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Thursday, June 10, 2021

VICTORY - for Nature Preserves

Since December 2015, the Illinois Nature Preserves System has had no director. Some see this lapse as intentional - designed to weaken the System. Some see it as just bureaucracy and politics as usual.

All that changes now! The Director job has finally been officially posted and will be filled soon. We should make our voices heard and celebrate this big step forward.

Why is this happening? In part because the Friends and others have raised our voices? In part because our state has a more environment-friendly administration in Springfield?

The assistant director of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources is John Rogner - a former volunteer steward, and Fish & Wildlife Service regional director, and Chicago Wilderness chair. He cares, and he's good. This is big. It was difficult to achieve. Thank you letters should go to IL Dept. of Natural Resources director Colleen Callahan and to Governor Pritzker.

Personal letters are important.
So are letters representing organizations.
This is also a good opportunity to educate others about the importance of Nature Preserves.
And it's a great opportunity to celebrate a conservation victory.

(See addresses, below.)

Dear Governor Pritzker,

Thank you for supporting the restitution of the Director position for the Illinois Nature Preserves System (which was posted June 9 as #6170 – SPSA, Opt 5 – Conservation Director (Exec. Dir., IL Nature Preserves Systems), Sangamon County).

This position had been vacant since 2015 – to the great detriment of our state's globally respected biodiversity conservation program.

The much-admired Illinois approach saves money – in addition to land and nature – in that the State doesn't pay for the whole thing. Instead, local governments, not-for-profits, private landowners, and volunteer stewards all are empowered to carry much of the weight. About half of the more-than-600 Illinois Nature Preserves are locally owned and managed. But they need the expertise, oversight, legal resources, and coordination that come only through statewide leadership independent of politics and bureaucracy.

Previous Governors had let the system deteriorate and weaken. With the director and most other statewide leadership positions long empty, local staff labored heroically to hold the system together – in the face of climate change, invasives, and changing land-use pressures.

Thanks to you, DNR director Colleen Callahan, and asst. director John Rogner, Illinois can once again feel proud and confident that our Nature Preserves will be contributing as they should to quality of life locally and biodiversity conservation globally. Many of us appreciate this important step.


Stephen Packard

You may contact the Governor by Internet.

Or write a letter with an actual stamp:

Director Colleen Callahan
Illinois Department of Natural Resources
1 Natural Resources Way
Springfield, IL 62702

Governor JB Pritzker
207 State House
Springfield, IL 62706

Nature Preserves protect habitat for wild plants, animals, and people. They need Friends. 
Ornate box turtle and bird's-foot violet in an Illinois Nature Preserve
Photo thanks to Mike Jeffords and Sue Post

If you know anyone who'd make a great Nature Preserves System director, 
encourage them to apply here.

Friday, June 4, 2021

Nature, History, and Art

The essay below was slightly adapted from the one recently published in the book that accompanies the Chicago Botanic Garden exhibit of “Picturing the Prairie” paintings by Philip Juras. The exhibition runs through September 12.  See Endnotes. 


Tallgrass Roots and the Genealogy of a New Culture

by Stephen Packard

Philip Juras and I share a need and a hope. Like Philip, when I stand in a scrap of ancient prairie, I’m transfixed by the colors, sounds, and complexity around me – a link to a beautifully rich past – but at the same time a thrill that we humans, at long last, have begun to recognize nature for the treasure it is. It feels like the beginning of a grand quest. Thinking I came for beauty, or revery, or discovery, I soon find myself pulling white sweet clover. The prairies now need us; they need invasive-weed pulling. They need our reverence; they need paintings; they need for us to share the vision that people and nature can have a rich future together. 


I felt this painting changing me.
Late Afternoon on the Grand Prairie of Illinois c. 1491

The Old World retains nothing like these ecological gems; in Europe, original nature on rich soils was long ago replaced by cultivation and habitation. Here in the New World, fertile landscapes that had for millennia been managed by indigenous people – and supported both humans and biodiverse nature – fell victim to intensive farming around the same time that universities were being founded. Thus, starting in the late 1800s, scientists were able to begin studying the biosphere while there was still some original nature left. Soon, visionaries realized that we are stewards of ancient, complex, yet vulnerable ecosystems. 

In writings beginning tentatively in 1898, Henry Cowles at the University of Chicago helped define for the world what an ecosystem is and how it functions. Others noticed we were losing the last prairies and, just in time, started the long process of creating institutions to save what remained. It began to dawn on some that we conservationists are critical to the survival of the biodiversity of our planet. Learning and taking initiative were and are crucial. It was through their spirit that this book came to be. 

Eco-prophet Aldo Leopold wrote in 1937, “Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language." 

