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Friday, March 6, 2015

STEWARDS OF NATURE: The Early Years of a Movement

how leadership, collaboration, personalities, dedication, and vision 

founded a "community of conservation"

On February 18, 2014, the board of the Forest Preserve District of Cook County approved an ambitious plan to restore robust ecological health to 30,000 acres of distressed woodlands, prairies, and wetlands scattered among the neighborhoods of the most populous county in Illinois. There had been nothing like it in history. According to the approved (but not yet funded) plan, the ecological restoration budget would increase to $40M per year. Four hundred trained and expert volunteer stewards (up from about 68 today) would be the principal healers of nature, on the ground, season in and season out. Five hundred full-time paid interns would learn and contribute. Thousands of citizen scientists and steward volunteers would have the honor and pleasure of devoting parts of their lives to healing nature. How did this stewardship revolution begin?


“We wanted to change the world. But we wanted to do it as fun. While evil forces sought to wreck the planet, we acted locally. Our hands were saving counterparts of the rainforest – that we could touch. We made it a part of our lives, doing good, one seed or weed at a time.”
North Branch Prairie Project volunteer

Some of the inspiration and models for the North Branch Prairie Project came from 1960s movements for civil rights, peace, and cultural liberation. In the spirit of “participatory democracy,” on August 6, 1977, thirteen people (initially recruited at a Sierra Club meeting) began to assemble every Sunday, working with our hands to restore a nearly lost ecosystem.

People around the world now read our history. But the written story dearly needs some “Myth Buster” debunking. We were new in ways that most writers didn’t get.
Thus this account starts with a disclaimer. One part of the myth in so many books was that of the Great Leader manipulating an “army” of conservationists. The reality was so different from that. Yet I’m writing this memoir from the perspective of the person who got the credit or blame for the Great Leader-ism.  I’m going to try to tell this story from my perspective while doing my best to include what I can of the stories of so many others who, overall, were much more important.

Yes, the model North Branch Prairie Project got started as a few to ten people a week responded to my initial invitation. But watch what happened. Robbie Sweeny was the first group leader to emerge from these recruits. One day she said, “You have too much to do. Can I take over the herbicide?” For us, as a group, that was the real beginning.

Robbie was ex-military. She’d been a WAC or WAVE or other (then somewhat unusual) female soldier. What’s going on with a young woman who enlisted for a while and then dropped back out? This is a person who was looking for something. Indeed, we all were.

Larry Hodak had come to know a bit about prairie in college. Now he was an architect, or soon would be one, having to deal with a lot of complicated office politics. In contrast, prairie was something pure that could be his avocation. Thirty-eight years later, he’s still a leader. Initially, he also wanted to include some landscape architecture in his resume. (Whenever volunteers could connect something to their career goals, we all tried to facilitate. It just made sense.) He brought to us the sketches, ideas, organization, intensity, and vision that an architect can have for things that don’t yet exist. He brought Chris, his wife or soon-to-be, who had advanced social skills that Larry, Robbie, and I lacked. She helped establish a comfortable tradition of food sharing; she leavened social cohesion.

Our spirit was not the doom and gloom of many activists then. One day Chris and a few other young women were cutting dogwood with loppers. The exercise required spreading arms wide and pumping them back together with the force that cut the invasive shrub. It reminded Chris of an (innocent? satiric?) exercise. She and the others soon chanted, “We must! We must! We must increase our bust!” as the dogwoods fell, amid gales of laughter. While doing good, we goofed.

Pete Baldo became our “Quartermaster.” He was good with tools, and he felt pity for the unsharpened, unlubricated, disorganized mess Robbie and I brought each week. He took them over. The quality of both our work and our experience bumped up a couple of notches. Pete lived in far-off DuPage County where his day job kept the Argonne Labs electron accelerator running. Just as his day job was “cutting edge physics” – we all felt at least some vague confidence = that we were “cutting edge ecology.” Physics had big machines and billions of research dollars. But we were like Galileo building the first telescope out of whatever he could find. The ecology of ecosystem restoration was so new that we could be on the cutting edge with rakes, paper bags, and loppers. 

