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Thursday, May 21, 2015

Symposium: The Speech Not Given

Rediscovering Forgotten Ecosystems
in the Cook County Forest Preserves[1]

In the early 1900s – as Dwight Perkins, Jane Addams, Jens Jensen and others were wrestling with how people and nature could improve this region’s culture – Henry Chandler Cowles[2] at the University of Chicago was pioneering the concept of the natural succession of plant communities that would in time lead to what we today understand as “the ecosystem.” During the early years of the forest preserves, there was no such concept as “the ecosystem.”

The official, hardcover 1918 report “Forest Preserves of Cook County” emphasized how the preserve system could support “the war effort” (World War I) through the production of timber, food, and the training and convalescing of soldiers. Indeed, as the report pointed out, the 13,000 acres already acquired as preserves included excellent pastures covering “several thousand acres” … “all of which will eventually be utilized for the raising of live stock.”

It might seem that this report was profoundly at odds with the District’s statutory purpose: “… to restore and restock, protect and preserve the natural forests and such lands together with their flora and fauna as nearly as may be, in their natural state and condition.”
Surprisingly today, many of the photos proudly show sheep, horses, and cows grazing. Many more show people dancing, swimming, boxing, hiking, picnicking, and canoeing. The report also emphasized planting trees and restoring wildlife species. The leaders of the District were wrestling with how to join nature with culture.

The war years turned out to be an aberration. Grazing was gradually phased out, and the overall land management plan became one of planting trees and mostly leaving “nature” alone on 80% of the preserve land. At the same time, concepts of ecological conservation were developing. Consider an article by two students and colleagues of Cowles, Victor Shelford and Glen Winterringer (American Midland Naturalist 1959. 61: 89-95). Entitled “The disappearance of an area of prairie in the Cook County, Illinois Forest Preserve District” the paper described a three-acre site near Brookfield Zoo that had been studied as a high quality prairie from 1905 through 1915 with no invasion of woody species. But in subsequent decades, trees and saplings seemed to be obliterating the rare prairie grasses and wildflowers. The authors cited Cowles belief that tree seeds would not germinate in prairie and proposed no clear explanation for what was going on, though they mentioned hydrologic change and lack of fire as a hypotheses.

In the 1940s, the discipline of ecological restoration was born – mostly at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. There, fire was found to be essential to prairie recovery. Wisconsin Professor Aldo Leopold was in touch with Cook forest preserve land manager Roberts Mann, as both considered what would be required “to restore” ecosystem health. One of the world’s first prairie restorations was initiated at the CCFP’s Camp Sagawa at the initiative of staffer David Blenz. It didn’t attract much attention at first. But another Cowles student, May Theilgaard Watts at the Morton Arboretum wrote some of the planet’s first books on ecosystem appreciation[3] – with focus on prairies, wetlands, and woodlands. Then in the 1970s, Robert Betz and Doug Wade in Illinois and William Jordan III in Madison stoked interest in the signature ecosystem of “The Prairie State.”

At this time, biodiversity conservation leaders in the Cook County Forest Preserves included naturalists at Sand Ridge and Crabtree Nature Centers. Chuck Westcott at Crabtree planted the Preserves’ first big prairie, calling it “Phantom Prairie” because he considered it too artificial to be real. Indeed, the grass seed for this prairie was purchased in Nebraska, the only source for large volumes of seed at that time. Seeds for the Phantom’s wildflowers, available commercially nowhere, were harvested by Westcott and volunteers along local railroads.

At Sand Ridge, Paul Strand also planted a small prairie, but more importantly, he began to care for nearby surviving remnants at Zanders Woods and Sand Ridge Prairie (across the street from the Nature Center). With volunteers Mike Madany, Carl Bartel, and others including staff from the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission, he cut brush in those preserves marking perhaps the first time ecological restoration benefitted any of the Preserves’ high quality remnant natural areas.