Yet culture, values, aesthetics, and ethics develop slowly. In 1957, May T. Watts of the Morton Arboretum published Reading the Landscape: An Adventure in Ecology about Midwestern wetlands, farms, prairies, and woods. By popular demand, she would later write Reading the Landscape of America and Reading the Landscape of Europe. In her important work, awareness and principles that the world sorely needed were beginning to emerge. But when Watts celebrated nature, it was not the lonely, introverted nature of Thoreau. It was a nature of people and participation. In 1958, Watts penned a prophetic letter to her student Barbara Turner, thanking her for a tour of “a neighborhood woods” in Long Grove, Illinois. Watts wrote Turner:


What a memorable afternoon … Yours is the sort of community that one meets in books but seldom in real life. It is good to see you bound together by woods and a stream and rolling hills and a common interest in these things, rather than by roads, and telephones and committees. We enjoyed every minute, from the fire and sherry to the last look at your birds and hills and homes.


Turner would later donate that high-quality oak woodland to The Nature Conservancy, which was coming into existence at the same time. The Conservancy would later permanently dedicate it into the Illinois Nature Preserve System (which did not then yet exist). These two women were leaders in the building of conservation culture. These were not the stern “environmentalists” who protested pollution or chained themselves to trees. They would come later, after Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was published in 1962, and were much needed then. But Turner and Watts already had a longer view:  that of a community of appreciation and support for natural ecosystems which, to be successful, must be happy and rewarding enough to grow sustainably, from generation to generation. 

Night Fire on the Grand Prairie of Illinois - 1491

             In 1972, Northeastern Illinois University professor Robert F. Betz published a nine-page essay under the humble title “What is a Prairie?” He knew that he had to start with the basics. Dr. Betz pointed out that the word “prairie” did not refer to vacant lots between houses, as he had heard the word used throughout his Chicago childhood. It did not, he wrote, refer to a cow pasture or “the open land of our western states.” He described the prairie’s rarity, complexity, and beauty, but his words would have made little impact by themselves. When they introduced a book of photographs, The Prairie: Swell and Swale by photographer Torkel Korling, they took on a profound power. The book’s sixty-four pages of exquisite full-page, jewel-like photographic portraits stunned me and many others, especially when Betz pointed out that the last few prairie remnants were still being lost.  It would, he warned, be “immoral to destroy … the biological world from which mankind arose.” Thus began what Betz and others referred to as “Prairie Fever.” 

Fevers, fads, and “all-the-rage” moments may contribute to culture, but the last prairies were still, one by one, passing into oblivion. Yet Midwestern conservationists were about to take a series of big steps that would influence people around the world. 

In the 1950s, George Fell, a private citizen from Rockford, raised hue and cry among the few ready to listen, calling for action. Nationally, he organized The Nature Conservancy, destined to become a planetary exemplar and powerhouse of natural land acquisition. At home, he organized an approach, soon to be copied by state after state, to save the little fragments of nature, one by one. The best surviving prairie remnants were to be found in few-acre patches along railroad rights-of-way and in semi-abandoned settler cemeteries, where they had been long ignored; now they were being noticed.


During the painting of the flora of Grigsby Prairie

Birth of a Collaboration

There were not remotely enough resources to do what was needed in any single agency, so Fell devised a private/public collaboration that included governments at all levels. His Illinois Nature Preserves System initially had few resources and no staff. But the 1963 Nature Preserves law allowed any person, corporation, or agency to dedicate rare high-quality ecosystems, which then would be permanently protected by state government from development, roads, or any kind of human destruction. The idea caught on. People, villages, and park districts began enrolling their most precious properties. To run this effort, Fell established the Natural Land Institute and raised funds and hired staff. 

Another huge step taken in the 1970s was the creation of the Illinois Natural Areas Inventory, a first-of-its-kind effort to survey the whole state and discover where those last remnant ecosystems survived. It identified 610 prairies, fens, bogs, forests, and ponds. We learned that 7/100ths of 1% of the state survived as relatively original nature. All the rest was cornfields, strip mines, cities, and degraded wildlands. Of the prairie, we learned, less than 1/100th of 1% survived.

            By 1978, the Nature Preserves System included sixty-eight preserves, owned by eighteen agencies, including three tallgrass prairies, and permanently protected 17,149.5 acres from ecological degradation. Fewer than ten of those revered acres were black-soil prairie – the agriculturally richest, and formerly most abundant. 

Personally, I somehow learned of these developments by reading obscure “Two-year Reports” issued by the Nature Preserve Commission and the Betz and Korling book. I began to devote every spare hour to prairie volunteering. Then, almost miraculously, I was awarded my life’s first honorable full-time job by the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission. I started saving and restoring remnants, which is how I met Barbara Turner and her woods.

            There was at that time no “savanna fever” or “oak woodland fever.” The Inventory had done an outstanding job of articulating prairie preservation priorities, in part because of decades of creative study by Dr. Betz. It did less well on oak savannas and woodlands, the other major Illinois ecosystems. 

