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Thursday, May 26, 2016

After The Miracle

Twenty years ago,
New York Times science writer William K. Stevens published
Miracle Under the Oaks – the Revival of Nature in America.”

This book celebrated the birth of a movement.  
He made impressive predictions.
How did they turn out?

He focused on some Cook County forest preserves and their stewards.
This post seeks to summarize some of the main dramas
and issues from 1996 to 2016.

Later posts will have more detail.
Some asked, “Why are you writing this?”[1]
See also End Notes.[2]
 Chapters In This Post:
  • The Founding of Chicago Wilderness (April 1996).
  • The Moratorium (September 1996).
  • The Nature Conservancy pulls back; Audubon tries to fill in.
  • Chicago Wilderness magazine
  • Strategic Large Projects: Bartel Grassland, Orland Track, and more.
  • The Land Audit, Friends of the Forest Preserves, and the moratorium ends, with a whimper.
  • Untangling a Mess. Staff conflicts. Legacy of Steve Bylina. Changes under Preckwinkle and Randall. The Next Century Plan. Grassroots futures. 

The “movement” which William K. Stevens described in his “miracle” book had started as a new kind of volunteer community. In the late seventies, the North Branch Prairie Project was just a few ordinary people trying something new. We experimented with “hand-crafted” approaches to prairie restoration in partnership with upper level staff of a large, local public agency. Soon the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission (INPC) adopted us. With a staff of less than ten and a statewide system of important and threatened preserves, the INPC needed volunteer help, and I was hired to promote it. The North Branch served as an emergent model. The Nature Preserves Commission was as dedicated and idealistic as we volunteers were, which is dangerous for a government agency. That fact was demonstrated when the INPC stood up for what was right and lost its entire budget and staff in 1980.

“Miracle Under the Oaks” is largely about the Chicago Stewards, 

a “participatory democracy” community.  It tells compelling 

stories of the Forest Preserves, the savanna ecosystem, and 

the scientists and volunteers. For better or worse, I, Stephen 

Packard, the writer of this post, was excessively focused on 

(“for story-telling purposes,” insisted the author), becoming 

the “hero” of the book. That false focus became a challenge 

to me – and to the community.    
But by then, our volunteer conservation and restoration movement was well respected and well known. The Nature Conservancy (TNC) adopted us, got grants, hired me, and in its first year the Volunteer Stewardship Network was providing leadership at 60 important sites in the Chicago region.

The founding of Chicago Wilderness.

But that was 1980. By 1996 the “stewardship movement” was nationwide and had start-up outposts on most continents. On the other hand, 1996 was also a time of anti-environmental backlash. For years, many of us could sense it coming. I originally conceived of what we’d come to call “Chicago Wilderness” in part as a way to “backlash proof” our efforts as much as possible. Or, to put it differently, being stewards was fun, rewarding, and important – but counterintuitive. The new approaches needed to be understood by the public at large, as owners of the land and voters. Chicago Wilderness would celebrate nature, people, and how we could thrive together.

We volunteer conservationists and a few staff were “writing the book” on parts of this new field.[3] We were engaging local communities, cutting invasive trees, conducting prescribed burns led by our own trained volunteer leaders, writing land management plans in collaboration with the best experts, were regularly on TV and in the news promoting values, priorities, and ecology. But we were living beyond our means, politically speaking. In a way, our saving grace was the low reputation of the Cook County Forest Preserve District[4] compared to the reputation of The Nature Conservancy. The public and the media rightly perceived most anything we might do as an improvement. However, some dedicated volunteers were making enemies. They were so “pure and sure” of their righteous mission that they didn’t always listen very carefully to the people whose toes they were stepping on.

Who might be unhappy with this version of nature preservation? Here’s a list of some of the biggest groups:

·      Mountain bike riders who wanted to ride or make trails through rare species habitats.
·      Horseback riders who wanted the same.
·      Preserve neighbors who wanted to dump landscape wastes and miscellaneous trash behind their houses.
·      Preserve neighbors who didn’t want “the public” just beyond their back yards.
·      Bird-watchers who thought of “ecological restoration” as destructive of bird habitat.
·      Animal rights activists who opposed deer control in forest preserves.
·      Municipal officials who wanted to use “preserve” land for other purposes (and didn’t want an organized constituency to oppose them).
·      Old time forest preserve staff, some of whom were protecting corruptions of various kinds, and some of whom just didn’t like outsiders intruding on their turf.
·      Various other officials who profited from the old patronage system and who worried that the volunteers were probably reformer-types, gaining influence.
·      (Some Nature Conservancy staff who wanted a more “corporate” and less “grass roots” approach.)

A few dozen volunteer leaders with a few hundred regular weekend volunteers were having major impacts. There were hints in the reports coming in to the TNC office that suggested major battles in the middle or near future.

Yes, we continued to get great press (often front page) and “heroic” coverage on TV as we saved another prairie or restored healthy habitat to another woods. But our environmental reporter friends shied away from hard-to-explain challenges that were at the heart of ecological restoration. One reporter called a couple of times to alert about something she had trouble articulating. Apparently she was getting a lot of mailings indicating that some sort of campaign was under way. We should do something, she said. Later, what she was talking about would become clear. In the meantime, I worked on “Chicago Wilderness.”

With strong scientific support, some of the forest preserve districts increased their staff capability to do the same kinds of work the volunteers had been doing. In Cook County, three strong staff people were promoted or hired to expand the volunteer program, and the volunteer stewards received more and more authority to do the needed work. We killed trees. They were invasive trees that we called brush, but they sometimes looked a lot like the cute young trees people cherished in their yards. New volunteers took a while to get over the shock and learn the ecology. Most reporters didn’t have the time. We burned up habitat. Yes, in the long run the habitat very much needed burns, but on the superficial level we looked very much like the evil that Smoky Bear warned us about. We used herbicide to keep the brush from re-sprouting. Weren’t environmentalists supposed to oppose herbicide?

We needed to change the culture. Was it possible that we could enlist some of the major institutions? How about the Field Museum, Brookfield Zoo, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and the EPA? They hadn’t taken part up till now, and indeed we also heard rumbles of criticism (or jealousy?) about the major PR we regularly got. Could we partner with them and let them share in the publicity – and the culture-changing challenge?

It took about a year and a half of tedious “planning” and bureaucracy to get internal TNC approval for the Chicago Wilderness plan. But when that happened, we moved fast. One key link was that TNC board member Withrow Meeker was also influential on the board of the Field Museum – the Chicago powerhouse of not-for-profits. She introduced me to Debby Moskovits, a Museum staff member with legendary, near mythical levels of intelligence, creativity, energy, and internal influence. Soon the Museum and its powerful president Sandy Boyd were Chicago Wilderness’s advocates and leaders. Thus, after two years of strategizing, bargaining, and organizational politics, on April 10, 1996 the Chicago Tribune announced:

Here, in a landscape paved with miles of asphalt, lies the Chicago Wilderness, 200,000 acres sprinkled across the area that contains an ecological mother lode of rare species and unique geology …

The Chicago Wilderness is threatened, and without intervention, scientists fear that hundreds of plants and animals species that are found only in the Midwest soon could start to disappear.

That fear has brought together some of the best minds of the region, with no fewer than 34 agencies … an ambitious and unprecedented collaborative effort designed to restore what nature created, not piece by piece, but on a regional scale. It may be the most innovative conservation initiative ever conceived since Daniel Burnham …

The project, which has been named Chicago Wilderness, so appealed to the U.S. Forest Service that the agency awarded a $700,000 grant to help get two dozen initial projects off the ground.

Agencies and organizations involved include the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, the six county forest preserve districts, the Brookfield and Lincoln Park Zoos and the Chicago Academy of Sciences.

