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Saturday, September 2, 2017

TED part 3: Big Green Ideas - And People

Part 3. The backstory behind a TED talk.
Only so much can go inside the time limit of 18 minutes.
These four "backstory" posts include additional info and technical details.
The TED talk itself can be seen at:

The third quarter of the talk starts with the ambitious restoration plan approved (but not funded) by the Cook County Forest Preserve Board.

In 2014, the Forest Preserve board approved a plan to expand restoration
to 55,000 acres. The plan’s cover landscape is Somme Prairie Grove. 
The plan calls for an annual restoration budget of forty million dollars. That's an aspiration. The funds will come only with strong public support, the help of foundations, and lots of volunteering.

On the other hand, during this process, the annual budget for restoration has increased to about $5M/yr in recent years. When we started as volunteers in 1977, the budget was zero. We volunteers purchased our own tools. The change started when Commissioner Herb Schumann worked with Palos steward John Sheerin to develop the first real restoration budget (probably in the late 1980s).

When John approached the Commissioner, as I remember, he requested $10,000 (for the preserve's 68,000 acres). John apparently made a compelling pitch, as Schumann subsequently came through with an appropriation of $60,000. It was a pittance compared to what was needed, but it launched the program.

Flash forward to 2014.
Forest Preserve President Toni Preckwinkle announces a "Next Century Conservation Plan."
The plan calls not only for a budget of $40M per year but also 500 jobs for young conservationists.

Co-chairs who led the plan process were:
John McCarter, President Emeritus, Field Museum
Wendy Paulson, board member of Openlands and long time volunteer steward
Arthus R. Velasquez, Chairman, Azteca Foods
Eric E. Whitaker, M.D., CEO, TWG Partners LLC

This fine blue-ribbon civic-leader initiative is summarized at:
The full plan is at:

President Preckwinkle, staff, and forest preserve partners had been building toward this initiative for years. Volunteers had worked to restore natural hydrology with shovels. Now hydrologic experts provided sophisticated plans which, when needed, could employ mighty machines and other advanced resources.
With increased funding,  we can remove artificial drainage from former corn fields ... 
Even before the Forest Preserve District began beefing up its program, a not-for-profit conservation group, Openlands, found millions of dollars of funding to launch a variety of pilot projects. Often a key component was to take out farm drainage tiles, that had been installed before the lands were acquired for conservation. This work, in addition to ecological benefits, protected downstream communities from flooding, water pollution, and siltation.

…  allowing natural ponds and wetlands …
At the Orland Grassland, we hardly expected full scale prairie ponds to develop, but with the tiles removed, many did.

… to fill up and thrive again. 

The Orland Grassland Volunteers and the bird conservation community were thrilled as ducks, herons, egrets, cranes, grebes, rails, and much other wildlife including the rare Wilson's phalarope (right) returned to the Orland Grassland soon after the ponds magically re-materialized.
(Orland photos by Jeanne Muellner.)

Now the forest preserve staff can supplement burns with … 
Forest preserve staffer Kim Blaszczak discusses a successful burn with Kyle Goergen (left) and Dave Paddock of Pizzo and Associates, one of many restoration contractor businesses that have sprung up to fill needs not better filled by staff and volunteers. Economic and governmental communities collaborate with human communities as this new field develops.
… heavy equipment to clear brush rapidly – making community support
and the more-detailed and careful volunteer restoration work
more crucial than ever. 
If killing trees with loppers and hand-saws shocked some people, imagine the impact of this kind of work. And yet, the overwhelming response was appreciation. People - especially those who care the most - have learned through media and personal contact. The Orland Library hired a National Geographic artist to paint a twenty-six foot mural, showing how the plants, animals, and people of the grassland would look when the restoration was complete. It's a focal point of the library.

Back at Somme, our results are being studied by scientists from the Shedd Aquarium, Field Museum, Chicago Botanic Garden, and others.    
Research under way studies birds, aquatic invertebrates, fungi, endangered plants, snails, and restoration techniques. A new initiative by the Prairie Research Institute (Illinois Natural History Survey) and Forest Preserve staff takes data on some of the best patches of prairie, savanna, and woodland at Somme to serve as quality benchmarks to help guide the Next Century Plan.

We – the people of Somme – are inspired by the ecosystem to work and learn. 
We stand here under an ancient bur oak. It may very well be 400-years-old. In the midwest, on fertile soil, we have the opportunity to save ancient, largely-pre-agricultural ecosystems which have vanished long beyond saving in many parts of the world. Africa, Asia, and Europe have been "peopled" so long that they do not have areas of rich soil "pre-agricultural" biodiversity. What we have in the corn belt represents science and ecological resource base that is rare.
We grow as ecological managers and teachers. 
One challenge of this work is saving ancient natural communities while developing new forms of human community.

A dramatic story could be told about every person in this photo. You'll read four of them in Part 4. But here it's worth mentioning that these people are a team. We appreciate the differing ethnic backgrounds and life histories that have brought us together - and given us different abilities to contribute.  (Photo by Eriko Kojima)

With increasing still, we gather seed, conduct burns,  
Many restoration efforts restore thirty or sixty species. For Somme, every year we are able to gather hundreds of species, because people are inspired to learn, specialize, and lead. There's no way one person can master all this in their spare time, but a collaborating team can.

operate chain-saws, monitor rare animal species, season after season,
now for 40 years and counting.
Many of the early leaders of the Somme Woods East initiative are also active in Habitat 2030 - a group of "young(ish)" people  who "host habitat restoration workdays, nature hikes and weekend camping trips, social gatherings, and educational opportunities."  

Somme today hosts 14 species of threatened or endangered plants – 
like the savanna blazing star – here providing nectar to a migrating monarch.    
Many rare species are being lost from conservation areas because of lack of care. Do wild plants and animals need care? Many people would say that, by definition, they don't. If we must care for them, they're not wild any more. Okay, but if they are dying out, and we don't want them to die out, then it makes sense to become stewards. All of Somme's rare species depend on the occasional controlled burns. If we waited for lightning to happen to strike these little patches on a dry day, we'd wait in vain. Some species depend on seed or pollen exchange with other populations somewhere else. The shaggy coats of bison and bears no longer transport seed across the landscape. Nature can be more rich and natural if we take care of it.

            Recently two more birds of conservation concern – the red-headed woodpecker ...
Red-headed woodpeckers used to be common birds. They became for a while the most rapidly declining bird species in the U.S. Their open woodland habitat was vanishing. With their conservation situation still dire, we felt a great vote of confidence when they returned to Somme as breeders.

and the American woodcock –

... returned for the first time in decades, to breed in Somme Woods.    

The American woodcock is a fat, long-billed sandpiper that performs dramatic courtship flights and dances in good habitat in spring. Most unburned woods today are too decadent to provide the space and food they need. They started performing in Somme Woods in 2015, and their numbers have increased each year since - as we continue to improve the habitat.

Thus the human community and the natural community are in sync here. We feel honored to be part of this phenomenon, rather a new one for our culture. And we need to profoundly change culture if our unique living planet is to be all it can be. Volunteer communities are wellsprings of creativity and commitment. They also can be breeding grounds for innovation, science, and political leadership.

To be continued in Part 4.

To review the TED talk: go to


  1. So you are saying the plan is for every person in Cook County to pay a little less than $8 per year to restore and maintain forest preserve natural lands. If it can really be done for that amount I would call it a bargain. Try getting someone to mow a lawn for $8, much less $8 per year. Compared to all the money citizens spend on manicured lawns, luxury cars, and fancy houses the amount needed to restore and maintain natural areas in the forest preserves is a trivial cost that is well worth the small investment.

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