            When I first encountered Barbara Turner’s precious Nature Preserve woodland, I was disappointed. When I asked her to show me some of the rare plants listed for the site, she couldn’t find them. It puzzled and disturbed her; but she was happy that someone cared. In time we would find that Turner’s woods needed help. It needed people and new principles. But they would not come quickly. 

            Early clues had emerged in the 1940s, when Aldo Leopold and his colleagues at the University of Wisconsin were asked to advise on the creation of an arboretum. Rather than adopting the standard practice — bringing in tree species from around the world — the Madison folks decided to restore regional ecosystems. In the early years, all their planting attempts failed to thrive. But in the case of the prairie, someone ultimately decided to violate principles of the day by burning it. 

            The dramatic surge of quality in what soon became recognized as the world’s first ecosystem restoration — and the first depending on fire — was analyzed in scientific journals and dramatized in Walt Disney’s documentary The Vanishing Prairie. When Betz later searched for and discovered nearly invisible remnant prairie plants in the mowed lawns of old cemeteries, he used science and the Disney film to convince local cemetery association boards to stop mowing and allow him to burn there. These little remnant prairies then visibly recovered diversity and health. 

            Initially, the Illinois Nature Preserves System sought to protect land from people. No hunting, no fishing, no timber harvesting; no gathering of mushrooms, berries, nuts, or anything; the principle was: “We’ve destroyed almost everything! Leave it alone!” But for the prairies — after great debate described later by Betz as bitter and painful in the extreme — approval was given to burn. Knowledge and minds were evolving. 


The inspiration for the painting Fultz Hill Prairie is a dizzying climb to the top of a cliff over the Mississippi River floodplain.
Link to painting

Discovering What Nature Needs

During this time, a few of us noticed that high-quality oak savannas and woodlands were losing acreage and quality, much like the prairies. When we cautiously burned the wooded edges of the prairies, we saw biodiversity recovering there too. I remembered Barbara Turner failing to find rare plants, including the endangered cream vetchling. At the time, she told me, with embarrassment, that she could indeed show me the vetchling and some of the other species, but she’d have to take me to a part of the preserve she had been avoiding — where she’d been violating Nature Preserve rules by mowing a small area for school-class gatherings. It turned out that “Leave it alone!” meant increasing shade. As trees and shrubs grew denser, most of the woods had gotten too dark for many of its original species. The edge of the area Turner had kept open held the last of some species and was also the only place to find the oaks reproducing. 

It began to be clear that nature needed more help than we thought. Under modern conditions, a few invasive species proliferate like cancer and replace the diverse natural ones. Changes of hydrology, water pollution, and air-quality all may require mitigations. Most Illinois ecosystems need fire. In many preserves, the high-quality acres of grassland, woodland, or wetland are surrounded with “buffer” land, which may protect the core from salt spray, herbicide drift, or the shade of tall buildings. But the buffers may harbor unnatural densities of invasives, predators, and parasites that thrive near edges. On the positive side, they may offer opportunities to expand the core. That may be crucial in the long run, because many plant and especially animal species will not survive over time in small populations. Larger habitats and populations are more sustainable. Thus arose in nature preservation the unexpected need for restoration.

            Aldo Leopold had done a bit of restoration himself. By today’s standards, his efforts were primitive; but he thought deeply about the matter. He wrote: 

Acts of creation are ordinarily reserved for gods and poets, but humbler folk may circumvent this restriction if they know how. To plant a pine, for example, one need be neither god nor poet; one need only own a good shovel.

            By 1980, the Illinois Nature Preserves System consisted of seventy-nine preserves, including thirteen tallgrass prairies. But in that year, the system and George Fell were dealt a massive blow. With all their dedication and urgency, they had thought they possessed more power than they did. Suddenly, as George Fell perceived it, bureaucrats, politicians, and those opposed to preserve restrictions conspired to get the Nature Preserves Commission’s budget zeroed out by the Illinois legislature. The entire system seemed to be in danger. 

             It’s a long story, but one result was that The Nature Conservancy hired many Nature Preserve staff, including me, and I finally got a “yes” to a proposal I’d been making for some time. While staff capacity was slowly being rebuilt, the Commission and the Conservancy would jointly sponsor a new force, the Volunteer Stewardship Network, to provide emergency care. Within a year, sixty preserves had volunteer groups. Before long, hundreds of preserves were benefitting from thousands of stewards comprising another global first — a statewide community that May T. Watts would have commended.

The site that inspired the painting "Galloping Hill" is a comfortable walk from the Penny Road parking lot in the Spring Creek Forest Preserves.
Link to painting

            Over time, as Nature Preserve staff was being rebuilt, these stewards were mentored by the best experts. They read books, attended classes, wrote newsletters, gave interviews to reporters, organized conferences — building a “culture of conservation.” They mended fences, cut brush, pulled weeds, helped with or led burns, installed signage; whatever was most needed. 

