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Friday, May 26, 2017

Learning from Long-ago Leaders: Dick Buck and Roland Eisenbeis

Most conservationists know about Henry Thoreau, John Muir, Jens Jensen, Dwight Perkins, May Theilgaard Watts, and Aldo Leopold. But two recent Great Contributors deserve to be better known. Below are some stories (and lessons I learned) from decades of experience with them.  

In the seventies and eighties, these men, Dick Buck and Roland Eisenbeis, orchestrated a “modern synthesis” of the two elements that make up the forest preserve vision. “Recreation in nature” had been the original core idea. But over the decades, “recreation” and “nature” had drifted apart. In Cook County especially, the Forest Preserve District (FPD) had put its recreation resources almost entirely into bike trails, mowed play fields, golf courses, picnic pavilions, and cement swimming pools (to say nothing of artificially stocked fishing ponds with trees cut away and paved “beaches”). The few resources for “nature” were pretty much bottled up in the little “nature centers” with animals in small, smelly cages, “maple syrup festivals” (i.e. pancake breakfasts that brought lots of voters and politicians), and kids programs. 

I got to know Eisenbeis in 1977 when I wrote a letter claiming that rare prairies in the forest preserves were in desperate need of care. I offered to recruit people to help. 

Superintendent of Conservation, Roland Eisenbeis wrote back saying, roughly: ‘We know where the real prairies are, not the old fields you’re talking about, and we take care of the real ones just fine, thank you very much, good-bye.’

I didn’t give up. Over the next few weeks and months Eisenbeis started getting calls and letters from people who supported the proposal. I spoke to groups, called influential people, and led tours, asking people to support the “prairie project.” Two supporters were Dr. William Beecher, Director of the Chicago Academy of Science, and Charlotte Adelman, an influential lawyer. This was politics. I understood politics from my history of 60s activism. Eisenbeis understood it as an upper-level decision-maker in a major Cook County organization.

One day I got a call from Charlotte Adelman who told me she'd received a letter from Eisenbeis approving my proposal. A letter to her? Why not to me? Perhaps he’d thrown my letter away long ago? In any case, I quickly called him, trying to come across as an intelligent and easy-to-work-with person. I got the sense that he knew the District was failing its prairies, and it bothered him. He said I could lead people to cut small brush – and gather seeds to plant where the brush had killed the prairie plants. We (the resulting North Branch Prairie Project) sent him regular reports on the great work we were doing.

The first big test for Eisenbeis came the next summer. The prairies we were restoring had previously been mowed (for misguided aesthetic reasons? or casual recreation?). Even in their first unmown summer, they were dramatic with gorgeous blooming prairie flowers. But in July, the District staff mowed them all as usual, despite the commitment to us.

Although no one would ever say it in so many words, I suspected that the mowing was intentional sabotage of the Conservation Department by the Maintenance Department. These two did not get along. Eisenbeis advocated for more environmentally sensitive land management, but he had no authority over it. The Maintenance Department ran the mowers, picked up the garbage, left ruts and banged up trees. Unlike Conservation, Maintenance staff were all “patronage” political appointees. The Maintenance chiefs had broad discretion on decisions in their regions. Some were good, some poor, but none wanted Conservation bossing them around too much. Perhaps some influential neighbor who liked the mowed look had called the Alderman, who then called the Maintenance department boss, who assumed that the Alderman would have more clout than the Conservation Department.

We prairie volunteers were crushed. The mowing could have been the end of the project. But as much as I was bothered by the mowing, I was thrilled with the outrage and “ownership” that came from so many people who now loved these precious prairies. Dr. Beecher, Atty. Adelman, and many regular voters weighed in with the District. Perhaps one of the most important calls was by the Democratic Ward Committeeman for the Sauganash area. (Folks from the Sauganash Garden Club and the Sauganash Park Improvement Association were early supporters and volunteers. They stirred him up.) A call from the Ward Committeeman meant that we had serious Cook County political support.

