One score and seventeen years ago, forest preserve staff and volunteers launched an experiment in “participatory democracy.” Its energy led to the rise of stewards, the hiring of professional land managers, perhaps 10,000 acres of increasingly successful ecosystem restoration in Cook County, and vastly more outside Cook.
The whole system is now being revised and reconfigured. Do we thus stand uneasily on an ecological minefield? Or are we poised to set an inspired example for the rest of the world? It could go either way.
What makes for a productive relationship between professionals and volunteers? How much harm does a dysfunctional relationship cause? From the beginning of the rise of volunteers in 1977, some staff admired and empowered the stewards. But there were also bureaucrats who reacted with territoriality and aggression.
Among the volunteers too, there has been a divide. The principal volunteer leaders have always had a “we can work with you” approach. But others saw protest and criticism as a basic environmentalist tool.
The Forest Preserves of Cook County were born as something different from regular government. They depended on a long vision and supportive public. The current redesign of the system tests whether that vision will endure. Currently there are steadily increasing numbers of staff and hundreds of core volunteers, most of whom support each other. Yet, there are also destructive conflicts.
Who are we? Consider who makes up the current leadership community of hundreds of professionals and thousands of volunteers.
- Restoration staffs of forest preserves and partner government agencies
- Elected officials
- Entrepreneurs who work by contract. (The field of restoration contractors didn’t exist when we started. Now many companies benefit from annual multi-million dollar restoration budgets in the Chicago region.)
- Not-for-profit organization staff focused on biodiversity conservation. (Such positions also didn’t exist when we started. But these jobs now number in the scores at such organizations as Audubon, Friends, museums, zoos, botanic gardens, etc.
- Associated academics, writers, artists, and teachers
- Stewards (currently 57 site stewards in Cook alone, plus hundreds of co-leaders and thousands of volunteer steward participants)
- Monitors (hundreds more who take “citizen science” data in various programs and directly for the use of the stewards)
- Education and outreach volunteers
Is this community headed in a sustainable direction? The jury is currently out. Some agencies have largely disfranchised and lost their most effective stewards – constituencies that have been a critical part of the equation.
For these relationships to succeed, not everyone has to “understand” or “pay attention” to all the parts. But enough people need to be fostering collaboration. Or – to take the opposite perspective – if the conservation community were to stagnate as dysfunctionally as some bureaucracies, then staff positions, land acquisition funds, public support, and public benefit all drift away. We the people of the environment need at this crucial time in history to thrive as a core component of the planet’s culture.
Conservation staff and constituency depend on each other. When controlling bureaucrats disempower and discourage dedicated volunteer leaders, the suffering extends to all concerned, including the staff and the ecosystem. The following histories should be written:
- Cook Count stewards are more empowered than in other counties, and Cook County’s stewardship budget and staff are growing the fastest.
- The Illinois Nature Preserves Commission tried to build a volunteer constituency. But the Illinois DNR disenfranchised that volunteer corps (trying to trade it in for a more controlled constituency), and its budget (and staff numbers and empowerment) declined.
- When the Kane County FPD director assembled his (until then independent) stewards into a formal FPD advisory group, the preserves began to get their first restoration resources and staff.
- At Bartel Grassland (the first site to resume full restoration after the Cook moratorium) close collaboration between staff, volunteer leaders, and the neighbors resulted in a totally positive project.
The community of stewards that emerged in the eighties was deeply different from what most people think of as volunteer programs. Hospital volunteers don’t do some of the operations when the medical staff can’t handle the volume. Stewardship volunteers not only “operated” on the ecosystem, they also did research to develop techniques.
At the height of the supportive publicity, we leaders and staff were inundated by organizations from other states and other countries asking how to do it. Many conservation agency leaders came to us for enlightenment.
Except in rare cases, they didn’t get enlightened. They didn’t want to hear what we had to say. They sought something easy and automatic. They wanted magic zombie volunteers who would show up, do exactly what they were told, and then sit and wait patiently (without any ideas of their own) for their next task – but also not need a lot of expensive supervision.
Many fine volunteers are docile. But these aren’t the leaders. We recruited leaders, and they recruited and coordinated the rest. The key was empowering the right leaders.
What words best describe the volunteer leaders? “Creative” and “spirited?” I clicked those words in thesaurus and was taken by what I found: “forceful, brave, determined, strong-willed, inventive, resourceful, ingenious, innovative, productive.” Yes, these are the people who deserve empowerment. And they don’t fit in a passive slot in a bureaucracy.
Recruiting such people means having a “serious relationship” with them. Creative volunteers will do a huge amount - and make it work for the agency, if we’re respected and inspired by staff. Stewardship works because smart and energetic people are willing (indeed, eager) to throw themselves into something fun that is important.
More than anyone else, Dr. Robert Betz founded the prairie restoration movement. By profession, he was a biochemist. But the love of his volunteer life was the natural ecosystem - and the work, people, and ideas needed to restore it (and our culture) to thriving richness.
Will our culture continue toward the death of what’s best about the planet through consumerism, alienation, and self-defeating self-centeredness? Or will conservation communities foster much-needed revolutions? In 1862 our laws embraced the evil of slavery for millions of Americans. In 1918, women didn’t have the right to vote. In recent memory, no gay Americans were allowed to marry each other. The culture can change, and working for change can be a part of a great life.