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Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Professionals and Volunteers - a declaration of interdependence

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.

Hand pollenating an orchid on the federal endangered list: Daniel Suarez (right) started as a volunteer, learned from volunteers, and became a professional. Lisa Culp (left) has long been a lead volunteer. Staff people often change jobs. Volunteers can be crucial to continuity. 

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.  

A "Land Audit" designed and conducted by 80 volunteers and professionals (acting as volunteers) inspired the Cook FP board to upgrade its ecological management staff and program - dramatically. Planning team, from left, Julie Mason (Will County FP), Wayne Lampa (former head ecologist of DuPage), Joe Neumann (Palos volunteer  steward), Jean Sellar (Army Corps), Barbara Hill (steward, advocate), and Linda Masters (steward and pro). The study was released by Friend of the Forest Preserves.  

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)
  •  Advocates
  •  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.

When politics threatened to end the restoration program, some forest preserve staff sided with the critics. But some staff (like Bill Koenig, left) got together with volunteers (like Linda Masters, center), and board members (now Congressman, Mike Quigley, right) to educate and advocate. Here they're pulling garlic mustard, which was actually forbidden in the early months of Forest Preserve President Stroger's moratorium.

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. 


  1. Many times over the past few years I have returned to the same thought: we have to help our bureaucrats find the control they need through rules, guidelines, and training. They will never get the control they want through micro-management -- they simply don't, and won't, have the resources to micro-manage all of the volunteers. For that matter, they shouldn't want to. Trust is at the core of this relationship and we all need to continue to work on that, together.

    1. Benjamin articulates a noble idea: we have a mission to build trust between staff and volunteers. Both deserve the satisfaction and comfort that come from trust. We volunteers need to set a goal of making the job of staff easier and more fulfilling. We staff need to empower dependable and dedicated volunteers such that they can be motivated and fulfilled by success - the thriving health of a beloved community. How do we become more creative or expert at these goals?

    2. I like that phrase, Stephen, "empower the dependable". It's always great when I work with a stewardship leadership who is willing to collaborate in planning the endeavor, take responsibility for their roles and then provide the valued communication and feedback in the process. We have some great work going on at Shoe Factory, Deer Grove, Bluff Spring Fen from such collaborations. Like Benjamin says, trust is all-important, as is dependability and dedication.

    3. I agree with the thrust of this comment from the staff perspective. The principle could be clarified to include "empower the knowledgeable and dedicated person with good judgment." Some people think that they can be stewards by leading workdays to cut down buckthorn. These people should really be called "workday leaders" if that's most of what they do. Cutting brush is a very small part of stewardship, except perhaps at already high-quality sites. It's good to motivate and empower workday leaders with respect for their ideas. But to be a full steward requires learning (or consulting with someone who has learned) to identify and understand the significance of large numbers of plant species, at least consulting with people who understand conservation strategies for animals, mastering principles of ecosystem identification and restoration, and more. It's these people (of whom there are many among the volunteer stewards) who deserve the most trust and empowerment.

  2. "Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it."
    Dwight D. Eisenhower

    The fast and easy way to motivate someone is different from the right way. It is fast and easy to strong-arm someone into doing something. It is much more challenging to convince someone to do something by sharing superior thinking. The fast and easy way typically results in people never returning. The right way allows a good idea to spread and grow.

    I love the concept of volunteering. It is the purest of democratic methods for accomplishing a task. The only pay a volunteer receives is a sense of accomplishment. Experienced volunteers will only continue with the work if they believe the payoff is worthwhile. If you need confirmation that your orders are always right then ask the opinion of an employee. If you want an honest opinion of how to improve a program then ask a volunteer.

    1. James, thanks for good ideas on leadership. The staff who are best colleagues with the volunteers are the ones who deeply care about the ecosystem. They see the needs and the results. The "strong-arm" types are caring more about their own egos, bureaucratic infighting, etc. If either the staff person or the volunteer have good personal skills, the two can probably work together. It's important for volunteers to have at least one staff person who truly cares about both the ecosystem and the volunteer.

    2. I think most of the staff would say they care about the preserves. Settling arguments is always difficult. The majority is not always right, but they are right a majority of the time. Everyone needs to realize that no one gets what he/she wants all the time. Individuals deserve the opportunity to present their case. However, the final course of action is most fairly determined by a simple vote of all concerned parties or a pre-agreed upon arbitration.

      This being said, I think the work volunteers do is not so very controversial that anyone should be getting all worked up about it. Are there not enough garlic mustard, Asian honeysuckle, oriental bittersweet, and buckthorn to keep everyone busy? In 68,000 plus acres cannot everyone find a place or two to do stewardship work? Some people are always going to be territorial and/or aggressive. It is hard to determine what stressors have brought about this behavior. The best course of action in these situations is compassion. Evaluate the situation and try to determine the cause of the problem. Some people act this way when they are hungry, others act this way when they are tired, and in certain cases I would compel a person to seek professional help.

  3. Do good professional conservation staff empower creative, innovative volunteers? Yes!

    For some FPD staff, it's easier to point out the faults in volunteer's labor than it is to encourage them and express gratitude for their time and effort. What makes volunteers stick around? In my own experience, it's been a mixture of pride in stewardship, the work is fun, the stewards aren't picking out every detail of things we might be doing incorrectly, for the most part they let us learn from our mistakes, the stewards explain why the work we are doing is important, and (the really nice ones) share juice, water, and cookies to end the day and celebrate a job well-done. It has been a pleasure volunteering for the FPCC for the past 7 years, here's to another 50 more!