Eisenbeis called and asked to meet me on site. Early volunteer leader Larry Hodak joined us for the negotiation, or confrontation, or whatever it was going to be. As it turned out, Eisenbeis showed up with four additional heavy hitters:

John Mark: Maintenance Superintendent for the North Branch Division of the FPD
Sam Gabriel: Chief Forester for the FPD
Joe Nevius: Asst. Chief Landscape Architect for the FPD
Prof. Robert Betz: national expert on prairies
Professor Robert Betz (beard) discusses prairie with Roland Eisenbeis (pipe). 
Others in photo include John Mark (hands on hips), Sam Gabriel (obscured), 
and Steve Packard (taking down the great man's words). 
Flowers include shrubby St. Johnswort, prairie coneflower, and wild bergamot.
Photo by Larry Hodak 

We agonized over great Dramas and Deliberations as we visited four different prairie areas. 

There were two principal results. First, John Mark seemed to learn that we prairie people couldn’t just be ignored. (In time, this hard-working good man grew to like us.) And Joe Nevius was probably convinced to tell his boss, the powerful Dick Buck, that the areas should be formally mapped as prairies and that Buck, Chief Landscape Architect, should tell Maintenance to leave them alone, which he had the power to do.

In those days, Buck and Eisenbeis ran the “lands” and “nature” parts of the FPD. (Of course, most of the personnel budget was “Maintenance” with its huge patronage work force. Arthur Janura, the General Superintendent, dealt with politicians, corruption, budgets, etc.)

Here’s an example of mentoring by Eisenbeis that has stuck with me. General Superintendent Arthur Janura had refused to consider buying Wolf Road Prairie, the largest high-quality black-soil prairie in the state. I was a leader in the campaign to convince County Board President George Dunne to over-rule his Forest Preserve chief and buy it. One day Eisenbeis called me. With an important election a few days away, Dunne wanted my help in removing the contentious Wolf Road issue from the next day’s Board meeting. ‘He’s agreed to buy it,’ Eisenbeis said. ‘Could you tell the opposition that you support removing it from the agenda?’

But, for reasons he couldn’t explain, neither Eisenbeis nor Dunne was willing to put anything in writing or speak to the press about what had become a contentious issue. I feared (I now think wrongly) a double-cross after the election. In a series of increasingly tense phone calls, I insisted on something official, and Eisenbeis repeatedly promised to get back to me, negotiated with Dunne or someone, and called me back, each time with not enough of an improved offer. It grew increasingly tense. Finally he called back to say, ‘The President says that if you inform the press, we will informally confirm the promise with them.’

That made sense to me, to the great relief of Eisenbeis. And it was then he then gave me the advice that has come back to me often. I wonder what I would have said to the press if he hadn’t coached me. I certainly had in my mind a great many stories from “the battle to save Wolf Road Prairie” that would have made juicy copy for reporters.

But my attitude changed totally when Eisenbeis said, ‘Remember, Steve, when you talk to the press about this: It’s a wonderful world, and we’re all working together.

After we hung up I found myself laughing. His coaching was so much the opposite of what I would have done. It was hard for me to do. Perhaps I'm a slow learner. But it seemed so wise - and was expressed so well. As it turned out, following his advice resulted in an editorial in the Chicago Sun-Times that rang with glowing praise for Dunne’s statesmanship in buying the prairie. Such a ‘thank you’ from us would earn conservation many favors from Dunne’s office for years to come.)

On the other hand, when we prairie folks finally met Buck in person, a whole new world opened. Half a dozen of us North Branch Prairie Project leaders met Eisenbeis and Buck in the FPD Board Room. Eisenbeis was caring and lofty. Buck was practical, logical, and get-things-done. We had requested the meeting to review our work in a letter that listed a half dozen requests. As we went down the list, the District turned them down, one after another. When we finally got to the last one (allow us to manage Somme Woods Prairie?), we were feeling rather beaten and hopeless. But to this one, the District said, yes. (We were thrilled as this site was then much bigger than all our others put together.) Buck sized us up. We had taken “no” for an answer on most issues with good grace. He started to teach us practicalities, for insiders.  

