email alerts

To receive email alerts for new posts of this blog, enter your address below.

Follow by Email

Saturday, July 29, 2017

TED talk. Part 2. Politics and Science.

Part 2 contrasts political challenges with scientific ones.
Both involved critics and conflicts of various kinds.
We met both kinds of challenges with positive vision and hard work.

The TED talk on which this post is based is at:

Yet we worried about public perception.  With our best intentions,
we were changing landscapes that people had grown accustomed to. 
In our early days, we just used loppers to cut the small brush that was invading prairie remnants. But our advisors encouraged us to look also at larger invasive trees. In oak woodlands, as many as 90% of the trees (invasive or out-of-balance species) need to be culled in order to re-start natural processes. Many environmentally sensitive people have a long and proud history of objecting to tree cutting. When we have the opportunity to explain - and show people "before" and "after" - most people strongly support this work. But Cook County has five million citizens - who own these preserves. Reaching them is challenging and crucial.

Only mass media reaches them quickly. As the "stewardship movement" grew in both scientific knowledge and on-the-ground influence, we started running up against other social forces. We appealed to the public through the media - as did forces opposed to us.

For many people, the image of the forest preserve was partly "nature" but predominantly "dangerous", "dirty", and "another corrupt part of the county political machine." It was our job to get more focus on the nature.

I remember the time when about twenty of us assembled to burn half a dozen small prairies in the forest preserves. It was a rare day when the winds, humidity, and temperature were right for safe and effective burns. I emphasized to the all-volunteer crew (except me, at that point working for the Illinois Nature Preserve Commission) that they were heroic to take time off from work at short notice to do these critically important burns - that the ecosystem needed them because the forest preserve staff was spread too thin. The need for the volunteers was genuine. But the implication about the staff was, at best, charitable. Many of the staff were, at that time, not interested, not competent, lazy, or all of the above.

My contact was Division Superintendent John Mark, a good man who did care. He did his best with the patronage workers he was sent. He seemed to think what I was doing was okay as long as it didn't make trouble. I explained that we had enough good people to do the little burns quickly, leave a couple of people behind for mop up, and move to the next one. He said, "Let me know before you start each burn." He didn't say, "Don't start until I approve" - although I could imagine that it might come to that. These were the days before cell phones, so I had to find pay phones between prairies. That worked for the first three burns. Then no one answered the forest preserve phone.

It was important work, so I made the decision to go ahead and have one of the crew do the "check in" by personally driving down to the forest preserve office, about 15 minutes away. The volunteer who made the run returned with smoke blowing out of his ears. "You told us they were too busy to help," he stormed, "and they're all sitting around playing pinochle!" I calmed him down. I explained that if we rode on our high horses, making moral criticisms of the political machine, we'd be shut down. So our obligation to nature was to stay positive and do the good work only we could do.

As the volunteer community expanded and appreciation of our mission became more publicly acknowledged, it became harder to isolate what we were doing from the larger political currents. Some liberal Commissioners saw us as allies. Some corrupt ones saw us as dangerous do-gooders. That increased the potential for us to get drawn into political factional conflict.

For example, mountain bikers and horseback riders in the Palos preserves had for years made their own trails in violation of nature preserve laws and good sense - and without approval. Some staff resented what they saw as abuses, but felt powerless, as their supervisors told them not to rock the boat. So they'd encourage volunteers to confront rule-breakers and raise complaints to Commissioners. There were many examples of this kind of thing. Bad blood developed between the conservation program and various influential interests.

In the Palos case, District staffer Dave Eubanks effectively brought the stewards together with the mountain bikers and developed a positive consensus. But the process took many months, was a lot of work, and there were a great many such issues. Much-needed deer control programs also grew (in part thanks to volunteer support) and became ferociously contentious in Lake, DuPage, and Cook counties.

Might our cutting and burning provoke controversy?     
It came to a head when some Commissioners wanted to do a deal (apparently corrupt) to sell forest preserve land for a casino, and stewards were among the most visible opponents. The casino folks joined forces with some neighbors who stirred racist fears about restoration programs bussing in "kids who didn't look like theirs" to their neighborhoods. In this context, a highly political Chicago Sun-Times columnist ran a series of attack articles. Suddenly many people in one influential neighborhood rose to oppose tree cutting, burning, and using herbicides. Restoration was halted for a few weeks to a few months to ten years in the Edgebrook-Sauganash neighborhood that was the main seat of the opposition. (See: the discussion of "The Moratorium" in:

We reached out through  leaflets, media, guided tours, however we could. 
It took years to work through the politics. But stewards stayed focused on the positive vision, and gradually put the hard times behind us.