            Speaking of fences, during the 1990s some restoration opponents got media coverage by criticizing the science and ethics of ecosystem management – and the very concept of participating in nature – arguing that “Leave nature alone!” was a better policy. Realizing that a consensus of expertise was needed, we took time to organize the Chicago Region Biodiversity Council (known popularly as “Chicago Wilderness”). Uniting all government, university, and not-for-profit conservationists, an authoritative Biodiversity Recovery Plan was assembled and approved in 1999. Some critics continued to complain, but now they were opposing one of the most impressive assemblages of conservation expertise on the planet, and they lost credibility. 

Chicago Wilderness demonstrated that diverse human community is needed to keep nature recovering, expanding, and thriving. Skills and interests vary among the staff and stewardship volunteers, thankfully. Among the core constituency of volunteers, some show up on winter weekends to cut acres of brush. They burn it in bonfires, but keep warm mostly through muscle work and fellowship. Big machines could do such work, but caring people do it with less stress on the ecosystem. And these events are an entrance to the community. Other people turn out every fall to harvest rare seeds, regularly invoking hunter-gatherer images and values. Some people learn to distinguish obscure species, monitor them, and inform the team of positive or concerning changes we might otherwise miss. Some become expert at recruiting, chain sawing, safe herbicide application, or controlled burn leadership. Some are adept at fostering collaboration between the volunteers and agency staff. In this massive effort, multiple roles and expertise are key. 

Some of the roles are more unusual. We never expected sex with plants to become a thing. But it turned out that on many sites the Federal Endangered prairie white-fringed orchid was failing to produce seed because of lack of co-adapted and highly specialized pollinators. How could we restore enough orchids to attract and rebuild hawk moth populations? Illinois Department of Natural Resources biologist Marlin Bowles taught us hand pollination. This process is so intimate, intricate, and sticky that some people find it embarrassing, at first. But scores enact this sweet rite annually, and moth and orchid numbers are on the rebound.   

Many people find that the biota call out to us, that we are needed. It’s a feeling that E. O. Wilson named “biophilia”: a sense of affection for the diversity of life. Henry Thoreau had written of this in his diary on October 10, 1858: “The simplest and most lumpish fungus has a peculiar interest to us …  (it) betrays a life akin to my own. It is a successful poem in its kind.” 

            In my neighborhood in Northbrook, Illinois, we began learning to be stewards in 1977. Now, patches of restored Cook County Forest Preserve prairie, savanna, wetland, and woodland sprawl over 700 acres, attracting staff attention and a growing volunteer community. For five years as student, volunteer, and leader, Eriko Kojima has recruited, inspired, and taught one of the planet’s most ambitious seed-gathering communities. In 2020, some 130 volunteers—despite having to work within the limits of Covid social distancing—harvested local genotype seeds of 330 mostly uncommon or rare species, adding up to 490 gallons of seed mixes. The result is annually increasing quality for hundreds of acres. 

When several monitors noticed that the part-sun plant community between savanna and open woodland failed to thrive, Sai Ramakrishna – for seven years a volunteer and leader – took up the challenge and devised alternate seed mixes and strategies to test. This work is physically and intellectually demanding—and rewarding. As stewards observe entire ecosystems rising or falling based on what we can accomplish, we find this dedication self-motivating – and stick with it for life.

            Barbara Turner remained an active and passionate steward until her death at age 100 in 2020. She had learned from May Watts in the 1950s, who had learned from Henry Chandler Cowles, who wrote his first influential work in 1898. What Barbara left us in the Reed-Turner Woodland Nature Preserve now depends on us. 

Such an ethic for the planet is urgently needed by the Earth’s people. Some predict coming apocalyptic hellscapes and act as if they were inevitable. But is that the best we can do? Biodiversity conservationists act with hope, creativity, and grit. Our good results motivate us to do more. Planetary health deserves celebration and growing commitment everywhere.

            Today the Illinois Nature Preserves System includes more than 600 sites totaling more than one hundred thousand precious acres. But constituency and funding have not kept pace. In 2015, some preserves were degrading from neglect, and a new five-year strategic plan warned that the system faced “dire economic, political and landscape issues.” As of 2019, the Nature Preserves System had received few of the recommended resources and had lacked a director and other senior staff for four years. Volunteer stewards took the initiative and, with the support of many professionals, launched Friends of Illinois Nature Preserves. The new not-for-profit group began organizing on-the-ground stewardship, constituency-building, and policy initiatives. In October 2020, a new Governor’s administration finally approved the hiring of the long-needed Nature Preserves director and agreed to provide more support. This is promising. But there will be ups and downs. The story of biodiversity conservation for the tallgrass region is still in its early stages.


I have purposely presented the land ethic as a product of social evolution because nothing so important as an ethic is ever ‘written’ . . . It evolves in the minds of a thinking community.  