The plan for Chicago Wilderness "is a national and international model" for restoration, said Michael T. Rains, Forest Service director for the northeastern United States ...

"This is happening just in time before this major part of the Earth's ecosystem slips away," said Steve Packard, director of science for the Illinois Chapter of the Nature Conservancy ... We hope to protect and restore this largest and best concentration of the natural landscape of the central Midwest . . . and make it a vibrant part of the culture of the region…"

“The prairie and oak savannas that are left have the same kind of (scientific) import as other ecosystems like the rain forest …" said Benjamin Tuggle, director of the Chicago regional office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service …

"Commonly, conservation goes on somewhere else . . . in the tropics … but the fact is that if you were to look around the world for tallgrass prairies or oak savannas (to study and save), you would come here," said Debby Moskovits, director of environmental and conservation programs for the Field Museum of Natural History…

The Cook County Forest Preserve District wants to restore 54,000 acres of its 67,000-acre holdings.

Chicago Wilderness would for a time come to be a respected world model of conservation partnership. It deserves credit for X, Y, and Z. On the other hand, it was not well equipped to handle its biggest challenge, which arrived just one month after its auspicious kick-off.

And then … “The Moratorium”

It seemed like we had established ourselves as mainstream. But the forces working against us had also been hard at work. Their opening salvo came just one month after the Chicago Wilderness kick-off. The article was by a Chicago Sun-Times political columnist (and former managing editor and editorial page editor) Raymond Coffey. It seemed to be about one issue in one suburban forest preserve district. It too was compellingly written:

DuPage Clearing Forests To Revive Native Prairies
May 12, 1996. Chicago Sun-Times front page lead article.
By Raymond R. Coffey

“In a controversy loaded with environmental ironies, the DuPage County Forest Preserve District has embarked on a program that opponents say will involve cutting down or killing at least half a million trees.

“The district's program aims to "restore" 7,000 acres of Forest Preserve land to the prairie and savanna condition that it says prevailed in 1830.”

Further down the page, I was quoted in contrast to deer-control protestor Rob Humpf.  

“Stephen Packard, director of science and stewardship at the Illinois office of the Nature Conservancy, a non-profit environmental advocacy group, said he believes DuPage "has a model program and is doing a good job" with NAMP.
Restoring prairie and savanna land, he said, has "tremendous support" among people concerned with the environment.

“Without the fires that regularly thinned forests in the past, he said, non-native species create a tangled thicket of underbrush that overwhelms native growth and endangers even oaks.

“It is sometimes necessary, he said, to "put fire back onto the landscape" or to "get rid of the invading species."

“But Humpf disagrees.

“When it comes to nature, he says, "We believe in the power of evolution over man's manipulations."

Much of the article was simply wrong. Cutting down forests to make prairies? It had never happened. We restored health to oak woodlands, oak savannas, and prairies. In the woods and savannas, invasive trees were being thinned to revive the forest ecosystem and improve the health and reproduction of the keystone tree species. In prairie restoration, most of the so-called “trees” being cut were young invaders that were legitimately called brush. 

Among the thousands of volunteers, some studied rare plant identification, or seed harvest, or macro-invertabrate monitoring - ending up knowing more than most staff or any one person could be expected to. Some staff complained that expert volunteers were "taking over." Other staff believed that this is how the preserves captured the best expertise.  
That first Sunday front-page article (in the paper that was most read by the Cook County Democratic elected officials who controlled the forest preserves) was the first of more than 30 articles ferociously attacking restoration. The first ones just seemed weird – strange headlines and strange claims. Is this what it means to have finally reached “the big time?” Headlines below are followed by samples of Coffey’s language in each.

May 31
 “Packard, glorified as patron saint and principal evangelist of the movement, and his believers realized that not everyone shared their neo-ecological faith.”
June 4
 “To evade criticism from those who might not subscribe to the idea of deforesting a Forest Preserve, the restorationists describe what they cut as mostly ‘brush’."
June 7
"  ‘It is ironic,’ … that savanna restorers are using ‘toxic chemicals’ on trees and other plants ‘while the rest of us have become increasingly concerned about chemicals contaminating land, food and water supplies.’"

The “Miracle” book had portrayed me as a key leader, and one by one, these articles went after the leaders. Now there were three “animal rights” activists leading parallel opposition campaigns in three counties: Rob Humpf in DuPage, Cindy Erickson in Cook, and Davida Terry in Lake. This must have been what that reporter had been warning me about. The deer control protestors had retreated and re-grouped after losing battles with the staffs and stewards in each of those counties. They stopped talking about deer and developed a campaign against restoration.

At first these strange articles mystified my busy and hard-working colleagues and me. Some people whispered to us that there was something wrong with this semi-retired columnist, and we should just ignore him. We wrote the Sun-Times to correct the worst errors, but little came of that. One volunteer called up Coffey. Debra Shore would later be editor of Chicago Wilderness magazine and then elected to the board of the region’s biggest environmental agency, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District. But at the time she was a North Branch volunteer who had studied journalism and worked as a free-lance writer. When she reached Coffey and tried to engage him with the facts as she’d seen them, along with ideas of journalistic integrity, he shocked and dismissed her with the comment that he didn’t need fact-checking, because he was writing columns, and they were just opinion.

Nor did we get any support from the many actual reporters who’d written so well about our work. Tribune writer LeAnn Spencer later termed Coffey’s articles “outrageous and irresponsible.” But she was assigned no more stories on the forest preserves, now covered by political reporters. Asked about her impressions, she said, “ It didn’t make any sense to me. I found it strange that he was just repeating charges that were so obviously just trumped up.”[5] Editors in other papers also took this now-hot story away from environment reporters and turned it over to big time politics reporters. We hoped for better from the Chicago Tribune. A Trib reporter did a big review article, visiting the Palos preserves with Cook FPD Land Manager Ralph Thornton. Ralph showed him how the spring flora was reviving in the areas under restoration. Unfortunately, it was early spring, and that flora was the diminutive spring beauties, hepaticas, and trout lilies.

The reporter’s negative story included one of the most disappointing lines yet, “He showed me wildflowers so small they looked like they were put there for the insects to look at.” (Yes, political reporter, wildflowers evolved to appeal to insect pollinators. They weren’t “put there” to appeal to people. Yet, somehow, they inspire some of us.) The article repeated the sensational charges and resolved little.

Then a cartoon in the Sun-Times showed rolling hills covered with stumps. The caption read something like “John Stroger Memorial Forest Preserve.” Board President Stroger had had enough. Thus Stroger, who just five months ago read the official statement heralding Chicago Wilderness, shut down the entire restoration program:

Controversial Project Awaits County Hearings

The fateful Sun-Times headline appeared on September 25, 1996. Suddenly, neither volunteer stewards nor staff could pull weeds, cut brush, herbicide, or burn. Indeed, the ban also prevented picking up trash, leading “ecology hikes” or “nature walks,” or conducting education sessions for school groups. All had to be cancelled. It made sense only politically. Many volunteers just shrugged and said, “Cook County.”

DuPage County also announced a restoration “moratorium.” Lake County announced a hearing to consider doing so. That was the low point.

But the Lake County hearing turned out to be rational. A lot of misleading charges were listened to, shouted about a bit, and answered. Then the board re-affirmed the land stewardship program it had long been proud of. Soon the DuPage board held hearings and did the same. But the Cook County “moratorium” became “The Moratorium” and dragged on for years. What was different about Cook?