Donna and Iris usually came together. Donna had the world’s most beautiful teeth and taught dental hygiene. As our first fall’s seed gathering season drew to a close and winter threatened, some of us might have wondered whether we’d see each other again next spring. Donna and Iris proclaimed the need for a mid-winter social, and organized it.

We had the last workday of our first year on December 18th 1977. According to our logbook, nine people cut brush. Our first 1978 workday was six people on April 9th.  What happened to our group that winter, aside from Donna’s potluck, if anything? I don’t remember. Decades later, we work all winter long.

There was an influential much older woman whose name I can’t even remember (now, 38 years later). But she came most weeks and casually mentioned her classes with May Thielgaard Watts (perhaps the person most responsible for launching the Chicago region’s citizen naturalists, a generation before us). We made sure that this older woman was part of our group decisions, which we made during break times. We wanted to be “the people” and open to all, as displayed in the 1918 Forest Preserve District vision documents. Some people somehow had copies of them and brought them, and we marveled and discussed. From time to time, an older member of the group died. We began to think of ourselves as an institution that outlives people. That too felt right.

Duke Riggen brought us art and peace. A working guy with a working family in a working neighborhood, Duke didn’t own a car. He commuted to his job by the el. Somehow he heard about us and borrowed a car to try out a workday. Then he bought a car so he could keep coming. He didn’t tell us that. He just showed up and started to learn. Sometimes during seed collecting or brush cutting we’d feel otherworldly as the sounds of heaven circulated among our ears. Over time we realized that those sounds were Duke, sneaking into a thicket and playing a flute celestially, to nature and to us. This too is leadership, and we were happy.

One day Robbie didn’t show. Her husband, Ross (who’d joined us later) said that she’d intended to come but their neighborhood had been “poster-ed” with anti-war flyers the night before, and Robbie felt it her duty to spend the morning taking them down. I said, wryly, that Chairman Mao wouldn’t have approved; that it’s anti-democratic to suppress speech; that the right thing for Robbie to do would be to post her own counter-arguments alongside the ones that troubled her. Ross, while working as an engineer, was studying philosophy in the University of Chicago’s “Basic Program,” and he would have been happy to consider the ethics. But the point, he said, was that Robbie was sending a message. She wasn’t sure that she still fit in with this group. She’d detected anti-war in our jokes; perhaps we’d seemed anti-military and anti-her? The message from Ross meant we’d work harder to make sure that everyone felt welcome and fit in.

Gail Schmoller propelled us to fame. She gathered seeds, yes, that was appreciated; she cut some brush, okay. But one day she had a proposition. Gail had a career goal – and a career need. She dreamed of building a public relations business. The way you rise in that field, she said, was to do exemplary work, build contacts, and get known. “The North Branch is quirky and interesting,” she said. “If you let me, I’ll write press releases, plan photo ops, and cultivate writers and editors. That will help us both. Deal?”

She did this free work for a couple of groups, but we were the stars. Through the eighties and early nineties we would be regularly featured from various angles in the Sun-times, the Tribune, in many national magazines, and on TV. (But this gets us ahead of ourselves.)  

David Painter (a carpenter) organized an inventory through which the more botanical among us contributed to site-by-site lists of all plant species. He started campaigns to seek out and restore target species that we failed to restore through our regular seed gathering. Preston Spinks (another carpenter) invented great “gismos” to make our work easier and grew rare plants side by side with tomatoes and beans in his vegetable garden – for propagation initiatives. Rufino Osorio (community organizer) brought spectacular Puerto Rican food, taught us botany classes (even though he was just out of college, and all his nature expertise was self-taught), and got us to pay respectful attention to mushrooms. Some of the hardest working leaders were John and Jane Balaban. He, a high-school teacher, and she, a hospital pharmacist, kept records, became experts at identifying difficult plants (especially sedges), and taught legendarily fine classes in many subjects.