    1. Kaytaz, you express an crucial point very well. The work has to feel good. At the heart of this community is a combination of pride, camaraderie, important work, cookies, and celebration. Yes, there are staff people who like to nitpick little details of trivial importance that the volunteers are capable of teaching each other and getting expert over time. Much better to focus on the big picture; encourage dedication, learning, and leadership; and help the collaboration grow and thrive. Congratulations on your 7 years - and your ambition for 50 more!

    2. Sometimes it is difficult to maintain perspective in the volunteer/staff relationship. Volunteers have so much effort and ownership invested in "their" sites that they forget it is the District who is ultimately responsible to a large body of taxpayers. Some District staffers may view volunteers more as a management burden, losing sight of the reality that replacing dedicated volunteers with skilled contractors would be a huge budget impact, and would not relieve the management burden.

      We are all working toward a common goal, and we all need each others' help.

    3. Mark, I very much agree with your comment, and yet, I'd go a bit "deeper" (or so I'd claim) into both issues.

      I often hear staff people say, "Don't forget that we own the preserves." I remind them that the staff doesn't own - that in fact the public owns - the preserves and has ultimate responsibility. It's our job to vote in the boards that have the immediate legal responsibility. But, since the beginning, boards have asked the public to join them in helping the preserves be all they can be - knowing that there will never be enough staff and other resources to do the job without public support. In recent decades, the boards and some staff have gone further and built a culture through which volunteers are authorized to make major contributions. This is all legal and good and part of the "ultimate responsibility" to the general public and to the ecosystem.

      Volunteers actually can be a management burden (and take more resources than they contribute), if a program is run poorly. The most important feature of the Cook County program has been the empowerment of (and reliance on) leadership volunteers to do a lot of the training, motivation, and supervision. This program is thus "highly leveraged" and contributes vastly more resources than it consumes. Unfortunately, some staff "don't get" what's best about the District's program and try to subject it to counterproductive bureaucratic infighting and limitations. Strong staff leadership is needed to protect the volunteer program from inappropriate bureaucracy.

  4. Interesting reading since I still occasionally ponder my place as a volunteer and worry about the stalwartness (is that a word?) of our “newish” group at Deer Grove East.

    1. Anne, I hope your pondering leads to actionable insights. "Nothing is born full grown." New stewards groups are opportunities to develop new local cultures, each different, and each contributing. Friends of Deer Grove East have already done wonders. Congratulations.

  5. “Interdependence” declaration would seem to require multiple parties as declarers rather than being unilateral. The pre-1996 history the blog portrays is considerably different than that in Miracle Under the Oaks. I would say that you, Steve Packard, inspired individuals to be interested in the preserves and a few individuals of the FPDCC were happy to be involved and the FPD leadership was indifferent. The Swallow Cliff (SC) grant from the USDA was probably the big turning point, because it established the fact that restoration could attract money which did attract the leadership. The resistance to the volunteers doing work in the preserves was also enhanced by the SC project. The 1996 restoration moratorium of John Stroger definitively asserted the authority of the land owner to assert authority over the restoration volunteers. Many of the most ecologically knowledgeable true volunteers (individuals who did things for love of nature and had no TNC, Sierra Club, etc role) left during this period. The professional ‘volunteers’ (Audubon, FotFP, as well as above) focused energy on broadening support in the public. This effort got support from more people by redirecting attention to the ‘watchers’ of nature who were only peripherally ‘doers’ and by creating/tapping into the financial resources for restoration. The larger number (but less intensely) interested people and the ability to award contracts got ‘restoration’ into the political mainstream. The elected boards decided restoration was ‘nice’, as it was a source of resources they could award and this lead to a more official interest of the employees and leadership. The staff realized, as owners of the land, they could promulgate rules and requirements. They did so, starting with the ‘Master Stewards’ program. The NGOs had to comply with these requirements regardless of their usefulness. The true volunteers mostly loved their sites and complied. The professional volunteers may have resisted but had to capitulate. Increasingly ecological restoration is control by the staff and contractors hired by the FPDCC. As far as I know ALL current stewards were appointed before the Stroger moratorium. The professional ‘volunteers’ continue to try to have an influence by raising money, but the FPDCC has not accepted new stewards and now looks at volunteers as people who will pick up the plastic bottles and earthworm containers of the users of the preserves.

    1. The note from FWPboss seems heartfelt but not well informed. I hope to write more history (and get more diverse viewpoints on that history) as soon as time allows.

      As to the current status of the volunteers, contrary to the above, many of the more flourishing stewards, groups, and restoration projects have been launched since the end of John Stroger's "moratorium." Most of the original sites still have their original volunteers while also attracting much needed younger leadership as well. The Cook County Forest Preserve program is one of the strongest and best led anywhere. Volunteers plan for and help to supervise millions of dollars annually of intern and contractor support; they become certified to burn their own bonfires, use chainsaws, and conduct other advanced work, as their experience and training allow. Many thousands of people chip in annually. The Forest Preserve staff wisely works closely with volunteer leaders to improve the program. Conservation-wise, the glass is way more than half full.