Perhaps three factors were key. First was that the Cook staff was the least professional. A large proportion were “patronage” politicos who answered mostly to Ward Committeemen and their ilk. Both laziness and corruption were rife, and the dark side feared we were “the light.” The few dedicated conservationists on the staff had always been a thorn in the side of “the machine,” and during the Moratorium they were all forced out. (It was especially painful to lose Land Manager Ralph Thornton, nature center director Chuck Westcott, Volunteer Coordinator Kelly Treese, ecologist Steve Thomas, and field tech exemplary leader Tom Hintz.) Some of the staff that forced them out then found various ways to undermine the volunteers and the restoration program.

Second was a collection of “all politics is local” issues. Opposition to restoration was heavily concentrated in the northwest corner of the City of Chicago – the small and politically elite neighborhoods of Edgebrook and Sauganash. This was the most “suburban” and “remote” part of the city. If you had money and a job that required you to be a city resident (fire or police chief, schools administrator, Streets and Sanitation supervisors, etc. etc.), then you lived in Edgebrook or Sauganash. Some of these folks had fled "changing neighborhoods" and did not like it that the stewards were bringing Hispanic and African American school children to the preserves across the street from their European American neighborhood. (The northwest side of Chicago is where Martin Luther King said he saw more hatred than anywhere else in the country.) The local alderman was ferociously against us. She had been appointed to replace the former Alderman, her father, shortly before he was indicted on a ghost-payroll scheme.

A third factor, perhaps a big one, was a riverboat casino. I remember being perplexed at that time when County Board member John Daley (Mayor Daley’s brother) encouraged us to meet with Rosemont Mayor Don Stephens. Stephens wanted forest preserve land so he could put a casino boat on the Des Plaines River. We conservationists were the principal force in his way. The meeting was surreal. Stephens’ huge office was decorated with weapons of many kinds. He was said to be one of the most influential politicos in Illinois, one of the most connected with organized crime, and one of the most ruthless – although there was a lot of competition.

Three of us met with him – Valerie Spale, chair of the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission; John Sheerin, the most visible volunteer steward leader, and me. The discussion never touched on anything directly. Did he just want this meeting so he could figure us out? Stephens had hired former governor Jim Thompson to help him get the forest preserve land. We fought it, but we were increasingly weakened and distracted by the moratorium. On July 30, 1997, the Sun-Times published an editorial entitled “Win-win Proposal” – 

In the past we have opposed the sale of forest preserve land for development for the simple reason that the very nature of the forest preserves is to provide land that is not being used, land that exists as welcome green space in an urban environment. But Rosemont Mayor Don Stephens has us taking a second look at the no-development stand.
Sun-Times columnist Ray Coffey reported in March, 1996, that Stephens wanted to buy three acres of forest preserve land to expand the Rosemont Convention Center. That idea went nowhere. Now Stephens is offering, in effect, a land swap: two acres of county land for $2 million, which then would be used by the county to acquire 31 acres …
Hey, that’s not a land swap. That would be selling forest preserve land – for the first (and, we still hope, only) time in history. The deal had indeed been greased, and the land was sold.

On June 23, 1999, the Tribune account read, “ROSEMONT PURCHASE OF FOREST LAND OKD: Critics Vow to Fight in General Assembly.” The FPD board had approved the sale. Openlands and a new DesPlaines group object. There were no comments from TNC or stewards.

Looking back, it’s hard not to suspect that some “fixer” was at work. That sounds like politics, and it certainly sounds like Don Stephens. At the time of the early hearings, I remember thinking that racism was the principle force we were facing in Edgebrook and Sauganash. The angry people testified about trees and flowers, but when they got a chance privately, they sneered about “those people” we were bringing into their neighborhoods. I got threatening calls on my home phone (“Stay out of our neighborhood, if you know what’s good for you.”) Testifiers at hearings seemed especially angry at our youth stewardship program. They almost spat out the words “Mighty Acorns;” it was clear that they were livid about our bringing the “kids who didn’t look like” the ones that lived in the expensive houses next to the preserves. One angry person shouted out “We don’t want you in this neighborhood, you and the darkies you bring with you!” No one in the protest crowd gave him a dark look for being frank.

I also remember smart, cagy-looking people among the opposition who were obviously excited by the political battle. They’d sometimes sidle up to us, as if trying to get a sense of us. Some of them used physically threatening body language. They were hardball politics types, not nature lovers. A number of times various of these people said, as if “confidentially” and threateningly at once, “You have no idea what you’re up against.” Implication, give up! There’s a long list of powerful people with varied motivations – fears of “neighborhood change,” land for the casino, protecting the patronage system – who would be happy for the “do-gooder” volunteer stewards to be weakened. Rosemont got its land.

Over the years, restrictions were relaxed one at a time. First, Stroger approved picking up litter, then pulling weeds – each approval taking weeks or months. Special exceptions kept all stewardship shut down in Edgebrook and Sauganash for years. But bit by bit, stewards resumed cutting small brush, then cutting invasive trees, then burning brush piles, and after a few years the program was pretty much as before, but wiser. The same – except the dedicated staff people who’d supported us were gone. Most bureaucrats do not warm up to “participatory democracy.”  

The Chicago Wilderness initiative continued throughout the moratorium and had some success in uniting conservation forces. But it became a professional organization, and if the volunteer citizen community were important, it would have to be nourished in other ways.

Audubon – Chicago Region

As Nature Conservancy gradually “divested itself” of the Chicago region’s volunteer stewardship staff, the National Audubon Society offered to adopt our nationally-known grass-roots approach They provided $100,000 start-up funds, and soon a small staff began supporting the recovering volunteer program as best we could.

For example, TNC staff and volunteers had previously organized a big biennial conference – educational and inspirational in spades. Most stewards, more than a thousand people in all, would show up to learn from the region’s experts, professional and volunteer alike. Audubon revived it. We’d have a dozen concurrent sessions in each of four or five time slots, so there were nearly 100 “technical” or “general” sessions to choose from. Subjects might include how to burn – or how to organize a community group – or how to recognize insects by their songs. It was magnificently nerdy and political in all the best senses. We called it: “Wild Things – a Chicago Wilderness conference for people and nature.”
Both Nature Conservancy and Audubon sponsored training by the best scientific and land management experts.
Gathering rare seed for restoration is something that many people are keen to learn. It would cost literally
millions of dollars to for staff or contractors to provide the rare local seed the volunteers harvest for restoration.
Audubon staff now did day-to-day steward support, trouble-shooting, and helping to organize workshops, field seminars, and recruiting events. But we also took major initiatives, strategically. A few of these are described below.

Chicago Wilderness Magazine

In one of the early Chicago Wilderness meetings, DuPage FPD staffer John Oldenburg memorably said, “Let’s face it; this organization has four challenges: killing deer, spraying herbicide, cutting trees, and burning.” His stark comment seemed refreshingly straightforward to some but off-putting to others. Weren’t we about loving nature? Doesn’t all this negative press suggest that we need to re-evaluate some of what people criticize?

Fundamentally, Oldenburg was right. Those four evil-sounding practices were crucial to restoring health to our “wilderness.” Strategically, the Chicago Wilderness organization made plans, developed policies, and otherwise quietly worked to address the four.

But some of us thought a major part of our work needed to be direct public education and community building. We wanted the Chicago Wilderness concept to be household conversation on a par with deep-dish pizza, the Bears, blues bars, and the lakefront parks. Chicago should be patriotic about and known for its spectacular nature. So we proposed a full color, general-circulation magazine that, with some help getting started, would support itself by subscriptions.  

The magazine idea met strong objections, mostly from bureaucrats with bad experiences with newsletters but who mostly worried that it would become out-of-control advocacy. We satisfied enough of the leadership by rounding up a powerful “Executive Committee” that sold the idea to the larger group. The four members were Chicago Botanic Garden president Barbara Carr, Brookfield Zoo president George Rabb, Field Museum vice president Laura Gates, and DuPage Forest Preserve assistant director Dan Griffen.