Experts advised us too, and we increasingly needed them. Forest Preserve staff provided leadership in ecology, human relations, and beyond. More detail on the experts can be found at


In Chapter 2 we are supported (briefly) by the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission. The main myth hovering over Chapter Two (that needs Myth Buster debunking) is that we of the North Branch were Horatio Alger characters – thinking up our brilliant work all by ourselves. We were rebellious American frontier individualists, if you believe the histories.

What failures we would have been – if we’d done as promoted (or castigated) by the journalists! It’s troubling to think that dedicated young people around the world may be trying to duplicate this foolish paradigm. Were we part of the cutting edge? Oh yes, but we studied and proposed and listened from within the community of conservation professionals and scientists. Did we resist pressures to shut up and conform, and did we thereby discover and invent good new stuff? Okay, sure. But we did a lot more apprenticing and learning than rebelling. Many cutting-edge mentors around us were key.

In the late seventies, the Illinois Department of Conservation was finishing up a study that would change the world of nature. It was called the Illinois Natural Areas Inventory, and it defined the concept of a natural area. Through this many-year, many-hundred-thousand dollar study, we learned that only 7/100ths  of 1% of the land of Illinois was natural. Really? That’s pathetic and horrifying. What’s more, the precious few surviving remnants were being destroyed and degraded at a sickening pace.

The study was part, as some studies are, of a bureaucratic strategy to defend a dull, passive agency from a courageous and bold one. Really? Can a government agency be creative and courageous? Most people would say, never. The Illinois Nature Preserves Commission was an exception that tested the rule.

George B. Fell of Rockford had been founding director of The Nature Conservancy. A visionary and initiator, he was not cut out to lead the Conservancy into maturity, so he then returned to an earlier interest and started the nation’s first modern state  Nature Preserves System. He got the needed laws passed and rounded up influential people to accept appointments from Governors for this new commission.

Rarely was any agency as pure and determined as the early Illinois Nature Preserves Commission (INPC) under General Secretary George Fell and his get-things-done-guy Jerry Paulson. At that time, the big old, dull agency was the Department of Conservation (DOC) – mostly “hook and bullet boys” focused on hunting and fishing. DOC controlled the state parks and hunting and fishing areas with a big budget and staff. INPC had no land, tiny budget mostly from private contributions, and three or four staff people. But its influential (volunteer) commissioners and supporters strove to get the best ecosystem remnants in Illinois legally “dedicated” as preserves. Once the dedication documents had been signed by the Governor and the landowner (whether a forest preserve district, the DOC, or even private individuals), the INPC had the power to prevent logging, building, hunting, or do whatever it took to save nature. Someone else still owned the “property” – but the INPC had authority over the nature. Advocates had been hounding the hook and bullet boys to set aside parts of state hunting areas as nature preserves (thereby ending hunting and such management as plowing for “wildlife food plots” to increase numbers of deer and ducks). The promise of the Inventory was that the DOC would no longer need to defend itself from unreasonable demands, limiting its losses to fewer, smaller areas.

How does the North Branch fit into this? Jerry Paulson had been hearing more and more about the admired work on the North Branch and set a goal of hiring me to be Director of Public Information at the INPC. At that point I would become the public advocate for the soon-to-be-released Illinois Natural Areas Inventory.

Jerry had finagled a large grant (many times the previous budget of the INPC) from the Joyce Foundation and hired me and half a dozen others. Wow, for the first time in my life I had a respectable job doing what I believed in. We half a dozen “Field Reps,” stationed around the state, were to advocate, organize, negotiate and whatever it took to get the INAI areas protected from destruction and dedicated into the Nature Preserve System. I write “our job.” I didn’t want to be just Pub Info Director. I wanted hands-in-the-dirt site-by-site conservation work. Jerry was worried I’d spend my time on the North Branch Prairie Project. But I convinced him I could do that in my free time, do my Public Information work, and at the same time do the Field Rep work for the Inventory areas.