This was the era of Earth Day and national recovery from the pain and divisions of the sixties. Generous people wanted to do something positive. A “volunteer stewardship group” – perhaps the first volunteer-led group formed for ecological restoration of public land on the planet – was approved by CCFP Superintendent of Conservation Rolland Eisenbeis and Chief Landscape Architect Richard Buck in 1977. The North Branch Restoration Project has been thriving ever since and would soon foster similar groups around the county with support of Eisenbeis, Buck, Westcott, Strand, Betz, and others.

Betz, the most focused and passionate restoration pioneer, experimented in two distinct directions. On 600 acres inside the electron accelerator ring at Fermilab, he planted the world first large prairie restoration. More importantly (though less famously) in Markham he convinced the Nature Conservancy to buy 200 acres of prairie remnant that had survived development in a failed subdivision. Here for the first time, a real prairie came back to life from near ecosystem death. This was a new concept that Henry Chandler Cowles would have loved. Betz received criticism by many at the time. William Beecher, head of the Chicago Academy of Sciences, claimed that the site couldn’t be prairie because it was half-covered by trees. Betz argued that the presence of diminutive “bonsai” rare prairie plants, wasting in the shade, indicated that the trees were invaders of a rare remnant of ancient ecosystem. Most experts had thought that prairie species were weak losers that couldn’t stand up to weeds. Betz demonstrated that, with fire, the prairie would in time out-compete and replace most of those weeds. Betz also became the "steward" (although that term was not yet used) of many little remnants in pioneer cemeteries, where the "bonsai" prairie plants had survived occasional mowing, and rich diverse prairies recovered when restored by fire and weeding. 

In the 1980s, crews of Preserve staff and volunteers developed increasingly sophisticated programs of restoration (cutting brush, controlled burning, and in some cases gathering and planting seeds of missing species) at preserves near the North Branch, Poplar Creek, Palos, and Calumet. This work was especially encouraged by the findings of the Illinois Natural Areas Inventory. Contrary to expectations, a comprehensive study revealed that rural Illinois had relatively few surviving natural remnants. Some counties had not a single surviving woods or prairie. The northeastern Illinois forest preserves had protected the densest concentrations of remnant nature in the state. 

Now ecosystem conservation and restoration began to be recognized as a long-overdue priority, and Cook site management plans increasingly benefitted from the expertise of the global leaders in this emerging field[4].

As prairie remnants were found, restoration gradually progressed outward from the often-tiny remnants. Where thin brush was cut, most prairie species survived, and the remnant expanded on its own; when dense brush had killed off most of the prairie plants, the prairie would recover well if seed was gathered and broadcast where the brush had cut. 

At this point, a puzzling challenge emerged in form of old oak trees bordering many of these remnants. Some prairie experts suggested we cut them down, as the prairies they shaded were so rare, and the oaks could be considered invaders. Yet research revealed that some of these prairie/oak areas were remnants of an even rarer ancient ecosystem – the savanna. The commonest recommendation was that we just cut the brush and plant prairie seed under the oaks, as the savanna was thought to have been “a prairie with trees.” But that approach failed. It was too dark under the trees, and most prairie species wouldn’t grow. Other species, unfamiliar to us, did grow, and over time we began to realize that we might be looking at fragments of an ecosystem unfamiliar to science. The scientific literature suggested that no original accounts of flora of the oak grasslands had been found, but an 1846 journal (The Prairie Farmer) turned out to have just such a list, made by country doctor S.B. Mead. His list turned out to include the many of the very species that we had found responding to restoration under the oaks.
Now we began to look at the “little prairies” of Bluff Spring Fen, Somme Woods, Deer Grove, and Palos in a different light. With prescribed fire, we began finding formerly-common but recently-rare plants and animals becoming common again in the restored areas. The ecological community reawakened; as yet poorly understood processes led to restored biological diversity. Names like black-billed cuckoo, cream vetchling, Edwards hairstreak, and Graham’s crayfish snake were added to our conservation lexicon as prized species of conservation concern. 

A global review of priorities by the Nature Conservancy put midwestern black soil oak woodlands and savannas at the highest priority level. In February 1993, the Midwest Oak Savanna Conference (sponsored by US EPA and held at the University of Illinois in Chicago) drew together the best experts in the field and launched a decade of primary research on this rediscovered ecosystem.