We would escape the limitations of dull organizational newsletters by being legally and functionally separate from larger organization. Chicago Wilderness Magazine was incorporated. We supported but weren’t controlled by the Chicago Wilderness member organizations (34 at the 1996 launch – grown to 55 member organizations when the first magazine issue appeared in fall 1997). The publication was smart, beautiful, and a hit. Subscriptions and sales (bookstores and supermarket counters) climbed to more than 15,000.

Key to the success of the magazine was editor Debra Shore (formerly a writer for airline and college magazines – and a volunteer with the North Branch Prairie Project). She recruited talented writers, artists, and designers and kept the ideas creative and fresh. Also key were the generous nature photographers who were thrilled to see their work beautifully reproduced and widely circulated. Equally key were the stewards and dedicated conservationists who subscribed and forwarded great ideas to us. The magazine was the antidote to the negative publicity that subsided in part because the magazine debunked it so clearly. People distributed the magazine to friends and relatives, basically saying, “This is me; this is what I do; here’s how to understand it.”

Although the stories were fun and beautiful, every issue had at least one feature that focused on deer, or cutting trees, or fire, or combatting invasive species, or success stories about saving the endangered. Often they featured local conservation heroes, staff and volunteer, who offered “human interest” and provided great adventures and compelling quotes.

Despite the positive tone, member organizations regularly took issue with some fact or photo that they believed presented their organization in an imperfect light. We showed garlic mustard invasion and named the infected preserve. We published letters about damage from over-populated deer. Organizations threatened to quit if the editor wasn’t reigned in. The Executive Committee supported journalistic integrity and helped smooth ruffled feathers. 

Strategic Large Projects

In 2000, after four years of politics, meetings, and gradual recovery, most restoration was up and running as before. But the Cook FPD board and President still prohibited staff and volunteers from cutting mature trees for restoration. In this case, “mature trees” were defined as being more than four inches in diameter. It was okay for staff to cut trees to expand a picnic area, improve the safety of a bike trail, and various non-ecological FPD reasons. But a large tree that was shading out a prairie or degrading an oak woodland was too political to cut.

Bartel Grassland seemed like an opportunity to change that. Outstanding restoration volunteer and Thorn Creek Audubon president Marianne Hahn had for years been sounding the alarm about the declining populations of rare grassland birds at a 640-acre preserve in Matteson. One day in 2000 I got a call from FPD staffer Jerry Sullivan asking if we’d support a new leasing contract with a farmer who’d been cutting hay in the grassland. He would plow and replant the Eurasian pasture grasses. Hay contracts had been an economically viable way to maintain “scenic meadows” in the preserves. I recommended natural habitat restoration rather than planting pasture grasses as had long been the practice. 

Judy Pollock and Marianne developed a restoration proposal with the Bird Conservation Network and proposed a meeting in the field with Director of Resource Management Chris Merenowicz. A consensus quickly emerged that the main threat to the site was trees, many of them large, and that prairie habitat restoration rather than a farm hayfield contract was the best approach. Merenowicz said, “Fine, but we don’t have money for it. If you can find the money, fine.” 

The Corps of Engineers and Openlands quickly approved funding from an existing source. Merenowicz ruled that this was bird habitat rather than restoration, so the cutting of trees didn’t violate the ban. Many people thought that the restoration opponents would make a big fuss. Audubon’s Judy Pollock organized an ABCD (Asset Based Community Development) project that sought citizen input from the surrounding neighborhoods. Much good came from that process, and our investment in it was rewarded by well-informed support for the Bartel Grassland project.

Soon eight miles of invading trees on old fence lines had been cut, and the Bartel Grassland Volunteers were a new community group, being stewards and doing local outreach regularly. There was not a single “boo” of opposition. Indeed there was great participation from neighbors, local churches, outdoors clubs, and of course all birders and conservationists. Ecologically, the 375-acre prairie restoration was a great success for grassland birds. More importantly in the long haul, destroyed the strongest argument of the staff people who opposed restoration. They could no longer say, “The public does not understand restoration; they won’t tolerate cutting trees.” Instead of ending proposal after proposal, that argument largely vanished.

Orland Track

The most powerful initial impact of the Bartel success was in the tortured approval of a phenomenal sibling project at what was then called the Orland Track. Here, 960 acres of former prairie (and cornfield) had been largely forgotten by the District. But, once again, a leading bird conservationist came together with the FPD’s lone conservation advocate, Jerry Sullivan, to propose something much more challenging than the 375 acres at Bartel. Forest Preserve Superintendent Joe Nevius didn’t want to hear about the proposed project, but Openlands staffer Joe Roth and we at Audubon started building support.

The Orland Track, unlike Bartel, was adjacent to expensive homes in an economically booming village. Dan McLaughlin, the influential Democratic mayor of Orland Park early on offered support. Nevius said, ‘I’ll believe it when I hear it from the mayor. Let me talk with him.’ But somehow that talk never happened, so at Roth’s urging, the Mayor put his support in writing, whereupon Nevius said, ‘Oh sure, the mayor supports it, but the Village Board will object, and then I’ll be hung out to dry.’

So the mayor took the proposal to the Board, which approved it unanimously, whereupon Nevius said, ‘Oh sure, the Board votes for it, but those neighbors will rise up, and then I’ll be holding the bag.’ Each of these steps, so easy to write down, took weeks or months, but Openlands boldly commissioned a full restoration plan (prepared by the Conservation Design Forum with bird conservation planning by Audubon). To answer the “neighbor opposition” argument, Openlands, Orland Park, and Audubon organized a public presentation of the plan at Village Hall. FPD staff just couldn’t bring itself to disapprove or approve the idea, so the planning went forward without knowing if the FPD would even show up to the meeting (for which it was listed as one of the four sponsoring organizations). (One staff person showed up at the last minute, but didn’t speak.)

The meeting was well attended by neighbors and influential politicos – two of whom were about to be elected to the County (and thus FPD) Board. Approval was strong and universal. The plan proceeded. Many neighbors signed up to volunteer.

A last gasp of Kafkaesque foot-dragging came during a February 2002 field meeting to settle plan details. Unlike Bartel where the only big trees were invaders of old fence rows, the Orland Track had hundreds of acres of “junk forest” – much of it a creepy, degraded oaks and Eurasian species wrongly planted, unenlightened decades ago, by the FPD. The planning session consisted of two parts – a field meeting in the morning followed by decision-making over detailed maps in the afternoon at Village Hall. The one District staffer who attended was one of the least competent and most negative about both restoration and partnership. (Who chose to send him?) Among the generous experts who volunteered their time that day were Dr. Jim Herkert (foremost Midwest grassland bird expert) and Ed Collins (in charge of ecosystem restoration for the McHenry County Conservation District, who’d done the best pilot projects for what was proposed at Orland).

The FPD staffer stunned all these experts by repeatedly proposing incomprehensibly incompetent alternatives and restrictions. Characteristic was the insistence that we not cut any oak trees, but move them elsewhere. People’s jaws dropped repeatedly when he spoke, which was less and less as the discussions continued. Everyone tried to be polite and respectful. At one point, the site’s birder advocate, Wes Seraphin, former president of the Illinois Ornithological Society, said, ‘Why is the FPD concerned about forest birds here? There are none. The ‘forests’ are degraded junk that support nothing. Don’t you know how rare and appreciated the grasslands are? Cut every tree here. You have 14,000 acres of them a couple miles away.’ When we convened again over lunch for the decisions part of the session, no FPD rep showed up. An increasingly excellent project moved ahead with formal approvals wherever needed. Openlands hired the contractors. Audubon organized the community of volunteers.  
Stewards organize local teams of volunteers who work hard, have fun doing it, and socialize as well.
Building human communities of support is one of the most important parts of conservation. 
Soon volunteer steward leader Pat Hayes inspired Commissioner Gorman to rename “The Orland Track” the “Orland Grassland.” Thousands of volunteers helped cut, gather, plant, and burn. Local schools have adopted the preserve. The new Village Library features a 26-foot mural depicting how the grassland will look when restored. The local Congressman brought $7M to the project. Rare prairie and savanna animals and plants abound. Despite some mistakes, the site’s a destination and a pride of the region.