As it turned out, the greatest concentration of natural areas in Illinois were in our Chicago region. Many were hitherto neglected sections of forest preserves. For those, the greatest threat was weeds and brush, as on  the North Branch, and my charge for those was to seek approval for North Branch like management plans and organize communities to conserve them.

Thus I continued to go to most North Branch workdays on Sundays while scheduling new events at other sites on Saturdays. My North Branch friends were honored to be seen as a model. And some of the leaders saw this as a fine opportunity for them to explore for themselves the additional parts of the leadership that would be increasingly opened up by my absence. And I was increasingly able to bring state-of-the-art expertise, such as it was.

Indeed, now I was personally at the heart of this first-in-the-nation push to find and protect the remnants of true nature. In order to educate people about it, I got to go to all the meetings where the principles and strategies were discussed by the professors and conservation staff. In order to protect the top priority areas, I was eagerly aided by the very scientists and professionals who knew all that our culture knew – and what we didn’t know.

As I learned all this (so I could write articles, give interviews, illustrate slide talks for community groups), I also brought the principles and techniques home to the eager stewards on the North Branch. Saws, loppers, and seed bags in hand, these increasingly experienced “citizen scientists” had an odd advantage over most sites where this work was now starting to be done. The others were so important that everyone worried about making a mistake. Free experimentation was out of the question on the last finest “gems of nature.” But most North Branch sites were degraded enough not qualify for the Inventory. They were perfect for trying options that the experts wondered and argued about among themselves. And the FPD staff were naturally relieved that this work (that they didn’t feel they had time or staff for) was now being supervised by official staff of the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission (me, still the same person they knew and got along with, but official, if anyone asked) – and advised by the most respected experts possible.

It didn’t hurt that I was a hard worker, an eager listener, and dedicated. When I helped out on my first controlled burn with seasoned experts, I spent much of the time asking the leaders of the various parts to explain fine points of what they were doing. The next burn I attended, I was in charge. Too quick? Yes, except I’d learned enough to know that the North Branch burns were no-brainers except for smoke management, and all that required was good judgment. I’d burned these same sites repeatedly with (less trained and experienced) FPD staffer Chuck Westcott. He appreciated us volunteers and tried to make time for our projects, but he had so many other responsibilities that most needed burns didn’t get done. He was committed to the cause and frustrated by lack of time. The key moment came when he recommended to his boss, Superintend of Conservation Roland Eisenbeis to “let Packard and the INPC take over,” and Eisenbeis agreed.

Soon, all the North Branch Prairies got their burns under the best conditions. They got good PR for it too. Crucial to our success was the presence of so many excellent North Branch volunteer leaders. We might burn six sites in one day. Experienced volunteers who’d managed to get time off from their jobs knew how to collaborate and divide responsibilities. To do a classic “circle burn” required two teams, each having one crew boss, one person who spread the fire (often the boss), one person with a water back pack to pounce on any flames heading in the wrong direction, and a couple of “fire swatter” wielders including one who “mopped up” and patrolled the down-wind side. Other crews might “prep” a site before the main crews arrived – and stay behind after they left, ostensibly for more mop-up, but mostly to talk with passers-by who wondered what this was all about. The more people who learned what this was about – the more friends and community we enjoyed.  

In time I was leading crews in eight counties. Since there were only a few good burn days in most years, I needed identify, train, and empower as many fine leaders as possible. These people included agency staff and volunteers. On the North Branch, increasingly the burning got done without me. That worked well, given the pool of fine leaders (especially including engineer Ross Sweeny and construction company owner Neil Peck). 