And the work progressed. 
Working together with great, generous people and seeing the inspiring changes - week after week -
is what sustains us.

Over time, many volunteers developed special skills. No-holds-barred brush cutter,
Lisa Culp Musgrave
 on weekdays is a tennis pro and coach. 
Here the focus changes from politics to science - more specifically, how some volunteers learned bit by bit to make important contributions to science.

Inspired by Somme, she took up nature photography. First wildflowers …    
Violet wood sorrel grows in high quality prairies, savannas, and open woods. 

... then animals. 
Tiger swallowtail feeding on spotted Joe-Pye-weed. To label her photographs, Lisa learned to identify, first the wildflowers, then butterflies and dragonflies, then birds, and in time a great deal more.

Ruby-throated hummingbird male feeding on the nectar (and insects) of Michigan lily.

Ruby-throated hummingbird female feeding on a cardinal flower.

She became a master. 
The coyote is an important part of the ecosystem. Our biggest predator. Without coyotes, excessive numbers of raccoons, opossums, and foxes devastate the ground-nesting birds and more. Coyotes have improved the balance for many species. As Lisa learns more by doing, she wants to do more with what she's learned.

But what inspired her most was learning that she could physically restore needed plants – the base of the ecosystem. She started with the declining fringed gentian. Somme had very few – and those few were typically eaten by white-tailed deer. 
Fringed gentian was once a common and beloved species. But it was harvested mercilessly by florists for a quick buck, until it could no longer be found in most of its previous haunts. Too little fire and too many deer continued to deplete populations that survived. The managers of two preserves gave us the okay to gather small amounts of seed, and a little population was launched at Somme.

Lisa and friends protected the gentians with deer exclusion cages.
Then she broadcast the seed that now matured,
and soon the gentians were widespread. 
Lisa learned how to construct and install two kinds of cages to protect against both deer and voles. She got a chance to feel how profound a difference her stewardship could make. 

Lisa moved on to Somme’s rarest plant – the federal-endangered
prairie white-fringed orchid. We’d seen a few here and there, for decades,
but a very few, as the deer liked these even more. 
When she agreed to tackle the white-fringed orchid (actually "Threatened" rather than "Endangered" - sorry about that error), its conservation needs were poorly understood. At the time when we planted the seed of these orchids at Somme and other North Branch sites, no one had successfully raised them (including botanic gardens and orchid growers, who had tried hard). We simply broadcast the tiny seeds in appropriate habitat. Our seeds came from another population that was gradually being (and now has been) eliminated by white-tailed deer. (For more detail, see:

Cages helped. But there was a bigger problem.
This small population didn’t attract its specialized pollinators.
Most flowers failed to set seed.
Our success wasn't quick. Initially, we had simply broadcast seed. As with many species, we saw no results at all for years. Our first orchid was noticed by Dr. Ron Panzer as he did his insect work. Before it finished blooming, the deer had eaten it. Getting a little smarter, over the next few years, we tried to find orchids as soon as they emerged - and clap cages over them. We learned to recognize them at younger and younger stages, until we could recognize their first shoots at an inch or two high. Caging early worked well, but for many years we would find only three or four plants, or in some years none. Next step: learning to be pollinators.

Lisa hand-pollinated, by toothpick, and taught others to do so. 
Botanist Marlin Bowles taught us how. He was on the expert team a decade later when this orchid was added to the U.S. Endangered and Threatened Species program in 1989.

Musician and computer wiz Will Freyman also threw himself into the work.
Then he used open-source software to develop and improve ecosystem-monitoring programs that have since been widely adopted by agencies and businesses.
This is a new field. We contribute what we can. 
This 'side trip' into the wizardry of Will Freyman may seem like a diversion. But the theme of this talk is the development of community. Lisa, Will, Ron, and hundreds of other professionals and amateurs contribute to this evolving mission and discipline.