Step back a moment. The Forest Preserve District of Cook County is a big institution with many dedicated and hard-working staff. As the Orland Grassland project proceeded, it was strongly supported by the Commissioners and most staff and, indeed, today is one of the District’s proudest achievements. But collaboration with partner organizations was a needed part of the process, as it is with most government conservation projects.  The staff members that believe in the District’s mission work closely and well with those partners.

We never understood Supt. Nevius’ role in all this. Perhaps he just did his best to hold things together and avoid dangers. The President’s Community Advisory Council meetings dragged on, stewards on most sites succeeded bit by bit, despite harassment from some staff. Indeed, some staff that opposed restoration were promoted to positions where they blocked as much as they could. 

John Stroger died and the Presidency went to his son Todd Stroger. Todd emphasized conservation and partnership in his transition plan. He approved new partnerships at Spring Creek (4,000 acres) and Deer Grove East (one of most visible and highly used preserves). At Audubon, we worked and worked. The Audubon office was a happening place – with bird conservation, major habitat restoration projects, Chicago Wilderness magazine, and then a new addition to our shingle – Friends of the Forest Preserves.

Friends of the Forest Preserves and the Land Audit.

When Stroger sold that land to Rosemont, something broke. He expected it would blow over. Back when he imposed the moratorium, a few volunteers quit in disgust, but most viewed the mess as a political version of temporary insanity. Or you could say, they hung in there and fought to right the ship. Rosemont was different. The District, for the first time in history,[6] sold a chunk of a preserve to Rosemont. Many people in many subcultures felt sickened and angry. Openlands, Friends of the Parks, and others protested loudly, but the deal went through?

John Sheerin, Debra Shore, and I decided that an independent advocacy organization was needed. We pulled together a board and a little funding ($10K each contributed by Debra and me along with some initial grants hustled by John). Together with Friends of the Parks, Sierra, and Audubon, we launched a first major initiative – a “Study and Recommendations” that looked at the District from top to bottom. Steve Christy (former chief planner for Lake County Forest Preserves) interviewed key staff and partners and wrote most of it. Wayne Lampa (former chief ecologist for DuPage County Forest Preserves) designed and supervised a “Land Audit” with restoration recommendations similar to what DuPage had done.

After more than a year of hard work, we released the study in a press conference held outside Stroger’s office in the County Building. The resulting headlines blasted Stroger and the commissioners for selling to Rosemont, slovenly picnic areas, and overall neglect. One of the most quoted lines was the finding of the Land Audit that 68% of the District’s lands were in poor health and needed a vastly expanded restoration program. Commissioners quoted that figure and that study for years.
A large proportion of the best botanists in the region (professional and amateur) volunteered
for the Cook FPD Land Audit.  Results were a wake up call. 
Stroger fired Nevius as General Superintendent. He hired consensus builder Steve Bylina, former arborist for Chicago under Mayor Daley. Bylina called us all in and said, let’s work together. Most of the recommendations in the report were implemented. Following our suggestion, Bylina promoted young John McCabe to supervise a new restoration staff. McCabe also now supervised and somewhat mitigated the machinations of most of the former anti-partner and anti-restoration folks. Annual restoration contract budgets increased into the millions. Following Stroger’s death, acting President Bobbie Steele finally rescinded the last of “The Moratorium” from the remaining few sites in 2006.  

Technically over, much of the negative mentality remained. Some stewards felt we’d won all the battles but were losing the war.[7] New young people were not flooding into stewardship ranks as they once did. Celebratory news coverage, formerly so frequent and rich, was now rare and pale. When people wrote books about restoration, the Chicago community no longer was the inspired example. It was more often the chapter on disappointment and breakdown.

In 2005, when Mittal Steel tried to swap land with the FPD, some local commissioners supported it for the promise of economic benefits. Friends of the Forest Preserves director Benjamin Cox and board president John Sheerin were both quoted eloquently in the press opposing it. Lakshmi Mittal was listed by Forbes Magazine as the third richest man in the world. But Mittal now couldn’t do what Don Stephens did, and the FPD board said no – vowing that it would approve no more such deals (at least while there was an effective constituency opposing them).

Without Nature Conservancy staff to foster “facilitation” and “empowerment,” the restoration communities in the collar counties dwindled at most sites. Separated from each other, each county’s volunteer community followed its own path, and each deserves a separate account. In Cook County, Bylina, Friends of the Forest Preserves, Audubon, and the volunteer community continued to rebuild.

The Next Century Plan and beyond

In 2010, the citizens of Cook County elected a reform President, Tony Preckwinkle. Many who love the forest preserves strongly supported her, but her six years so far have been a mixed blessing.

The positive side of the mix contains a lot. Astonishingly, she found that employees did not have job descriptions, were not periodically evaluated, and many did not know what staff person supervised them. (Essentially their supervisors were the Alderman or Ward Committeeman who was their political “sponsor.”) In many cases, she hired professionals rather than “hiring from within” – the District’s long-term practice, which also might be called “don’t rock this leaky boat.”

A crowning achievement, at least in the abstract, is the District’s Next Century Plan.  In 2014, Preckwinkle announced (and the board approved) a conceptual plan to spend $40 million dollars a year to restore “health” to most of 60,000 acres. According to the plan, four hundred expert volunteer stewards will work alongside staff and partner organizations and in 25 years will have restored 30,000 acres of woodlands, prairies and wetlands to high quality. The County’s voters and taxpayers will increasingly understand, use, and support this great resource. 

The plan was the envy of the surrounding counties.[8] Yet in many ways the conservation program is weaker and has a cloudier future than for much of the past three decades. The media no longer regularly celebrates the ecology, staff, partners, and volunteer stewards as the model they once were. Although a blue-ribbon committee wrote and supports the plan, the overall constituency is weaker as the thousands of volunteers age or drift away. Some upper-level staff do not support the plan. (They support it verbally on formal occasions, but argue that it threatens to weaken the District, disorienting it with unattainable goals, and setting it up for breakdown when the next administration is voted in, in two years.) Most county leaders consider the forest preserves a trivial part of what they were elected to govern. The county hospital, police force, jail, roads, etc. have a budget (and patronage opportunities) twenty times greater than the forest preserves (in 2016, $4.5B vs. $190M). 

In recent years, the burn program has increased dramatically in quality and effectiveness. Land acquisition has picked up. Distribution of tools and supplies to the volunteers has improved as have training for volunteer chain-sawyers and brush-pile burns.

Preckwinkle ran on promises that included improved partnership with conservation organizations and the volunteers. Her promise of more professionalism was fulfilled. But as a part of that professionalism, Superintendent Randall empowered anti-partner staff. Bylina had often over-ruled staff and directed them to cooperate with partners like the Conservancy, Audubon, and Friends. Staff resented it. “Let us be professionals, and leave us alone, to do our jobs” was a common complaint – among real professional staff and also among many who preferred the old no-supervisors-and-no-evaluations political machine system.    