During this period I’d go to all the North Branch workdays I had time for. But now there were the Palatine Prairie Volunteers, the Friends of the Fen, South Suburban Prairie Project, and others that I had organized and empowered. I kept in touch enough to continue to learn from what all these little communities were developing (committee structures, newsletters, social events, management techniques, teaching initiatives) so that I could pass ideas on to the other congregations.

Then, disaster. The Illinois Nature Preserves Commission and Natural Land Institute jointly bit the dust. The powerful old Illinois Department of Conservation finally rid itself of the uncompromising crusades of George Fell. The Illinois legislature eliminated the entire budget for the Commission, and Fell and the entire staff were unceremonially let go[1]. 


It seemed like the entire structure of the idealistic world we’d found might be gone in an instant. Fortunately, after some agonizing weeks, like the cavalry to the rescue, The Nature Conservancy hired all the Field Reps. For years the Conservancy had been buying threatened woods, wetlands, and prairies and turning them over to various public agencies for good management. It had promised its funders and donors that these lands were permanently protected by the INPC. So it found some emergency funds to save the staff temporarily, a move acceptable to its most important partner, that same DOC, since with George Fell gone, we small fry weren’t much of a threat, especially as not-for-profit staff rather than INPC staff.

The Conservancy at that time was a mix of youthful idealism and muscular, entrepreneurial creativity. Director Ralph Brown, a hard worker and fine leader, said to me essentially, “I want you on my staff. I don’t understand quite what you do, but I know it’s highly regarded, and we’re under pressure from our national office to upgrade our stewardship. Go ahead, do it.”

The INPC had previously rejected suggestions for a volunteer steward initiatives as too non-professional. But in the wake of losing its entire staff, the Commissioners quickly approved a joint INPC/TNC “Volunteer Stewardship Network.” We sent out an emergency appeal for help. In Sierra Club and Audubon newsletters – and through every other outlet we could find – we told the scandalous story of the sacking of the INPC staff and begged for reinforcements. I started with a list of the most important Nature Preserves and Inventory areas (potential preserves) in northeastern Illinois. In the first year an impressive sixty woods and grasslands got volunteer stewards, most of whom with our coaching started building communities of restoration volunteers and advocates.  

Some “stewards” didn’t work out. Environmentalists up until that time were largely protestors. Despite our coaching, some “stewards” thought their jobs were to write excoriating letters to staff, itemizing their management failures, expressing lofty ideas in inspiring language, and contrasting the staff’s failures and incompetence. That wasn’t helpful. Few agencies had the budget or ecological knowledge to restore health to the gems they happened to own.

Our coaching to stewards was simple. Start a positive relationship with the staff. Respect that they’re busy. Report problems in a friendly way and offer to help. You’ll probably get turned down at first. Fine. Stay friendly and positive. Keep at it. Don’t give up. When at last you’re approved to start some good initiative, keep it as simple and painless for the overworked staff as possible. See that they get positive recognition from yourself and other taxpayers and constituents who appreciate the preserve. Celebrate success.

With so many sites, so many owning agencies, so many ecosystem types, and such complicated organizational relationships – we at Nature Conservancy could give only very partial coaching. The stewards had to work with staff and the best available experts to develop their own goals and work plans. Fortunately, pretty much every expert in the region was on the list of consultants we distributed, and pretty much all were generous with their time. Everyone believed in the goal.

It made life a lot easier that most of the sites had the same few simple problems for the stewards to get started on. Invasion by buckthorn sickened every site in the region. Learning to identify it, cut it, and herbicide the stump was all a volunteer initially needed. Once the buckthorn had been cut, the ecosystem gave great feedback. Suppressed wildflowers and grasses (and often baby oaks) once again flourished. If you could muster the energy, approvals, and helpers to restore ten feet by ten feet, you were thanked by a garden of rare plants. If you managed 100 by 100 feet, you were thanked by butterflies, birds, walking sticks, and often friendly and interested passers-by, who in turn thanked us too.