Aldo Leopold, The Land Ethic: A Sand County Almanac.


He meant, of course, minds, bodies, and actions. Thoreau. Cowles. Watts. Leopold. Turner. Ramakrishna. Kojima. And so many people, now and through generations ahead, will determine our Earth’s and biodiversity’s future. 

            Following Robert Betz with his teaching and Torkel Korling with his photographs, Philip Juras has offered the world compelling art in this book. But the work was not finished when the paint dried. Dear reader and viewer, that work is ours as well. What generations accomplish depends not only on the film director, composer, parent, teacher, scientists, artist, land protector, or musician; it depends too on the actions of the people who receive their gifts. It depends upon all of us. When we succeed, a sustainable world of greater harmony and true richness will be our legacy. 



Early on, this paragraph was cut:


“Increasingly, professional staff and stewards know how to adapt management of precious sites based on the monitoring of plant and animal populations. But what about micro-organisms? We do sometimes spread soil that we understand contains bacterial species required to restore new populations of certain plant species. But symbiotic biota too small for easy monitoring are a crucial part of the ecosystem, including symbionts, disease and predatory micro-organisms – as population regulators and promoters of genetic evolution. A few people are learning to understand and monitor them too. The genes of fungi, plants, animals and micro-organisms are massive resource-banks for health, agriculture and industry. Major crops regularly are threatened with extinction by disease … until scientists find in nature the antidote for some disastrous pest. Most medicines and many critical components of industry come directly or indirectly from nature. Also, our spirits want nature. Thus, we let extinction reduce this planet’s biodiversity at our peril.”


Okay, it was cut. Understandably. But now, as an awkward endnote, it’s restored. 


And the exhibit:

Philip’s paintings are compellingly displayed at the Chicago Botanic Garden through September 12, 2021 . 


You can find photos, video, and an interview of Philip Juras by Wendy Paulson at:


Little digital representations don’t capture the impact of the real art. For that, you need to stand in the presence of the paintings. 


Unexpected Covid warning: even if you’re a member, you can’t drive into the Botanic Garden these days without pre-registering, so that crowds can achieve a semblance of social distance. You must pre-register.

For more powerful art by Philip Juras (and the ability to order his book) go to:

Also - beneath every painting are compelling written details and quotations. The website deserves study by people in love with (or perhaps just interested in) tallgrass prairie and savanna.


The original of this essay was edited for Philip’s book by John Harris, with additional edits by Philip Juras and Beth Gavrilles. For this version, I started with their combined edit, messed with it some more, and asked advice from stewards, Eriko Kojima, Christos Ecomomou, and Kathy Garness. I suppose we seven are rightly the final authors of this version. 

The beautifully done exhibit at the Garden was sponsored by the Chicago Botanic Garden, the Field Museum, the Forest Preserves of Cook County, the Nature Conservancy, and Openlands

Thursday, May 20, 2021


They said it couldn’t be done – a formerly degraded savanna gains status as a high-quality, permanently-protected Illinois Nature Preserve. 

In 1996, New York Times science writer William Stevens highlighted this site in his book Miracle Under the Oaks. But back then, the jury was still out. How much quality could these 85 acres recover?

The following slides are from a proposal by Rebecca Collings, Senior Resource Ecologist for the Cook County Forest Preserves, presented on January 26, 2021 to the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission.

Pssst: And to break the suspense, the proposal received its final approval on May 11th. For more on the implications of that legal step, see Endnote 1.

It is significant that the Native People who once were managers and participants in this ecosystem are acknowledged in this proposal. The word "nature" is becoming better understood. It does not mean the absence of people - or the absence of human influence. For more on that, see Endnote 2.

Before May 11th, there were 407 Nature Preserves in this state, with a primary aim being biodiversity conservation. The Nature Preserves System seeks the best of the best. There are few rich-soil prairies with more than an acre or two of very high quality - and no very high quality savannas. Sand prairies and sand savannas are more common. But they don't conserve the biota of the classic, rich-soil "Prairie State" ecosystems - those most-farmable acres that contribute so importantly to global food supplies (and which may over time most need the genetic resources that survive only in ecosystem preserves).

To put this preserve in context, Collings showed this slide:

Outlined in red, Somme Prairie was dedicated as a Nature Preserve way, way back in 1984. Somme Prairie Grove is outlined in orange. Somme Woods in yellow. This entire complex of the Somme/Chipilly preserves adds up to 730 contiguous (except for streets) acres.

Most of the new Nature Preserve is savanna, woodland, and prairie. There are smaller amounts of sedge meadow and marsh. The grim-looking gray areas are buckthorn mixed with greater or lesser amounts of native shrub vegetation. The smallest gray dot, surrounded by savanna, and not recognized as anything special on this map, is actually a "kinda special" rare native thicket of nannyberry, wild plum, dogwood, grape, hawthorn, and young oaks.