Many people began to notice what had been happening to the old open-grown oaks. Some of these trees were three and four hundred years old. Mountain lions and Potawatomi families had walked under them. Passenger pigeons had roosted in their boughs. Two-hundred-year-old lower limbs were dying from the shad of invading pole trees – the contagion from their decaying stumps spreading rot into the noble trunks. While few noticed, shade from invasive “pole trees” had been slowly crippling the sun-loving oaks for decades. Many sites had not seen oak reproduction for 50 years or more. Yet discovering these remnants started to feel like finding old Rembrandts in the attic, covered with grime and almost unrecognizable. With some invasive control and prescribed burns, the openness, beauty, and richness was almost magically coming back. Nature can be resilient.

Leaders of the county wide effort to recover vanishing oak woodlands and savannas included both staff and volunteers. On the staff, Land Manager Ralph Thornton brought standards and conference to the volunteer program in ways that improved the developing science and techniques while inspiring the stewards to greater effectiveness and commitment. Volunteer Coordinator Kelly Treese greatly improved the communications, resources, and coordination that this vigorous program needed. Restoration Ecologist Steve Thomas conducted studies and assembled materials that summarized the principles and goals in clear language. Jerry Sullivan created public outreach materials and served as interface between scientists, conservationists, and decision-makers. Dave Eubanks incorporated conservation into the District's "Greenways" program.

Crucial volunteer leaders included Joe and Marleen Novak in the Calumet area, John Sheerin in Palos, Steve Flexman and John Navin at Poplar Creek, Pete Jackson at Deer Grove, Barbara Birmingham in the Salt Creek/DesPlaines region, and John and Jane Balaban, Karen Rodriguez, and Laurel Ross for the North Branch.

In 2002, a study conducted jointly by the National Audubon Society, Sierra Club, and Friends of the Forest Preserve in cooperation with the Forest Preserve staff, revealed that the preserves contained 2,600 acres of savanna, a third of which was in good condition but 56% of which was poor, barely surviving. Indeed, a dismal 20 thousand acres (of the Preserves’ 55 thousand acres of natural land) turned out to be so degraded that they could not be classified as any kind of natural community (neither forest, prairie, nor wetland). These grim results were treated by the press as a scandal, and indeed they were on one level, as the then president of the Preserves had declared a “moratorium” on all ecological land management in response to ill-informed political attacks (which had dragged on after headlines in the press six years earlier).

But the more fundamental finding of the study was that much survived, and conservationists now knew how to provide good stewardship. The data showed that the preserves potentially boasted 33,900 acres of significant and restorable forests, savannas, prairies, wetlands, and shrublands. Of those 17% (or 5,663 precious remnant acres) were still of good or high quality – putting the Cook County Forest Preserves among the top holders of important conservation land in Illinois. Studies increasingly confirmed that the Preserves’ restoration program deserved credit for the survival and recovery of the quality areas. Although the District had lost most of its dedicated conservation staff and some volunteer leaders during "the moratorium," the program recovered and grew.

Then came a major milestone in the history of the preserves; the Next Century Plan confirmed the commitment of the board and staff and educated the public about the ecological and social challenges and potential of the preserves. It’s a plan worthy of Dwight Perkins, Jane Addams, May Watts, Henry Cowles and all the wise and generous perspectives that have contributed to this county’s greatest asset. And in the woods, grasslands and wetlands, the animals, plants, and natural processes also carry on. Though still on the federal endangered list, prairie white-fringed orchids now bloom by the hundreds. The bald eagle has returned to breed in these preserves after an absence of a century – as have many other species of rare plants and animals.  Citizens of all ages are inspired and enriched. The Forest Preserves of Cook County have been and will be a model of metropolitan land ethic that unites people and nature.