For a dozen or so most important sites, I was on the phone and meeting with people every weekend to help, discuss, and coach. My most important jobs were two: suggesting contacts and giving honest praise. But for most of the sixty sites, I’d never seen them and never met any of the people involved. For those, I personally responded in writing to sixty written reports from the stewards, three or four times a year.

For example, tidbits of exchanges from vague memory from one site:

SPRING REPORT: The flowers are beautiful. I did identify a little buckthorn, but I don’t know about those barrels dumped in the ravine.
SPRING RESPONSE: Really? Barrels? Look recent? Can you tell what’s in them?

SUMMER REPORT: Yes, I checked again; they look recent. No labels on them. Some are open and empty. Some are sealed and heavy.
SUMMER RESPONSE: Have you asked the preserve staff if they know about them? Do you know any group or individuals who could help drag them out for disposal?

FALL REPORT: The staff was happy that we rounded up some volunteers and lent us all work gloves. We hauled barrels and junk to the parking lot, and staff trucked them away. I got the impression that the staff figured out where the junk came from, and we won’t see any more dumping. But we’ll keep an eye on the place.
FALL RESPONSE: Great work! What’s happening with those buckthorns?

Over the years many stewards grew to be respected conservation leaders in their local communities. We met them at our “field seminars,” winter workshops and conferences (with breakout sessions taught by both experienced stewards and the region’s best experts).

Dr. Robert F. Betz of Northeastern Illinois University was a leader and inspirer. We cherished visits during which he’d observe and comment and recommend. Ray Schulenburg, Dorothy and Doug Wade, George Fell, Floyd Swink and many others inspired and educated us through writings, speeches, and field tours of North Branch and other sites. Many of us went wherever we could go to learn and report back. The Northern Illinois Prairie Workshop (at Fermilab in March 1978) provided a powerful model, and we stewards then helped organize this important exchange every two years. It and its successors (Currently “Wild Things: a chicago wilderness conference for people and nature”) continue to this day, drawing 1,624 participants in 2015).

But as those early numbers of volunteers and sites climbed and climbed, we sought more education resources. One initiative was “Prairie University.” On the course catalogue, the college seal showed a buffalo wearing a mortarboard and tassel. The seal’s legend read “Populus In Horto” or similar Latin silliness. The courses included all those we offered to the stewards along with the most fitting among the offerings of the Morton Arboretum, Field Museum, Chicago Botanic Garden and various colleges. At that time these powerful institutions actually offered little of much use to stewards, but we included a few so that the staff there would notice that those offerings would draw more paying students. Soon the staff were asking how they could get more of their classes listed, and we’d then have the opportunity to explain what we were looking for. Educational opportunities grew. Major institution began paying more attention to ecosystem restoration.  

Remember Gail Schmoller? Our prairie PR entrepreneur grew as we all did. Every time a steward faced disaster and produced a miracle, she helped put together a press release celebrating the ecology of the needy site, the steward, and the drama. Local newspapers always ran these, and the Tribune and Sun-Times sometimes did. We sponsored appreciation and awards dinners every winter, often at the Brookfield Zoo’s Discovery Center. An inspiring (brief) speaker would be followed by twenty or so (brief) awards to creative and heroic conservationists. As the award paragraphs were read, the audience would throb with electricity and pride. This is one way we learned and motivated ourselves. Following the dinner, Schmoller would send press releases to the local papers of every recipient – celebrating not just the person but also the glories and needs of the until-then-unknown local woods, wetland, or prairie. That was a way stewards met new neighbors and volunteers, and gained stature in the community.

How powerful had this all become? When we launched the Poplar Creek project, we found out. National experts increasingly said that conservation and restoration had to advance to larger sites if we were to save habitat for significant animals and not just little gardens of rare plants. We got together with the Cook County forest preserve staff and cooked up something bigger. Soon the FPD board had approved “Restore and Restock” – the expanded program. We (TNC and FPD) jointly announced a big kick-off at our first site, six hundred acres of Poplar Creek prairie and oak woods.