In 1999 (nearly two decades after we started working to conserve these orchids) the federal "Recovery Plan" was adopted and funded. John Rogner, a former volunteer steward and now Chicago region director of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, reached out to us stewards to help apply what we had learned. Some scientists complained that Fish & Wildlife should devote all their initial funds to basic research on the orchid. But Rogner decided that the stewards had already learned enough that we could get started on science-based species recovery. Some funding rightly went to research. But also, outstanding steward June Keibler was hired to establish a pilot program of volunteer-empowered endangered species conservation. Soon agency landowners were authorizing trained volunteers to do widely what we'd been doing at Somme.
But for those rare orchids, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service was concerned ...
because, on most sites, fewer and fewer of them survived.
Illinois, the Prairie State, has the most in the world.
But by 2006, only 109 plants could be found in the state.
The Fish & Wildlife folks recommended Lisa’s can-do approach
to other preserve managers. 
At first the program had been a success, but it required continuing leadership. During the "Moratorium" years, the Conservancy changed focus, dropping the volunteer program as we had known it, and the orchid program was lost in the shuffle. During the four years after 2002 (partly because of weather?) orchid numbers declined dramatically. The program was revived with support from Audubon (where some of us had gone when the Conservancy changed direction).

Lisa's efforts did pay off.
By 2013, Somme had 460 white-fringed orchids,
more than four times the state-wide total seven years earlier.  
Lisa modestly points out that the upswing in orchid numbers began with seeds planted well before she took over the reins on this effort. But Lisa's dedication and skill - and that of the team she pulled together to pollinate and cage the hundreds of plants - explains those huge numbers.

When some species become numerous and widespread enough, it may then become time to brace ourselves and remove the "intensive care" protections - and see how well a given species of plant or animal can survive without help. Lisa has decided to leave some plants un-caged and un-hand-pollinated. In cases of species on the U.S. Endangered and Threatened list, it makes sense to be cautious.

We've learned a lot more since we prepared the above graph and last analyzed Somme's orchid results. We hope to post a blog update after the 2017 results are in.

This is the end of Part 2 of the blog supplement
to the TED talk:

Part 3 will consider "Big Machines and other Big Changes."

Thanks for joining us on this adventure. Please spread the word to interested people.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. The idea of having volunteers confront rule breakers was ill conceived. The end result was the rule breakers just continued to break the rules with impunity while acting very rudely toward natural areas volunteers. It took concerted effort from the highest levels of the forest preserves to make the changes necessary to solve the problem. It is unfortunate that such an effort was necessary. The few people who repeatedly removed the bicycle prohibited signs from the illegal trails made it impossible for any new trails to be authorized. This also unfortunately caused confusion and some forest preserve patrons were undoubtedly ticketed for riding bicycles on illegal trails which had bicycle prohibited signs removed earlier by the vandals. The northwest area of the county did not have to have the outcome that occurred. Many natural areas in other areas of the country have mountain biking trails that are constructed in a manner that has a minimal impact. Thoughtful planning is preferable to the Wild West situation that occurs in the absence of any authority.

    Although lands are publicly owned, someone has to act as an owner if the features are going to be preserved. When government is working well it does the job. When government is not doing its job then the task falls on the shoulders of the lands actual owners. Namely, the public itself.

  3. Here is a photo to go along with the above comments. The plastic red "no bicycle" signs were broken off soon after they had been placed. At the beginning of some illegal trails there were multiple signs that had been broken off by the vandals forming a line of sharp plastic points looking much like red punji sticks sticking out of the ground. This photo shows one of the metal signs. If I am remembering correctly, the sign had been set in the ground using concrete. They dug it out, but must not have wanted to haul it off. It had been stashed in a nearby culvert, but must have been washed out during a storm.

  4. Enjoyed reading this history. Thanks

  5. Nice to learn details about the contributions of Lisa Culp and other volunteers. I did not talk to politicians, so I have no impression of their motivations, but I talked to people and participated in a forum. My reflection on the restoration moratorium was that the split was primarily within the environmental community. While diverse, one pole of environmentalists are anti-actions (no cut trees, no cut animals, all pesticides/herbicides are bad, fire is destructive, all species beautiful), while another pole (you & myself included) were pro-action (girdle, cull, herbicide, burn and get rid of exotic species). Your management approach clearly has won (politically & scientifically), but the alternatives still exist and may well dominate some point in the future,ying/yang.

    1. I have to agree with Mr. Nyberg's assessment of the Edgebrook-Sauganash group. I went to a town hall meeting and tried to address their concerns but I am sure they remained unsatisfied. I would like to add that I hope everyone in this country never agrees on everything. It would not be the United States of America if that happens.

      I have experienced some of what Stephen experienced. My experience did not seem to be motivated by racism. The people I have encountered seemed territorial. It was more along the lines of "You come to the park near my house and are there doing something without my permission." However, I do not doubt Stephen's recounting of his experience working with kids from Chicago. Indeed, it is much like the territorialism I have experienced with the component of differences in appearance added.