You try to be clear, in a few words … and then the opportunity is gone.
Here’s what I wish I’d said during my brief
(29 minutes) interview with Jerome McDonnell on WBEZ (Nov.27).
(29 minutes) interview with Jerome McDonnell on WBEZ (Nov.27).
The interview is at: https://www.wbez.org/shows/worldview/restoring-the-chicago-areas-millenniaold-ecosystems/cfc1576c-8014-4665-8e5b-a47d170d6e57.
Not that it was a bad interview. McDonnell is always great. And I made enough sense for Facebook friend Gregg Baker to post:
“Saving mating rituals, the human spirit, and a natural resource that is five million years old. Also helping others (from Alaska to South Africa) to do their own version of the same. Being in lightning, building by burning … taking on opposition.... Great NPR “Worldview” interview by Stephen Packard.”
WBEZ’s intro to the podcast said: "Stephen Packard led the movement to transform the forest preserves from spaces for recreation to genuine, ancient prairie ecosystems."
First correction: Yes, I contributed, but the sometimes personification of me as "Great Leader" was wrong and destructive. There were many, many fine leaders. (See Endnotes 1 and 2)
Jerome said: Back when you started, you were without a true game plan … Nobody did burns in forest preserves.
I said, too simply: Our game plan was Dr. Betz.
I should have said: Our game plan was embodied in Dr. Betz as a person and the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission (INPC) as an institution. The INPC staff, limited as it was, occasionally conducted burns in the preserves before I came on the scene. Indeed, I didn’t run burns until I’d been recognized, hired, and trained by the INPC, so I was actually working for the State of Illinois, at least for a time, when I lit my first match.
Jerome asked about saving rare orchids:
I explained: that we caged them “because overpopulated deer would otherwise eat every one.”
Should I have left out the deer part of the equation? I don’t think there are any “few words” about it that would make sense to a new audience. (See Endnote 3.)
Jerome said: Are you worried about the future of restoration … that these ecosystems are so high maintenance?
I said: It’s going to be a challenge. We may over-extend ourselves… but successes overwhelm failures, in my spirit … and I continue to be inspired.
So, that was my embarrassing and lame response.
I should perhaps have said: “If people continue to care, and volunteer, and speak up to the public agencies that own most of the best land, nature has a fighting chance.” But am I worried? See Endnote 4.
Jerome asked: Do you have your favorite moments, doing this over the last 40 years?
I gave an okay answer, but what a fun question! A longer list of my favorites are promised in Endnote 6.
And as part of my okay answer to the last question, I confusingly said: “Burns (need) young people … you needed to be able to run if required.”
It would have been more accurate if I had said: Our early days of “controlled” or “prescribed” burns were exhilarating for many reasons. One was that we were a team of fairly young people, most in great physical shape, doing something that we “volunteer fire controllers” were, in part, inventing for these ecosystems. We did spectacular work in part because so many of us had such energy and dedication. Fun challenge. Fun people. Fun work. Today, prescribed burn crews have long been safe, without any need to run.
Jerome asked: What’s been the hardest thing about doing this, over 40 years?
I said: “In some areas, people who like to use forest preserves for their own purposes complain and start an opposition movement … and there’d be a lot of losses…”
I suppose this was the very lamest of my answers.
Perhaps I could have said: As we gained influence we made enemies. Someone who had been dumping garbage in the local preserve would join forces with people who didn’t want to see trees (brush) cut down, and the work would be suspended. Some of the politics has been challenging, especially given that so many of us were naïve, idealistic introverts. But see Endnote 7.
Jerome asked: Can you recommend a list of places for people to go and see?
I said, essentially: Here’s a list of sites. Check the Internet. Go meet the volunteers.
I should have said: Some of the official websites and programs won’t much help you. Go meet volunteers working near you. Visit some of the more vibrant communities and cultures like those in Endnote 8.
The leadership of this movement in the Chicago region has included hundreds of scientists, advocates, volunteers, and staff. An early history by New York Times science writer William K. Stevens (“Miracle Under the Oaks”) unfortunately focused too much on me. A more comprehensive history has not yet been written. Other leaders (most of whom you can meet through Google) include Dwight Perkins, Jens Jensen, May Thielgaard Watts, Robert F. Betz, Ray Schulenberg, Gerould Wilhelm, Barbara Turner, June Keibler, Wayne Lampa, Jerry Sullivan, John Rogner, Debra Shore, Laurel Ross, Debbie Moskovits, Wendy Paulson, John and Jane Balaban, Karen Rodriguez, Steve and Jill Flexman, Pat Hayes, Tom Vanderpoel, Michael and Amelia Howard, Linda Masters, Alan Anderson, Judy Pollock, Daniel Suarez, and hundreds more. Each of them deserves a written history. Who’ll write it?
Do we seek to restore nature to “the same state as it was a millennium ago?” Do we want to go backwards to a certain date? Don’t species and ecosystems evolve and change? Indeed they do. We work to save biodiversity by restoring health to ecosystems. They had been relatively stable (compared to recently) for millennia. The health we restore these natural communities to will be different, because the world is different, but it will have space for most of their species, which have evolved for millions of years, including us.