We had never done anything like it before. Dr. Robert F. Betz of Northeastern Illinois University, the dean of prairie conservation, would give the keynote – if anyone showed up. We had advertised for people: “Might you be ready to volunteer for something big?” After Dr. Betz’ speech, anyone up for it would be invited to take a hike with me, kick the tires of the ecosystem, and find out who might perhaps want to volunteer.

To our amazement 80 serious and bright-eyed people came. I watched them as Betz described the vision and the challenge. Quickly I enlisted a couple of experienced tour leaders for a change in plans. When the applause died down, I announced that, given the miracle of 80 people, we were changing plans.

“Who’d like to forget the tour and meet now to plan for this larger group, to start next week?” I asked. A dozen people raised their hands. “Great,” I said. “I’m turning over this larger meeting to (somebody who’s name I don’t remember) who’ll get everyone’s contact info and organize the site tours. And, for you wonderful dozen, let’s meet under that tree away and focus, right now.”

We stood in a little circle while I very briefly re-capped the vision and what was needed. I asked, what are your skills, and what might you want to take responsibility for?

Tom Waugh said, “I can lead brush cutting crews. I’ve done it.”
Hilda Joy said, I’d edit the newsletter.”
Ed Taisich and Diana Granitto both offered to help lead seed collecting.
Mark Simon said, “I used to do controlled burns professionally. I’ll lead that.”
Rick McAndless said, “I’ve been a steward. I could work with the newer leaders to see that the work gets coordinated.”
Barbara Hill said, “I’ll manage a database so we can keep track of members.”

Carly Kreider had heard about the kick-off, couldn’t come, sent her husband to get info, and showed up at our first organizational meeting saying, “I’m VP for a local tech company. The people part of this is already amazing. It can blossom more. I’ll find greeters, recruiters, some PR folks, and I’ll organize refreshments and parties and socials to build spirit.”

It was like “instant community.” And they truly did creative and ambitious jobs at all these things – coordinated by the wise leadership of Rick and Carly. Some of the team were married; some weren’t. It didn’t make a difference. They did their Poplar Creek jobs with the dedication and focus. Twenty-five years later, celebrating their anniversary, honors were bestowed on some who’d been leaders from the beginning, side by side with new leaders who continue to sign on. You could see, way back then, that it would be so. The people were likeable and competent. The time was right. Stewards got married to each other, had kids, and brought them up partly as members of their steward communities. The quality, size, and public support for Poplar Creek and many of these ecosystems grew and grew.

Were all the groups this collaborative? Hardly. Often dominant “Alpha” types came to hold the reins (and then reigned and reigned). In those cases, I’d do my best to encourage less hierarchy and more collaboration. From time to time I’d offer my favorite appropriation from the Tao Te Ching:  “If leaders are terrible, people wail and gnash their teeth. If leaders are merely poor, people say ‘Our officials are great, and our lives depend on us faithfully doing as they direct.’ If leaders are excellent, people say ‘Life is good; we’re doing this ourselves’.” As religions and Little Leagues have long shown, somewhat authoritative leadership can be productive and rewarding, just not as liberating of good energies as could be.

In the early nineties, facilitating all this work at more than 100 sites in six counties were still just two or three of us at the Conservancy and slivers of staff time from the land-owning agencies. More was needed. We created regions (a county or a part of a larger county), each one of which had a Regional Steward, Regional Ecologist, Regional Administrator, and other leaders depending on needs and skills. All counties and many smaller agencies recognized the need for more conservation staff. They hired staff to do (with tractors, chain-saws, and front-end-loaders) the work that stewards had been doing so impressively with their hands, powered by hamburgers or tofu. They hired people to monitor the species and make ecological plans, even though this field as yet had few professionals to choose from. Often they hired volunteers.