And now - a somewhat hard-to-read map that gets at the heart of the issue:

Seven areas, outlined in purple, were determined by the Illinois Natural History Survey to represent "high quality" savanna. In the hard-grading Illinois system, Grade A is "very high quality" and Grade B is "high quality." Both are very rare.

To give a sense of how rare, when the globally path-finding and respected Illinois Natural Areas Inventory (INAI) was conducted in the 1970s, a site was included if it had a "significant feature" - such as an endangered species population or, more importantly, a high-quality ecosystem. An endangered species population is well worth conserving. But most worthy were the rarer, so called Category I sites - those with high-quality original ecosystems, with hundreds of interdependent species. The Inventory identified two acres of Grade A (very high quality) prairie at what is now Somme Prairie Nature Preserve. That was out of only 54 acres found in the entire "Prairie State."

Does only 54 acres of prairie surviving in Illinois sound pathetic to you? Or alarming? I hope so. And then compare the numbers of acres of surviving prairie found by the INAI to the amounts of forest and savanna.
Total High Quality Acres Surviving in Illinois for Three Communities
Some of us looked at those numbers and said, we need to do better. Most prairie remnants are five acres or less. Most prairie animals can't survive on five acres. How sustainable or "real" is a prairie ecosystem without its animals? Could larger prairie or savanna communities be "brought back" from "good quality" (Grade C) remnants? Some of us proposed restoration of Grade C sites as an important part of Illinois' conservation plan, but others scoffed.

At a meeting to consider the proposal, one expert thundered, "Admit it! They're gone! Gone!! GONE!!!" as he pounded the table. He made a compelling and reasonable point. Millenia-old natural communities that have lost many of their species may be permanently degraded. But that's a hypothesis. Another hypothesis is that enough of the biota survives that "nature preserve quality" communities can recover over time with good care. Nachusa Grasslands and Somme Prairie Grove are examples of initiatives to test both hypotheses.

For four decades, dozens of dedicated leaders and thousands of generous volunteers have worked, advised by the best experts, to restore quality to the savanna remnant at Somme. Savanna birds and butterflies have returned. While the site originally supported 232 native plant species, today with the successful addition by seed of 253 species, it now supports a total of 485 native plant species, an impressive number. (For cameo stories on 25 of those species, click here)

Comparing numbers is easy. But how do we value the overall ecosystem? High-quality communities are much rarer than endangered species populations. There are as yet no objective metrics that assure consensus on judging ecosystem quality. Expert judgment seems to be the closest we come. In 2015, experts from the Illinois Natural History Survey offered their judgment that Somme Prairie Grove now contains 8.5 acres of high quality savanna and 63.8 acres of "good quality" - with potential to restore to high quality. (See Endnote 3.) When we started restoration in 1980, experts would have found those numbers to be 0 and 0. Thus, though still early in the restoration process, we celebrate. For some of us, inspiration and hope emerge from these numbers.

One indicator of high quality is diverse vegetation with a high proportion of conservative species. Some of the conservative species visible in the photo above include northern dropseed grass, leadplant, butterflyweed, prairie dock, and round-headed bush clover. The scattered oaks in the distance are typical of savanna - as are the frequently burned-off, re-sprouting "oak grubs" throughout.

The Forest Preserves' presentation to the Nature Preserve Commissioners also recognized the restored quality of the site's formerly buckthorn-choked woodlands. (For a U. of I. science news report and a technical paper on this woodland, click here.) There is no hard and fast line between prairie - and savanna - and woodland. The fact that they blend into each other on this site is likely a plus for some species.

Rebecca Collings' presentation listed eight species of plants that are Threatened or Endangered in Illinois and one species of national (and global) endangered status. Of those eight species, six were introduced (or partly introduced) from other sites. (See Endnote 4.) Of the six introduced species, four no longer survive at the sites the seed came from. That's not because we took too many seeds; we took a very small proportion, and all these plants are perennials. They're gone from the sites where volunteer seed-searchers found them decades ago because - as is happening to most sites across the Midwest - ecosystem quality is rapidly degrading due to lack of fire, invasive species, overabundant deer, and other stresses. Nature Preserves get better than average care, but nature deserves much better care much more broadly.

Of the 14 species of birds of greatest concern that breed at Somme Prairie Grove, none bred there in the decades prior to restoration. They include savanna specialists like the field sparrow, red-headed woodpecker, American woodcock, brown thrasher, and the yellow-billed and black-billed cuckoos.

"Reserved Rights" is an odd category. It reflects strict Nature Preserve rules from the 1960s, when the Illinois Nature Preserves System was the first of its kind. Back then, the belief was that the way to preserve nature was to leave it alone, utterly. So now, while the Forest Preserve has given up all rights to mow for picnic areas or install a bike trail, it retains the right to burn, gather and plant seeds according to an approved plan, control excess numbers of deer, and remove artificial drainage structures.