And do we want the preserves to go "from recreation ... to prairies"? First, we support recreational facilities like trails and picnic shelters. Second, a healthy prairie or woodland makes for better recreation than thorn scrub and other degraded ecosystems. The core purpose of the preserves is to maintain natural lands for the kinds of recreation people enjoy on natural lands. That includes hiking, running, skiing, picnicking in nature, photography, painting, discovery, orienteering, recreational education, recreational relaxation, and newer kinds of fun. For many people, conservation itself can be recreational. People enjoy cutting brush, building bonfires to dispose of that brush, gathering seeds, using drones to monitor wetlands for invasives, teaching kids science in action, etc. etc.
Some people wonder why, if I love nature, I don’t also love deer. Well, I have no choice but to have mixed emotions about deer. On the one hand, I find them beautiful, interesting, and worthy of respect and humane treatment. On the other hand, deer without predators are a powerfully destructive force. They can become so over-populated as to wreck the ecosystem so badly that many other animal and plant species are lost. Before urban culture took over, deer numbers were kept in balance principally by three predators – mountain lions, wolves, and non-urban people. We urban people are pursuing a new relationship with nature – that will likely be transformational for the planet. So far, we don’t know whether for good – or for disaster.
Deer especially like to eat certain plant species – many of them now very rare. They also like to eat baby birds – of those species that nest on or near the ground. It’s natural that they should do so. I don’t begrudge them a mouthful of white fringed orchids or indigo buntings. But if deer numbers grow until the deer are starving, many other species by that time will be gone completely. Deer can become toxic to the overall ecosystem. Currently, the only serious predator in most of the urban area is the automobile. That solution is a poor one for both deer and people. On many sites, shooting by trained marksmen (is there a word “markspeople”?) is the only practical solution at this time.
When I started to write “Endnote 4” – it quickly got too long. I’ll publish it separately as “Worried About the Future of Restoration?”
At one point in the interview, I said, somewhat misleadingly: “The savanna birds are especially brightly colored – the indigo buntings and the scarlet tanagers…”
I wish I’d said: Savanna birds (including the indigo bunting, goldfinch, eastern bluebird, kestrel and others) seem to be among the most colorful members of their groups. For example the brilliant blue, red and white bluebird is a kind of thrush. Most other thrushes are dull, dull, dull.
The kestrel is a falcon. All our other falcons are black and white and shades of gray. The kestrel is our only brightly colored one – from beak to tail – peach, blue, and rufous, with striking black and white shapes for punctuation. These dazzling savanna birds overlap with the birds of our bright-and-dappled-light oak woodlands, which has stunners like the scarlet tanager, Baltimore oriole, great-crested flycatcher, rose-breasted grosbeak, and red-headed woodpecker – all among the most strikingly colored of their tribes.
Jerome surprised me by asking about my “favorite moments.” Over 40 years of this? Thinking about it was so much fun that this unfinished Endnote was already way too long. I’ll publish it later.
What’s been hardest? Once again, I find myself promising to publish later some lessons we’ve learned. I’ll name it – in respect for Jerome’s good question – “The Hardest Things.”
Places, people and groups you might want to check out, if you’re interested
in ecosystem conservation.
I like to meet and talk with readers of this blog. These days I’m typically with the volunteers on “workdays” at Somme Prairie Grove and Somme Woods in Northbrook. At Somme Woods, six (mostly new) stewards-in-training lead the restoration of 225 acres of savanna, woodland, and wetland. See their website https://sommepreserve.org , and two Facebook pages: https://www.facebook.com/sommewoodscommunity/ and https://www.facebook.com/FriendsOfTheSommePreserves/
The North Branch Restoration Project website is at https://www.northbranchrestoration.org/calendar.html. More than two dozen stewards at twenty sites. “Workdays” every weekend, along with Wednesday seed collecting during the growing season and the Wednesday Woodchoppers during winter. The NBRP sites are in or near Chicago, Skokie, Niles, Morton Grove, Wilmette, Winnetka, Glenview, Glencoe, and Northbrook.
For many years, Poplar Creek Prairie Stewards restored one very large prairie and woodland site in Hoffman Estates. They now have adopted a second large site near Streamwood. http://www.poplarcreekprairiestewards.org
Orland Grassland Volunteers help manage a thousand-acre prairie and savanna between Orland Park, Orland Hills, and Tinley Park. They also help manage the high-quality Plank Road Prairies in Matteson. See: https://www.orlandgrassland.org/volunteer
Citizens for Conservation work on some Cook County and Lake County Forest Preserve sites, but they also are a land trust and own many sites of their own, in the Barrington area. See http://citizensforconservation.org/vounteering-with-citizens-for-conservation/
Habitat 2030 began, a few years ago, as a group of people in their 20s and 30s. Some are stewards of sites, that may also be part of other groups. Most of what they do is organize outings of various kinds (fun, work, fun/work, educational, etc.). They also have spawned a variety of Internet-based initiatives including the impressive “Forgotten Flora.” See https://habitat2030.org
There are so many other restoration groups. I hereby invite them to introduce themselves in the “Comments” section of this post. See below.