Symposium Details

for the Forest Preserves of Cook County
May 28, 2015. 
sponsored by
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
DePaul University

The Conference included the following three panels:

Panel I: Historical Roots and Aesthetic Implications of the Forest Preserves
Panelists: Robert E. Grese, Julia Bachrach,
and Elizabeth Millán Brusslan

Panel II: Conservation and Social Justice in the Preserves
Panelists: Liam Heneghan, Natalie Bump Vena, and Paul H. Gobster

Panel III: Wildlife and Ecosystems in the Preserves
Panelists: Chris Anchor, Stephen Packard,
and Mary Laraia

[1] This draft was put aside in favor of a more "photo based" approach, which was offered at the conference. But this version, with much more detail about individual people and events, also seemed worth offering through this blog. 
[2] Cowles was an interesting character. As Victor Cassidy wrote in Chicago Wilderness magazine: Charles C. Adams, a colleague, called Cowles “a remarkably successful teacher” who “devoted himself mainly to his students, rejoicing in their progress and subsequent accomplishments.” Fair-minded, modest, “never at all aggressive,” and “never dogmatic,” Cowles preferred “non-technical language, avoiding new terminology, and the formulation of any rigid system for his science,” Adams wrote. Most all of Cowles’ surveys were descriptive rather than quantitative; his reports almost never used numbers, nor anything resembling the scientific methods used today.
[3] Reading the Landscape (1957), Reading the Landscape of Europe (1971), Reading the Landscape of America (1975).
[4] In addition to CCFP staff and Dr. Betz, planners and advisors now included Illinois DOC and INPC staff, Ray Schulenberg and Gerould Wilhelm from the Morton Arboretum, regional and national staff from the Nature Conservancy, and others.


  1. Steve:
    On reading your posting abstracting your upcoming presentation at DePaul I am reminded how fragmented has been the flow of information from seminal ecological studies to practical methodology. The influence of fire on ecosystem structure, for instance, is a good example. It is interesting to note that our present ecological concepts of ecosystem structure and development were initiated at the U. of Nebraska and the U. of Chicago, both midwestern centers of ecological studies. In these early studies the role of fire in ecosystem development was given little thought.

    As a graduate student at Rutgers U. following WWII I was there at the time that Murray Buell joined the botany faculty. For a short while I even had an office/lab adjoining his office that was soon occupied by his first graduate student, John Cantlon. I made a point of going on all the field trips led by Buell through the rich ecosystems of New Jersey.

    Sometime about the late forties or early fifties Buell and Canton published an account that specified the role of fire in the maintenance of the Pine Barrens of southern N.J. Other reports followed including some by Silas Little at the N.J. Extension Service. ‘Prescribed burning’ was the mantra. When I read this first report of Buell and Cantlon, I had an epiphany that lay dormant for a quarter of a century when I assumed the stewardship of the James Woodworth Prairie.
    When I performed my first prerscibed burn on this sadly neglected prairie remnant, I had no qualms about doing so. I long remembered that Pine Barrens report and knew for certain that fire could be an important factor in maintaining a healthy prairie ecosystem.

    That research paper of long ago taught me a lesson. The problem is that it was never read, or at least given credence, by midwesterners. The lesson had to be relearned in our part of the the midwest much later than in N.J. I ask why ? I offer the early history of the Cook County Forest Preserve. It was touted as an international wonder, but it had one flaw. Its administration was politically motivated. In Chicago fashion this remarkable preserve was administered as a political fiefdom. It was administered from the top down, run with the precision of a fiefdom and with its ignorance of much earlier information that might have saved the degradation that you have mentioned.


    1. It is interesting that you mention the necessity of fire for maintaining the Pine Barrens. I used to live near the pine barrens of Albany, NY which they call the Pine Bush. When I lived in New York I used to go on botany field trips. I recently received a list of the places this botany group is visiting this season. I responded asking if any of the oak woodlands they were going to visit had been receiving prescribed burns. The group leader told me the only place he knew that received prescribed burns was the Pine Bush. Maybe the people who live out east could learn a lot from what is happening in Chicago.

    2. Al, thanks for the thoughtful comments. For that matter, congratulations for restoring fire to the (until then "sadly neglected") Woodworth Prairie.

      There have always been two sides to the Cook County Forest Preserves. Yes, there's always been a political (selfish) side, but there's always also been a generous and visionary community supporting the ecosystem and its ownership and appreciation by the public. It's been such a pleasure to work for decades with the fine people who care about our preserves. I believe this community is still making great strides and still providing important leadership for the planet.