The FPD was not an easy work environment for people who cared. Eisenbeis for decades tried in his own way to maintain standards within an organization that then seemed hopelessly riddled with patronage and corruption. He fought for his Conservation Department to be able to hire quality people – rather than just hacks with political connections. The pressures were great, and many good people fell apart. One naturalist led inspiring field trips when he was sober, but increasingly the tour bus would pull up in front of his vine-draped cottage, and the assistant tour leader would assess how badly the man staggered down the walk. Often the decision was to close the bus door and drive off, leaving him to stagger back to his house.

Eisenbeis told me of another official often being too drunk to speak at scheduled community events. At least the fellow would have the sense and send Roland up to the podium in his place. But then the drunk supervisor would sit in back the whole time loudly muttering slurred comments like: “He douszzn’t knoooow wha he’zz talkin’ abouuuu!!!” Eisenbeis would just carry on.     

We stewards puzzled over how the FPD worked. At one meeting, after Eisenbeis made a certain comment, Buck burst forth angrily with “What did you give 'em that for!?!?” None of us volunteers quite understood what we had been “given.” FPD politics were complex. Nor did we see Eisenbeis as the favorable and Buck as the unfavorable official. We very much saw Eisenbeis as the guy who understood conservation and our goals and Buck as the guy who understood how to achieve them. We didn't want to do anything that Buck thought was a bad idea. Buck’s outburst also led us to see these discussions as having real consequence. Both men represented the District, and their decisions could be relied on. 

Buck worked to educate us, without giving away details that would result in blow-ups. Some of our suggestions were too hard to achieve for a wide variety of reasons: union rules, internal politics, special concerns of local politicians, and certain kinds of commitments that we’d be wise not to delve into too deeply.

He would warn about his boss: “Janura thinks you're trouble. I don’t. But he does.” I took that coaching to mean that Buck wanted us to understand what our various actions and requests were costing us and him. Buck was willing to help with what could practically get done. He was not interested in lofty sentiments, losing campaigns, or wasting energy or time. At one point, other environmentalists were loudly criticizing the District over some issue. Buck told me, “You’ve got to stop that.” I replied that those critics weren’t us. He said sharply, “Oh yeah, I mean stop your friends and relatives.” This was a metaphor; he was comparing us to elements of the Democratic political machine. I asked if he really thought environmentalists were like political hacks lining up phony testimony. He responded, “You say they’re different. I say they wear the same size shoes!” That ended the discussion. He was unreasonable on purpose. I thought about it and understood him to be saying, “Don’t give me a logical argument. You want to be successful in this world? I’m telling you that the people who count see these green critics as you; they’re hurting your cause; and you need to man up and deal with them. Figure it out!”

One time Buck dragged me into his office to show me the framed photo over his desk that, he said, summarized the forest preserves. The old, black-and-white, faded photo showed some heavy-set ethnic women swinging together on a swing set in a picnic area. They had happy faces. “That’s what it’s all about,” he said. The preserves were a place where working people could relax and be happy. 

Buck worked very effectively to get more land bought and to develop a trail system on which people could hike and bike through nature. He told stories about how legendary General Superintendent Charles “Cap” Sauers planned and plotted for the future of the District’s woods, wetlands, and prairies. But fundamentally the District depended on the will of the five million citizens of Cook County. How many of them cared about the quality of the ecosystems?

Eisenbeis and his predecessors wrote and published weekly “Nature Bulletins” for 20 years, ending in 1964. They discussed birds, oaks, prairies, and mushrooms (including how to cook them) – encouraging people to “take a walk … stick a sandwich in your pocket … travel light.” But the old-time nature-study mentality seemed to be fading. One District staff naturalist told me of lobbying Eisenbeis for more resources to save prairies from brush. According to the naturalist, Eisenbeis replied, “I could count on one hand the number of Cook County voters who care about prairies.”

But both men had open minds. They changed as they saw hundreds of volunteers becoming stewards of the District’s best prairies, savannas, woodlands, and wetlands. Thousands showed up at our “Wilderness Days” and “Prairie Conferences.” Newspapers and TV celebrated the dedicated volunteers and the preserves they protected. Buck and Eisenbeis worked together to promote this new constituency and protect it from politics.

