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Wednesday, December 2, 2015

“What is going well? What isn’t?”

This is a post on Forest Preserve (FP) politics, strategy, and personalities.

December 1st saw a courageous attempt by Asst. Gen. Supt. Eileen Figel to rescue President Preckwinkle’s good initiatives from bureaucratic sclerosis.

From 9:00 to noon, scores of conservation professionals discussed “What is going well? What isn’t?” Many good ideas emerged. But they’ve been emerging for some time, and most get bogged down in inertia.

For over a year, many busy people, at the FP’s request, have sat in meetings that purport to seek their input but tended mostly to be lectures by staff followed by brief input opportunities. Often each suggestion is followed by a staff explanation of why the idea won’t work. Many people stopped coming, or threatened to.

Figel has the responsibility of promoting the partnerships that are at the heart of the  “Next Century Conservation Plan” which has won praise for its vision:
But many people have the impression that some key staff aren’t “with the program.” Partnership to those staffers seems like less control and more work. We’d been told that this meeting would be different, and, clearly, that was the intent.

Any course corrections needed? 
The first speaker was Wendy Paulson, long time volunteer steward, former chair of Illinois Nature Conservancy, indeed with a long, impressive history of conservation accomplishment locally and around the world. Paulson is current chair of the Conservation and Policy Council of the Cook County Forest Preserves, approved by the board to be the “blue ribbon” overseers and advocates for the Next Century Plan.

We listened carefully as she updated the vision and challenges. The FP budget, like most government budgets these days, is on life-supports. “We need to do a lot more with a lot less,” she said. And yet we could. Many funders were present – along with many not-for-profits that know how to raise funds (if key staff were to cooperate) – and many others who could produce “cheap miracles” if their creativities were released.

Paulson then reminded the audience about a former pillar of Forest Preserve support – the steward volunteers and the broad constituency of professionals and scientists that were once world famous for creative results. “This was the original crowd-sourcing,” she said. Indeed, there were times when the Forest Preserve District of Cook County was widely known for collaborative entrepreneurial success.

“We know there’s been skepticism and even resistance” to the new approach, Paulson said, but she also credited some staff with working toward more “intentional collaboration.”

Yes? But then there were more speakers, and then more. Would the decision-making staff want to hear how we, the assembled, propose to help, as advertised? About what’s working and what isn’t? The formal presentations stretched on and on until 10:30.

That’s not to say that the presentations weren’t good. General Supt. Arnold Randall described progress made including adoption of some more good plans. Karen Tharp of the Nature Conservancy was especially to the point. She recommended that the FP “invest in the intellectual capacity of the volunteers.” Some staff people would rather have large numbers of anonymous volunteers who do what they’re told. But leverage comes from respecting and empowering volunteer leaders. If staff reduce potentially energetic volunteers to passive cogs in a bureaucracy, you lose the energy and creativity that’s potentially there.

When the volunteer program worked well, there were staff leaders who recognized that the preserve ecosystems desperately needed help, and they could get a lot more of it by recognizing individuals they could depend on, and then depended on them.

Tharp was also ‘spot on’ when she recommended ending the separation of “People” from “Nature” in the planning process. The problem was well illustrated in the ‘inspirational’ video shown us, theoretically prepared to promote the preserves. It was lovely, but not a single person was appreciating flowers or butterflies, sitting on a log picnicking or meditating, watching birds, or even families hiking through nature. No kid looked in wonder at a grasshopper or caterpillar. All the nature photos, of which there were many, were devoid of people. Of course, the video included lots of people, but they were all fisher-folk casting their lines from mowed grass, swimmers in concrete pools, or bicyclists on paved trails. Really? A staff scientist talked about raccoon diseases. Does the FP believe in people appreciating nature? If not, there’s little constituency for saving it.  

When the presentations ended, Figel gamely called for us to skip our break, to save time, expressing the sense of urgency to hear from the assembled partners. We sat in seven groups to focus on seven topics. I can only report on one, but there were excellent ideas.

  • Recognize successes in past partnership projects; do case studies, and build on those successes.
  • List sites with needs and opportunities (so partners can take initiative and find resources with confidence that collaboration awaits).
  • Establish a “Forest Preserve Friendly” certification program, so that neighbors and villages can be recognized for (and learn about) what it takes to be friendly to forest preserve nature.
  • Find at least one staff person somewhere whose job is to be an advocate and “empower-er” for current and potential volunteer leaders.

      There probably would have been a lot more volunteer-based suggestions, but few were invited. This process is focused on professionals – by invitation only. Volunteers have long been recommending a more welcoming and efficient approval processes and allowing more sites to be benefitted by more stewards.

What will come of all these recommendations? Is it just wait and see? Can people who aren’t patient help release eager energies of many? At very least, some staff at the Forest Preserves can be given credit for trying. (More on this in later posts, if there is more.)


  1. The process may be focused on professionals, but it is good to see that two of them specifically highlighted the need to engage volunteers. I am especially pleased by Karen Tharp's urging to “invest in the intellectual capacity of the volunteers.” The volunteer base not only has innumerable hours of field experience, but many of these people are more widely read, have more expertise on local flora and fauna, and are more results oriented than the staff can bring themselves to credit.

  2. The following statement bears repeating: "Some staff people would rather have large numbers of anonymous volunteers who do what they’re told. But leverage comes from respecting and empowering volunteer leaders. If staff reduce potentially energetic volunteers to passive cogs in a bureaucracy, you lose the energy and creativity that’s potentially there." --As a long-time volunteer and a staff person for a nonprofit conservation organization that depends on volunteers, I say, "Hear! Hear!" I am grateful to leaders like Stephen and Karen who share these important messages.

  3. I have been in this game long enough to have felt the sting of having my valuable time being misdirected while volunteering. The first time this happened was controlling grey dogwood in the middle of prairie restorations. All this effort was wasted because the grey dogwood was killed once prescribed burning was reinitiated. Next is the cutting of buckthorn and putting herbicide around the phloem/cambium on the cut surface. Without follow up applications these buckthorn just sprout into multi-stem resprouts that are even worse than they were originally. The waste of my valuable time was made even worse as the employee (non-FPCC site) jokingly called buckthorn job security. Recently I looked at areas where work was put toward controlling maples. I am finding that the maples that were left have now died a few years after the initiation of prescribed burns. I now think putting effort into controlling the maples at this location was wasted effort.

    I think the FPCC would be wise to have volunteers determine their own efforts within reason. If only for the fact that if the efforts turns out to be a waste of time then the volunteers only have themselves to blame.

    You once said a FPCC employee called the preserves their land. This is true, but as taxpayers it is just as much our land. I think developing a sense of ownership is important both for the employees, stewards, and the general public. The problem is how to get a lot of different owners to determine how to use limited resources. I have never met Eilene Figel, but God bless her and I wish her good luck.

    1. I forgot to mention all the plantings that have failed over the years. I've been there and done that more than my fair share. Failing is not a lot of fun, but I guess that is the cost of learning how to succeed.