some of us started to realize that by limiting our conservation vision to prairies and woods, we were missing an important element. The oak savanna is a fire-dependent grassland with scattered and clumped trees. As we experimented with how to manage and understand it, we reached out and in time organized North America's first "savanna conference" - drawing pretty much all the experts that existed. (North Branch leader Karen Rodriguez had landed a job with U.S.E.P.A. and, with federal sponsorship, pulled together this important conference.) Federal and state agencies and conservation organizations needed to re-write their standards and manuals and revise their priorities to take account of what we were learning about fire-dependent oak ecosystems.

Now – not just prairies - but savannas and woodlands
that had been choked with buckthorn …
In one Somme area that had looked like this, we just burned and seeded - without cutting the buckthorn. For a couple of years only the small buckthorns were top-killed by fire. But after a few years, even the older trunks were dying. Little came up from the "seed bank". But we began to broadcast local seed, we kept burning; and richness returned impressively until "The Moratorium" ended the burning for a few years. (See these notes, Part 3, for more on 'moratorium'. See Part 4 for the graph of results.)

These days our treatment for a woods like this is to cut and herbicide all the large brush and pole trees, spend a year foliar-spraying brush seedlings and re-sprouts, then broadcast local seed, and burn annually or biennially for a few years.

... began to regain their richness and health.
Hundreds of species of formerly-vanishing plants once again supported …
This photo shows success, but it's a preliminary and limited success. None of those pencil-pole-trees in the background will develop noble arms like the old tree in the foreground. (Indeed, most such lower branches will probably be fire-pruned in time.) If we didn't have higher priorities, we'd have thinned many of those skinny pole trees. Similarly, if we'd had time, we'd increase the amount of seed we gathered (and broadcast)(especially of conservative species) from many local sites. The few plant and animal species that now dominate in this photo have among them scores of other species, here and there, less visible because they're less common, or merely shorter. We suspect that even visually in a photo like this, the dominants will over time yield much of their space to more diversity. Our monitoring seems to show it gradually happening.  But the return to as-full-health-as-it-can-recover still seems far away.

… thousands of species of animals that are rare or uncommon in the modern landscape.    
We have reason to believe that many species were lost from Somme Woods (including the woodland lady-slippers, the gray tree frog, many snake species, the wolf, of course, and many others). Somme Prairie Grove has five snake species. Somme Woods (across the street) has none - despite nearly 40 years of restoration and some (now) similar habitats.

Some ecologists have estimated that a thriving ecosystem has ten species of animals for each species of plant. With about 500 species of native plants, that would mean 5,000 species of animals, if the ecosystem was whole. Yet, at the Somme preserves, at least some species that were barely hanging on in small numbers in odd corners are now already thriving once again (see below).

Most of those thousands are insects.   
For example: when entomologist Dr. Ron Panzer studied Somme in the early eighties, he suggested that the savanna ecosystem may not survive, because he failed to find savanna indicator-species like the Edward's hairstreak butterfly. When Dr. Panzer repeated his survey after a few years of brush cutting and burning, he found many hairstreak species, with Edward's now becoming the commonest.

What about conservation-significant ants, beetles, bees, walking sticks, and so many others? No one has ever studied them. In areas like this, with pockets of remnant ecosystem and large expanses of "Grade C remnant" restoration in process, the assumption is that much survives. Some additional expert studies are under way at Somme. But many more are dearly needed.

But many are species that the average visitor would be inspired by. 
For example, before we started ...  
When we started our restoration of Somme Woods (the part of the Somme preserves east of Waukegan Road), no tanagers could be found there. In fact, when we begged a well-respected birder to start monitoring there, he checked the site out and (kind of angrily) complained that we had wasted his time. "What's the point of monitoring when there are no birds there?!" he said.

He wasn't convinced it that important change was likely, nor that it was worth it to sample the "before." Scarlet tanagers do especially well in open oak woodlands. A "mere" two decades later, multiple pairs of tanagers nest here every year. We even see them foraging among the natural shrubs and wildflowers - now that they're thriving.

... none of these birds built their nests or raised their young in the deteriorating Somme Woods.    
Indigo bunting, male. These bunting were common in the savanna areas but completely absent from Somme Woods when restoration began. Now they can be heard singing in most of the "under restoration" areas - among much denser trees than we'd imagined likely.

Indigo bunting, female carrying material for nest.

Eastern bluebird is another species that has expanded from the savanna to the open woods.

Now – year after year – all these species nest at Somme.
Hummingbirds nest in trees - but spend much of their time catching insects and drinking nectar from flowers. Unlike the slow-dispersal of most frogs, snakes, plants, and even most insects, most bird species will find good habitat unaided, it it's restored. As large "Grade C" areas are restored, one high priority that's still in its infancy is the development of practical methods of restoring the animals of good and high-quality communities.

This concludes the technical notes on the first quarter of the TED talk. Notes on the second quarter will be published in a week or so.

A "more for a broader audience" set of notes on this TED talk is at:

In the meantime, other good references include:
"Miracle Under the Oaks: the revival of nature in America" by William K. Stevens
"Force of Nature: George Fell, founder of the natural areas movement" by Arthur Melville Pearson

Photo credits:
Lisa Culp Musgrave took all those outstanding bird, dragonfly, and salamander photos.
Larry Hodak took the photo of Prof. Betz, Eisenbeis, etc. mentoring us.
Gloria Fountain took the photo of the "Somme Prairie Grove" sign and people.