On the other hand, Buck would go only so far in accepting public participation in decisions. He believed that professionals had to decide. The needs of the preserves were too complicated. “You don’t ask people,” he once told me. “You do it to ‘em. When it’s good, they’ll like it.”   

When Buck retired in 1988, John Dwyer (U. S. Forest Service) and I were the only “outsiders” invited to a little retirement party. When Buck got up to speak, this brass-tacks-practical man used words that seemed deeply searching about the fundamental vision of the District. He was turning over his leadership to his assistant, Joe Nevius. He wondered out loud about how the vision he worked for would fare in the days ahead. He even questioned whether Nevius really believed it or had just been going through the motions to please his boss. Buck did not articulate that vision. Lofty words were not what he was about.

Rickard Buck in retirement

News photo by Daily Herald 
I believe I saw each of these generous mentors only once after they retired. Buck utterly surprised me at the kick-off of a big new restoration project for the Poplar Creek preserves in 1989. After I spoke, a crowd of people gathered to ask questions or offer to volunteer. One non-descript bearded older man waited patiently until most were gone. When he spoke, my mouth dropped and eyes bugged out in realization that the man behind the beard was THE Dick Buck. His eyes sparkled at my surprise. He clearly liked this new big project. We had a great little talk, although he seemed not to want to say anything about the District. 

With Eisenbeis, I don’t remember where or when we spoke, but I remember his words distinctly. (Note: all the quotes in this piece are approximate. They’re what I remember after all these years.) I kept trying to ask the retired Roland if he could now give details about curious puzzles from over the years of trying to work out various problems. He was patient but gave away few secrets. Finally, in a friendly way, he said: ‘Steve, a person can’t talk about this stuff. They’ll get you – one way or another. They’ll go after your pension! I’ve seen ‘em do it!’

With these two gone, we conservation volunteers and partner organizations no longer had the counsel we needed to avoid mine-fields. The political explosion called “The Moratorium” followed – and a lot of hostility between some staff and some conservationists. I wondered how Eisenbeis really felt about how we muddled through the resulting mess. Recently, after his death, his family suggested that the Chicago Tribune talk with me to get quotes for Roland’s obituary. That suggests something.

Richard Buck died at 76 in 2006. Roland Eisenbeis died at 99 in 2017. Both of them live on – in a Forest Preserve District that benefited from renewed vision and improved competence thanks to their spirit and work.

The “Next Century Plan” is a Forest Preserve vision for the next 100 years. It wouldn't have happened without them and is the kind of pro-nature, pro-public, forward-thinking plan that Roland Eisenbeis and Richard Buck would both have been proud of.


  1. You looked just as idealistic and determined in the 1970’s as you are today. I can see why they let the ‘prairie folks’ manage Somme Woods Prairie. They were probably thinking, “Give them something to keep them busy so they stop asking us stuff.” I don’t think anyone anticipated how much the initial effort would grow.

    I think people doing habitat management should realize that the backward steps the ‘prairie folks’ faced are not unusual when an area is managed by a bureaucracy. My local parks department (or their contractors) continues to spray herbicide on restoration areas to no discernable benefit and often mows during the dormant season before the conservation department has an opportunity to burn.

    One rather ironic outcome of the yearly mowing is it makes the areas easy for the geese to access. The geese then repeatedly graze on all the grasses, sedges, and even the spiderwort. The ironic part is one of the selling points for planting prairie species along the pond was it would deter the geese. I’m sure the geese would be deterred if the area could escape mowing for a season.

    I am hopeful that eventually signs will get posted along the restorations telling park district employees and contractors to not spray or mow without first consulting the conservation department. It may take many more thousands of dollars of damage and a mower or two getting stuck in the mud before signs get posted. However, I hope it won’t take too many more mishaps before the parks department consults its conservation staff before doing things.

  2. I enjoyed reading these reflections. I did have a couple meetings with Roland Eisenbeis. I never met Dick Buck.
    The FP seems more responsive (less insular) now. I wonder if it is or if they have just learned to project a responsive image.