The upper-level staff leaders of the volunteer program don’t support the kind of empowered community that had been so successful. They want to bureaucratize in ways that may work for “do-what-you’re-told” volunteers but will not attract the creative entrepreneur volunteers who provided the leadership that had built the community. People were empowered to learn to be “state of the art” in restoration – because they knew that important sites needed them. They developed communities of warmth, connection, and respect that resulted in more teamwork and responsibility. Staff, volunteers, and the best experts in the region worked together collaboratively. The current focus on rules and restrictions rather than wise empowerment is vastly more expensive and will accomplish vastly less.

Audubon and Nature Conservancy no longer do major projects with the District. Other partner organizations have reduced collaborations or decided not to offer new ones. Most important is the loss of leadership volunteers. Empowered “volunteer-unfriendly” staff began by shutting down the enfranchisement of new leaders for two years, claiming that the system needed to be improved first. Why not maintain a good system while improvements were made? But some staff liked the shut-down. The new system, when at last approved, was cumbersome and counter-productive. Some volunteers will take the trouble to find ways to deal with bureaucrats, but only for something they’re already committed to. Many good potential leaders have been lost; most new people don’t want to spend their volunteer time fighting to be allowed to help. As currently run, the system will have a hard time attracting new creative entrepreneur volunteers of the kind who had developed such advanced volunteer expertise and strong grass-roots communities.

It turns out that one of the hidden strengths of the first three decades of volunteer stewardship was that the few dedicated staff needed to rely on and empower volunteers and partner organizations. This interdependence created what some saw as a national model of “citizens and government working hand in hand.”

But the Preckwinkle administration chose to empower a non-collaborative staff hierarchy. No doubt, it’s good government not to have politicians micro-managing professional staff. But if the leadership staff opposes the principles that the officials were elected to pursue, then something should change.

The Challenge of the Middle Distance

William K. Stevens in1996 wrote that the Chicago example was helping fuel “a rapidly growing new grassroots environmental movement of potentially great breadth and force… All this is firing citizen volunteers with an extraordinary sense of mission and accomplishment, and is conferring on them a profound sense of satisfaction… Restorationists are in it for the long haul.”
Regional groups plan for the future. Many hope for a time when the forest preserve staff understand and
value the stewards as well as the staff conservationists who were driven out during "The Moratorium."
More leadership in this direction by the board and upper level staff is needed. 
This post has tried to assess how the Chicago part of that movement has done in the first two decades of that “long haul.” There are reasons to be pessimistic and reasons to be optimistic.

No pessimism can undo the enormous long-term benefits already accomplished. Thousands of acres of globally rare or endangered ecosystems are well on their way back to thriving good health. In many cases, their hundreds to thousands of species of animals and plants would be locally extinct without the volunteers, staff, budgets, and growing incorporation into the region’s culture for which Stevens described new beginnings. Tens of thousands of new people to varying degrees enjoy and support the preserves.

One reason for pessimism is that no organization or group of organizations has come close to supporting the volunteer community as Nature Conservancy for a while did nationally and regionally and (to a lesser degree) Audubon Chicago Region did locally. [9]  Government staff can’t do what's needed for conservation work without public participation. Devoted, generous, knowledgeable, independent volunteers and not-for-profit staff must work with similar people they find in the land-owning agencies.

Yet the many creative, dedicated new faces I regularly meet at volunteer events make me lean toward the optimistic, in that truly needed long haul.

May 27, 2016


Sincere thanks to many people who have offered helpful comments on drafts of this post. They much improved it, but may not agree with all and certainly can’t be blamed for any part of it. Comments from Tom Vanderpoel, John Sheerin, Natalie Bump Vena, Pat Hayes, Cecil Hynds-Riddle, and Judy Pollock were especially helpful.

End Notes

[1] People who’ve read drafts of this post sometimes asked, “Why are you writing this?” or “Who are you writing this for?” or “Think more about who your audience is.” Well, one simple answer is: “It’s mostly for the people in the community of ecosystem conservation. Do-ers. And people interested in becoming do-ers. It’s for people who made this history and will make it in the future.” Some have asked, “Are you writing a book.” My answer is, I don’t think so. “It’s too hard,” I sometimes say, in part because of that who’s-the-audience question. Others will do better jobs of writing for the mildly interested – and for the good people who sit in armchairs and read a book on this or that and then read another one. But I also have a not-so-simple answer. I don’t know who I’m writing these blogs for. I’m always thinking audience, but that audience is sometimes new volunteers, sometimes supportive staff people, sometimes science collaborators, sometimes far-flung leaders who are designing their own ecological or group process undertakings. Is it laziness that I don’t discipline myself to focus on one simple audience? Or is it ambitious? Oh – one more audience – the people who write books about us. They keep appearing, and perhaps these accounts could help them cover the story better.
[2] This account is basically a memoir. Others will remember different issues and episodes as key. The quotations in many cases are “my best memory.” Often such memories are woefully imperfect, but quotes make for easier reading, and they are at least faithful to this person’s memory.
[3] Indeed, many of us collectively produced the “Tallgrass Restoration Handbook: for prairies, savannas, and woodlands,” Island Press, 1997, Stephen Packard and Cornelia Mutel, editors. 
[4] This brief account focuses principally on Cook County in part because that was the county with the most people, the most media, the most preserves, and the principal long-term focus of the notorious politics. Parallel histories should be written, especially for Lake, DuPage, and Kane Counties, where the volunteer communities were especially strong. 
[5] Personal communication. May 19, 2016.
[6] The District has sold “surplus land” but not a part of a preserve. Typical “surplus land” might be a small corner cut off from the rest of the preserve by a road, unmanageable and not useful for people or nature.  
[7] Perhaps a few words on how Nature Conservancy supported the volunteer community (as, later,  Audubon did). Our essential job was to uphold the inspired and democratic nature of the stewards community. Participatory democracy confused some staff and made others seriously uncomfortable. Maintaining it is difficult, but a high goal that’s worth reaching for.

In the 80s and 90s, we at Nature Conservancy were a communications hub. (There were other communication hubs including the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission and larger landowners.) At the Conservancy we had five most important jobs:
  • Find the best ecosystem scientists and preserve managers – and engage them in region-wide planning and prioritization.
  • Establish stewards communities with dedication, expertise, and sustainable personal connections.
  • Encourage and facilitate as those groups developed their own expertise, leadership, and decision-making arrangements.
  • Help staff, scientists, and stewards jointly arrive at the best achievable plans, trainings, and practices.
  • Provide media with newsworthy stories about the people and preserves, so more people would understand, appreciate, and participate.

[8] Other counties expressed great admiration (and amazement) for the Cook plan. These other counties tend to make a plan and then carry it out. I wonder if they realized how big a challenge it would be for Cook to carry out even a quarter of what the board approved, conceptually. (A year later, they’d appropriated none of the additional funding called for in the plan. Indeed, they are talking cuts.) On the other hand, in some other counties the volunteer constituency on most sites has subsided. The staff has pushed them aside, following regular bureaucratic procedure, and the programs are only as strong as the staff. 

[9] Some not-for-profits are trying, in limited and local ways. The Field Museum works to support volunteer stewardship in the Calumet region. Friends of the Forest Preserves helped organize and support a Stewards Council for Cook County. Temporary funding has hired Chris Weber, Josh Coles, and Cecil Hynds-Riddle who have organized and supported stewards at a few sites. But most stewards I talk with feel more that they’re on their own in negotiating with the bureaucracies that “own” the preserves – rather than feeling like they’re part of a vibrant community with strong leadership from not-for-profits, the best scientists, and pro-volunteer-leadership agency staff folks. See also End Note 7.


  1. After reading Paddy Woodworth's book, Our Once and Future Planet, I knew there was a lot more to the story I had missed after moving around 2003 and not much knowing details before that. The part about the river casino especially hit home to me as we lived in the area that turned into the Rosemont Stadium after the neighborhood I grew up in was cut in half by the toll road and I saw so much paved over in what originally was a heaven on earth of open fields, small creek, pond or two, and an oasis of green.