Yet there were dangers within the growing potential. We also needed something politically broader and socially deeper. Our attempt at that would come to be called “Chicago Wilderness.” I named it and started planning it two years before it was launched. But even within The Nature Conservancy, there were hazards. I almost got fired a couple of times, since I didn’t pay adequate attention to our own bureaucracy. National leaderships of big conservation agencies regularly come up with new priorities, and the staff fails to re-orient at their peril. 

Fortunately, an opportunity arose. At first the Volunteer Stewardship Network was tentatively approved by national as an experiment. Later, during one of my near firings, some national leaders claimed that such “grass-rootsy” work was not what the professional and business-oriented TNC wanted. Our director and regional office decided to scrap the VSN, and only a strong response from the Illinois board saved us[2]. Not long after, with new state and regional directors, the national invited a presentation to the national board. Now it turned out that our work looked like it would fit into a new major national initiative. It would be called the Last Great Places, and it was truly a TNC revolution in the VSN’s direction. The principles were that 1) the Conservancy needed much larger areas to seriously conserve and restore ecosystems, animals, and processes, 2) to do that the corporate-based Conservancy would need to get much more involved (as distasteful as it might be) with government agencies, and 3) to do that we’d need public support and politics.

That year, the Conservancy gave us in Illinois its annual award for the nation’s best stewardship program, as a model for the Last Great Places. We made plans to announce Chicago Wilderness, jointly to restore 200,000 acres of federal, state, and local conservation land with some of our developing Prairie University partners and others including the Field Museum, Brookfield Zoo, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, all the Forest Preserve Districts, and twenty-five others.

It was barely in time. We were changing the world in major ways – gaining powerful friends and and powerful enemies. Does our kind of participatory democracy work in the political big leagues?

·      April 11, 1996: Cook County President John Stroger announces Chicago Wilderness at a press conference at the Field Museum.

·      May 12, 1996: Front page story in the Chicago Sun-Times (“Half Million Trees Face Axe”) launches sustained anti-restoration campaign in the media (and behind the scenes).

·      September 1996: That same President Stroger imposes a moratorium stopping all restoration in Cook County. A similar moratorium in DuPage County is already in place.

But that drama will be the subject of Chapter 4.  

WHAT’S COMING (some day)

Chapter 4: Anatomy of a Moratorium
Chapter 5: Chicago Wilderness (good news, bad news)
Chapter 6: Rescuing the Grass Roots (Audubon, Friends of the Forest                                             Preserves, Stewards Council, and others)
Chapter 7: The future?

Note written in January 2018
I have to admit that Chapters 4 through 7 still haven't been written, as such.
But the issues and dramas are partly covered in the post "After the Miracle" at:

[1] This little written-about melodrama is worth a chapter or a book of its own. But perhaps all that fits here is that the DOC careerists and bureaucrats had been biding their time. INPC had frustrated hook and bullet plans again and again. Indeed George could be very hard to work with, for anybody (including the DOC’s excellent, dedicated, and practical younger conservation staff). But the opportunity for revolt came when the Commission stood up to an influential club that wanted to use part of a nature preserve. The club asked its State Rep for help. Without opposition from the DOC (and likely with encouragement), the legislature zeroed out the INPC’s budget. George could see it happening before the rest of us and talked about vultures circling.
[2] Conservancy staff that devoted parts of their time to the northeastern Illinois VSN included Gillian Moreland, Jill Riddell, and Laurel Ross.


  1. Thank you so much for everything you have done and continue to do. Your post was fascinating and I look forward to reading the rest with great interest.

  2. Hey, Steve! Thanks for the mention for my volunteer work. Nice to be remembered in some small way. Hope all is well with you!

    1. Your smart, strategic, and generous work is remembered by me, in a big way. Thanks again. Hope all is well with you too.