Volunteer stewards shown here - after a morning slaying brush - include Russ Sala, Daniel Ratner, Ben Staehlin, John Paterson, Jim Hensel, Nehru Arunasalam, Bruce Davidson, Ray Bernadin, Rett Donnelly, Sai Ramakrishna, Allen Giedratis, Lisa Musgrave, Duke Riggen and Wade Thoma. Both photos by Eriko Kojima.

It's embarrassing for me to include that inset thanking me. But Rebecca Collings was profoundly right to recognize the decades of volunteers who've worked here and at so many other sites. We, the volunteers, have made such success possible.

Also deserving credit is the staff of the Forest Preserves. They acquired this land and have protected it for more than 80 years. They had the courage and foresight in the 1970s to authorize and help train volunteers to do this work. Today, with increasing skill and dedication, staff do the controlled burns, secure many needed permits, train volunteers, and ward off various (sometimes politically difficult to resist) demands to carve off pieces of the preserves for incompatible uses. (That last burden will now be much alleviated by the strength of Nature Preserve legal provisions and the support of the staff of the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.)

As volunteer Christos Economou said, "And that's what's really so special about Nature Preserve status for Somme Prairie Grove. It's the first savanna restoration to ever be so honored, and so empowered - accomplished mostly by the collective vision, grit, and determination of thousands of local people, guided and aided by universities, agencies, institutions, and corporations. Really special!"

Congratulations to all. Celebration time, indeed!


Endnote 1.

Illinois Nature Preserves are permanently protected from roads, clear-cutting, plowing, or any government agency taking the land for the drainage basins, sewage treatment, or the construction of anything. They are "at their highest and best use for public purpose" in their natural state. The Illinois Nature Preserves System deserves to be more widely known and supported. Issues, needs, references, and links are provided here.

Endnote 2.

Ever since twelve thousand years ago, when the mile-thick ice of the Wisconsin Glacier melted back from the Lake Border Moraine (down the west slope of which today Somme Prairie Grove rolls majestically), people have been part of this ecosystem. This nature never did and today would not survive without people playing our roles. We can imagine the prairie and savanna landscape without people. Indeed, for five million years, this ecosystem and its species evolved under the influence of lightning fire rather than person-ignited fire ... because there were no people in the Americas for most of this community's evolution. But for the last dozen millennia, indigenous cultures and individuals hunted, burned, and harvested in ways that we know were sustainable, as the species we today seek to conserve survived here in that context. 

Endnote 3.

To determine what sites are worthy of Nature Preserve status, experts consider ecosystem quality and rare species present on the site that are seen as needing conservation action. Plant species often take center stage, as they are easiest to inventory and may reflect animal populations as well. Animal species are equally important - in the cases where bird, mammal, butterfly, reptile, or amphibian species of concern have been studied and can be confirmed on a site. But how about less well known species like beetles, fungi, or bacteria? Any of these may turn out to play an important role and be needed some day by agriculture, ecosystem recovery, and science - especially as climate change presents unforeseen challenges.

Some people point out that the rain forest and coral reef have more species per unit area. Their conservation is crucial, but we can't conserve the biodiversity of the temperate grasslands in the tropics or the ocean. Brazilians ask why they should sacrifice to save the remaining 50% of their rain forests if wealthy Americans can't find the resources to conserve the pittance we have left. We in North America should set a better example and build communities of caring and initiative through which we can support and partner with people elsewhere on the globe.

Another important but often undiscussed consideration is that of genetics. Biodiversity conservation has long emphasized the need to conserve on three levels - the ecosystem, the species, and the genetic. Many Illinois species also occur from the Atlantic to the Rockies or from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. The species may not be in danger of extinction, but many of its genetic alleles may be. If agriculture needs to borrow from the gene pool some element of the genetic code that would protect wheat, corn, or soybeans from some killer disease, the gene that works here may not be found in a wild grass from Maine, Saskatchewan, or New Mexico.

Also worth mention here (and more consideration in a later, more-technical note) is a limitation on the value of restoring a plant species by seed. The seeds do not necessarily bring with them the insects, fungi, bacteria, and other species that may be associated with that plant species in a high-quality original community. And some conservationists add, at this point: And maybe these unknown species will turn out to have no use for us humans whatsoever. We have to learn to think beyond what’s in it for us.

For more about the strategies and challenges of the "Somme Prairie Grove Experiment" as well as more detail about the many people who contributed, click here.

Endnote 4.

A number of "formerly endangered" species thrive at Somme Prairie Grove - species that are no longer quite so endangered. They may in many cases be "off the list" because we at Somme and other sites worked so hard at their recovery. Such species at Somme Prairie Grove include the savanna blazing star, prairie lady-slipper, small sundrops, eared false foxglove, and others. We should not altogether forget such species when we assess sites for conservation priority and action.