    So doing volunteer work at Bluff Spring Fen gave back that sense of permanence that once lost it leaves a huge void. Those early years of going on a few nature hikes with Steve and others was the kind great enthusiasm that I hope others are getting today. Keeping the original enthusiasm is difficult for great endeavors as Tom Dolley wrote about for the hospitals in V Nam as bureaucracies take over and the original fervor is lost.

    But hearing yesterday that Bill McKibben was selected by Bernie Sanders as one of the four Democratic Party Members may be a strong indication we have turned the corner in destroying our planet with divide and rule endlessly played out to divide everything up and feed endless positions. Hope to see a level of cooperation not seen since the New Deal if the Bernie Sanders movement really takes off around the country and the kids find that volunteer work especially rewarding. Thanks for sharing the perspective on restoration. Bill Wilson

    1. Good points, Bill. It may be impossible for bureaucracies to have the same fervor as founders. But some institutions do good jobs of maintaining standards over decades and generations. How to make needed institutions effective and efficient should be an important field of study. There should be standards for it.

  2. i found this article quiet informative. like being invited in to a secret world of nature (human and environmental). the truth shall always come to light but i believe that to be true as long as people like you pull of the covers that work to hide it... thanks stephen packard.. d. s.

    1. I love your words "secret world of nature (human and environmental)." I wish you'd write more.

  3. As for Cook County, it is now become the world where if you share a collaborative management plant document with long-time devoted site stewards after the Senior Staff has commented and proposed changes to it, you are accused and fired for 'disclosing confidential or proprietary information to unrelated outside parties.' This internal eastern bloc mentality is hardly the lip-service that the Randall/Preckwinkle administration pays to "collaboration". Thank you Steve for shining the light on the hypocritical shortcomings of the current leadership. Nature deserves better. Only dedicated PEOPLE in a true COMMUNITY can make the difference. Thing is people want to organize, and they wear many hats. and some of those hats become organizations, that become bureaucracies... "every successful small business grows into a successful big business, and then things change..." "Friends" is not the sharp watchdog it once was. TNC changed. Audubon changed (but not the fantastic people who formed Audubon). Some TNC folks morphed into Field Museum Folks. There are inaccuracies I think in your historical blog, but that's memories and memoires for you. Let all the genuine helpers of nature pull together, and self-assess themselves and their organizations from time to time, and keep themselves honest, humble, dynamic and brave --- Sincerely, 66th great-descendant of Marcus Auerelius, 77th & 76th (dong ask) great-descendant of Pompey the Great, D.o.S. xxooxx

    1. It's true that many of us change and grow and continue to find new ways to contribute. Despite the "internal eastern bloc mentality" of many institutions. Thanks for much good work and many good intentions.

  4. I think it is important for people to have role models. However, being a role model is no easy task. The person chosen typically is not given a choice in the matter. Being a role model makes a person a target for those who disagree with things that are occurring even when that person had no part in the matter. Some people become jealous of the perceived power that a role model possesses. This might be perplexing to someone since he or she does not actually have the power others perceive they possess. The above being said, I think you have been worthy of the responsibility.

    To be fair to the FPD Staff, at times certain people have detracted more from efforts than contributed to them. However, the Forest Preserve Staff knows that volunteers are needed because they simply do not have the resources to manage the preserves. I do agree that volunteers should be more empowered. I have often thought a mentoring program would be more effective than the classroom approach. I think a big obstacle is the distance someone must travel and the time they must commit just to receive “training” in something they already know well.

    I think restoration is difficult for my generation and newer generations to accept. We live in an On Demand world where people often receive instant gratification. There is nothing instant about ecological restoration. The gratification is one that is only achieved after many years of committed work.

    1. Good thoughts. I especially agree that for ecological stewardship, most of the best learning comes through mentorship. But reading and classes are important as well.

    2. Yes, there is no substitute for personal study. I did especially enjoy taking the classes for prescribed burning and using chainsaws. I still frequently review the material that was provided. The biggest issue with training was that it limited new enthusiastic volunteers from doing much until it could be completed because it was offered so infrequently. I think this has been improved in the last few years. In the absence of training people tend to pick up what they need to know just by being around. When offered frequently classroom training is a more efficient method of teaching.

  5. As a nature photographer I'm in awe of what you have been able to accomplish and am grateful I have beautiful places to photograph because of you. I feel since Chicago Wilderness Magazine was ended, there is huge gap in communication and the loss of a way to bring people together. I have tried making changes in small ways in my community. I feel my efforts go nowhere. I get no support for what I do. There is no market for nature photography in the Chicago area. I see this as a symptom of the lack of appreciation of nature and beauty in general. I see more and more greed and destruction. It saddens me and I feel helpless to make any difference whatsoever. I am grateful you have been able to influence and inspire so many. It is the one small beacon of light that keeps me going.

    1. When I started organizing steward groups in the 70s, many people asked how they might support themselves in some connected way. I wasn't hopeful. But over the years hundreds of people have found ways to do it. There's a conservation economy in this region that thrives more than in most places. Of course, there should be more.

  6. you wrote: "The Nature Preserves Commission was as dedicated and idealistic as we volunteers were, which is dangerous for a government agency. That fact was demonstrated when the INPC stood up for what was right and lost its entire budget and staff in 1980." Sad but true. There are two kinds of government employees: bold ones and old ones. I understand that Cook County Forest Preserve Superintendent Cap Sauers was a pioneer promoter of the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission. His impetus was realizing that the "cook county forest preserves" themselves could not be relied on to stick to their own purpose and mission, and also he had that wider nature-loving vision.

    You impress me, Steve, because you have that wider nature-loving vision. You got a job with the INPC. They kicked you out. You went to the Nature Conservancy and got them to come onboard with your vision; they kicked you out. You founded Audubon to shape and mould and grow your vision. Today, despite all those bureaucratic sinking ships, here you are, still standing strong for that broader nature-loving vision. :)

    I recently had a harsh disillusionment. Prior I had thought Chicago Wilderness was the 'great community' of collaborators. Then I was forced to realize it was in fact a cabal of institutions; individuals have no place in that community outside of institutional membership. I suppose maybe 'wild things' is the closest that even comes to a member institution that umbrellas the individuals and opportunity for contributions they could bring. Otherwise membership in institutions comes down to job titles, comes down to budgets, comes down to hierarchy and bureaucracy and the realpolitik that comes with all that. I remember when CW magazine just started; they had a different-colored section and it contained excellent Thoreau-esque essays from some great volunteer steward writers like Joe Neumann... but then they went away from that, more glossy, more....

    It is very important that a community of accountable corruption-proof structure provide long-term lasting oversight and accountability for the long-term progress. 5 year goal, 20 year goal, 100 year goal, 200 year goal. That would set a pace for Cook county's 10,000 year old post glacial landscape (some is a mere 5-8,000 years old). The VISION by the COMMITTEE of the UNIVERSE was to preserve the land. The concept of a "County Forest Preserve" was the first attempt that the CotU and the public tried as an entrusted embodiment to advance that public good. Other structures to nature preservation may also be available.

    Deborah Antlitz, former ecologist, 25-year non-senior-staff veteran.

    This was my optimistic vision 13 years ago: Oh yeah, it also talks of a monitoring protocol volunteers could do. This from the 2003 ecological assessment, a commissioner-requested follow up monitor to the Land Audit. Commissioner Hansen, a long-time 'anti' was impressed enough to start to open his eyes, and after this the phobic reaction against restoration subsided, though there was still political foot-dragging for a while.

    1. At the recent Earth Day event at Deer Grove I was able to hear Tony Preckwinkle speak. The theme of her speech was we needed to be “evangelists” for the forest preserves.

      I often think about how much more we could accomplish if we went door to door in the areas around preserves asking neighbors to help.

      Dale Carnegie wrote the following in his book “How to Win Friends and Influence People”

      “arouse in the other person an eager want. He who can do this has the whole world with him. He who cannot walks a lonely way.”

      The only way nature will be conserved into the future is if we can provide people a sense of fulfillment for doing it.

    2. Debbie, thanks for many good thoughts and much good work. Your CWJournal paper looked good then and still does.

    3. Steve, thank you for saying so. I wonder if anyone left at the District is even aware that the 2003 ecological assessment I did exists. Likely they have by now deleted the 70-some monitoring records, field survey notes, research data. I am fairly certain that the district will never be able to stand on its own feet so long as it is ruled by an extensive permeating hierarchy of political appointees who by nature disrupt continuity of sustained competence. (they tend to want to scrap/deride any 'old' stuff and scrap start over with a new 'initiative' to study and come up with the good ideas all over again). Clean up the political corruption and maybe there is hope. Perhaps the lawsuits will spark a second shakman. one can always hope.

    4. Getting back to Jame's quote from Dale Carnegie to "arouse in others and eager want". In this case to arouse cook county voters to demand scenic vistas, natural beauties and sound conservation management from the district and its politically appointed leaders and their publicly elected masters. One way to do that might be to make widely known the excellent examples of good management and beautiful forest preserves in other counties that are doing at least the nuts and bolts of restoration right. Yes, even woods with steep ravines should be well vegetated with spring and summer wild flowers. Yes, serge meadows should be waving fields of sedges filled with birds and dragonflies and flowers, and not stiff mosquito ridden reed canary grass. Yes, you should be able to see the beautiful river through the woods as you drive the roads and bike the trails. dog walkers, bikers, joggers and equestrians or even car drivers could be allies in rousing that demand.

  7. Thank you for writing this. I have been thinking about the depth and impact of your post. Much of this I did not know.

    The only thing I wish were included - and this may be a detail for a later missive - was something about the role and ongoing impact of all the monitoring programs that Audubon Chicago Region sponsored. I know those programs were key to steady recruitment of volunteers and advocates over the past decade or two. And are ongoing in their ability to entice others to participate and learn about nature.

    The training programs you and the Balabans and many others have developed are world-class. Those would be good to mention as accomplishments too. I know that staff from Lake County were inspired by the brush pile burn module, and adopted something similar to present to their board, to get approval for volunteers to help with prescribed burns and burn brush piles on their own (after being trained and observed several times by seasoned staff, of course).

    I feel hopeful about the future of our region’s forest preserves (though a few high quality natural areas in western counties are a sad mess right now; don't know why). McHenry County sponsors Weekends of Restoration, training next gen stewards and restoration volunteers. Lake County is making smart and substantial investments in restoration and empowering their volunteers. My sense is that they are working to leverage all available resources to get as much accomplished as he can both in the short and long term. So long as there’s the continued political will to back it up, I feel very optimistic about the state of Lake County’s holdings. And many municipalities are getting on board region-wide too. The redesign of the FPCC website to assist volunteers in finding opportunities has been good news to a lot of people. It is rumored there are even some nice volunteer gifts for those who contribute (and keep track of) a certain number of hours. A huge county, a huge bureaucracy. Hoping all the glitches will be worked out!

    Very excited about the Kankakee news. Maryanne Hahn deserves special recognition for all she’s done in that regard, along with her team. And increasingly diverse audiences are getting involved and connecting with Chicago nature!

    I am dismayed by lack of substantial response by Chicago Park District folk about dogs in the nature area. I mean, can’t they set aside a few meters for federally-endangered Piping plovers?? (And now there's talk of a wave pool right next door to it!!) And the state of the State of Illinois is just maddening. What also worries me are all the emails I get saying that federal lands are in danger. Why does every generation have to keep fighting the same battles?

    This amazing work-in-progress you (and others, too, of course) initiated is far from being finished.

    1. What I have not seen being encouraged enough is for individuals to adopt an area and work on restoration outside of scheduled workdays. I think more could be done if people who lived near a preserve did some work every day or two. I think restoration should be promoted as a form of recreation just like using the trails or going camping. Much more could be accomplished if people made restoration part of their weekday routine.

    2. I think it is important to put faces on the successes that have occurred from people working on a personal mission independently from regularly scheduled workdays. Two people that are good examples are Rodger Hotham and Kirk Garanflo. I would like to see more people working on restoration like these two gentlemen.

    3. The importance of monitors (of birds, frogs, butterflies, plants, etc. etc.) and advocates is important and deserves more coverage. And, yes, there's a lot to worry about. Fortunately there are many of us involved. We all have to choose our priorities and focus. (We also need organizing principle and organizations.)

  8. James, I much agree that "more could be done if people who lived near a preserve" could be empowered to do some work every day or two. We need better ways to educate and authorize that. Very important.

  9. Back in 1999/2000 during the moratorium right after Ralph retired but before Wayne and Bill can onboard, I had an easy enough time working with Newhard to do "small schedules" like that. Teacher across from Dam #4 woods wanted to just cut brush and pull garlic mustard with the kids, neighbor wanted to "start slow by just pulling garlic mustard". Write the schedule to the task and level they were ready for. Only trouble was after writing the "schedule/permit" it then needed to be reviewed by PCAC, and then the minutes of that review/approval approved by PCAC after its next quarterly meeting, and then the minutes of PCAC reviewed by the County Real Estate Committee, and then next real estate committee meeting approve the minutes that contained the approval, and then schedule that for review to he County Commissikners..... That whole process took about a year..... Ironically at the time I also handled scientific research permits for researchers doing all kinds of thing, and those required no higher level approval whatsoever.

    1. It sounds like a grand waste of everyone’s time. If I were on a government committee and I had to give approval every time someone in the county wanted to pick up trash or control weeds on county land I would be driven into insanity.

      At my local park district I just have to get the approval of the conservation coordinator. He is very happy to have someone help him out. Such small projects should be within the authority of site stewards to authorize on county land.

  10. To learn, grow and move forward it is important to have an accurate historical record about the events and actions of the past. I am quite familiar with the events pertaining to the FPDCC up until my retirement in August 1999. I can attest that the account provided by Steve Packard is quite accurate for that time period. It also appears that the network of volunteers working to help restore the District's natural areas continues to evolve and improve. This has far reaching benefits for those natural areas as well as those working so hard to improve the restoration process. I urge everyone interested in the health of native ecosystems to find their niche in restoration and continue the excellent work that has already occurred.

  11. From Tom Vanderpoel:

    I have read the whole history. A lot of work went into this.

    It seems to me that the only way “Chicago Wilderness” can live up to its potential is if natural communities are understood – including why restoration is urgent and so important. The only way this will happen is if human communities care – thereby forcing politicians to care. Professional staffs who understand what these ecosystems should be (and why restoration is the only way to get there) is a must and partially in place but missing key components.

    The only possible way for keeping these ecosystems healthy is thousands of boots on the ground, a huge, educated, and empowered volunteer community. It’s the only way economically and ecologically, period. All FPDs now face budget crises; yet they are still balking at the only true way to move forward. I saw a budget presentation by an FPD that was eye opening. It showed a graph of non-tax income. Yet no mention of what volunteers contribute to the effort was on this graph. It would be the top line item if calculated. Instead, they were making a push for people to give them money. More money is good, but even if possible, it’s only part of a solution.

    Great progress has been made but we are not over the mountain top yet and could slide back down if we don’t recognize and make the most of all our resources.

    I hope your history contributes to that process.

    Tom Vanderpoel