When we celebrate, let's celebrate victories as well as inspiring challenges!


Thanks mostly to Rebecca Collings who assembled all the graphics in this presentation. Thanks to the many fine Forest Preserve staff who worked on this proposal and to the Nature Preserves staff and Commissioners who worked on it from their end. Our tax money supports these important institutions. We should be proud of them and raise their profiles in the eyes of our elected representatives.

Thanks for proofing and editing go gratefully to Kathy Garness, Christos Economou, and Eriko Kojima.

Thursday, May 6, 2021

Recovering from “Fortress Mentality”

Journalist Patti Wetli of WTTW News did a fine job capturing the excitement and founding spirit of the new “Friends of Illinois Nature Preserves.” But journalists have a challenging mission. They must grasp the fundamentals of new and complex subjects and convey what’s key to the general public. In most aspects, Wetli nailed it.

This “already historic” photo shows many of the people who launched “the Friends” ...
... and talked with Wetli.
For personal details, see Endnote 1.

Yet oftentimes, after the fact, we interviewees wish we could have put things better. 

Take for instance, this sentence: “Less than 0.1% of Illinois’ landscape remains as it was
 when first seen by early European settlers.” The truth is, one of us probably flubbed that number. It's off by an order of magnitude. 1/100th of 1% (or 0.01%) is the amount of original prairie left in “The Prairie State.” That miniscule figure comes from the highly-respected Illinois Natural Areas Inventory conducted in the 1970s. 

Compared to prairie, some ecosystems fared better, others even worse. For example, the Inventory found forests to have survived better, pushing the overall proportion of the state’s surviving natural ecosystems to be 7/100ths of 1%. Or, in the case of oak savannas and open woodlands, which were actually the major natural community over much of the state, it was actually closer to 1/1000th of 1%.

But let’s not quibble. All rich nature in Illinois is critically imperiled. Compared to the 50% or so of tropical rainforests that survive, any of these Illinois numbers are beyond pathetic and tragic. Yes, it’s important for people to encourage the less-affluent folks of Brazil and Indonesia to do better, but what about us, here?

We in Illinois can credit ourselves with our first-on-the-planet founding vision of the Illinois Nature Preserves System in 1963. So far it has “saved” 607 of our most ecologically valuable prairies, woodlands, and wetlands. But in the early days, it was believed that the main needs for Nature Preserves would be laws, fences, and police to protect the preserves from bulldozers, timber rustlers, and other misguided humans – the fortress mentality. Now we know better. Today the major threats to biodiversity in these preserves come from invasive species and other indirect human-caused troubles (over-populated deer, altered hydrology, climate change, lack of natural fire, etc.).

Later on, Wetli asks rhetorically: “So why is an organization like Friends needed to rally around sites that have already been saved…‘in perpetuity’ from development?”

To elaborate on the response she gave, we might add: “Legal protection is becoming conservation’s easiest and least compelling part. The big challenge now (which the new volunteers are helping to meet) is on the ground, with sweat and learning and restoration tools and monitoring implements – and nimble minds – figuring out how to rescue these thousands of species and millions of rare lives from their ‘existing legacy of benign neglect’ – at hundreds of sites across a large state.” 

That the system was in trouble was made clear in its 2015 strategic plan. Nature preserve staffing and funding are grossly inadequate. As Wetli puts it, “At the state level, nine staff members are in charge of all 600-plus nature preserves. ‘We, as citizens, can help,’ Economou said. ‘We just need to get people together’.”

Volunteer leader Christos Economou lights the headfire at Old Plank Road Nature Preserve

So, if nine staff are too few, how many are needed? The first thing to realize is that the Nature Preserves System is itself diversely led. The founders recognized that the job was too big for one agency, and they invited the collaboration of multiple governments, organizations, and individuals throughout the state. Roughly half of Illinois Nature Preserves are owned by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The other half are owned by forest preserve districts, park districts, universities, corporations, and even individuals. Many of these owners have staff, and in some cases the staff include knowledgeable, dedicated, hard-working Nature Preserve staff-stewards. But in many cases, the landowning agencies have no such conservation staff. In those cases, the whole weight of responsibility may fall on Illinois Nature Preserves Commission (INPC) staff and volunteer stewards. 

Even preserves owned by the mighty state may be in massive need of help. For these approximately 300 preserves, the DNR divides Illinois into fourteen districts, each of which, theoretically, has a Heritage Biologist responsible for managing the Nature Preserves and other natural lands therein. Thus, on average, each DNR biologist has 22 preserves averaging 191 acres each. Or, as math tells us, each biologist has 4,202 nature preserve acres to manage, in addition to other responsibilities. 

Preserves today need many types of care – controlled burns, invasives control, and replanting damaged areas. Can one person do that for 4,202 acres? Not even remotely. The law also provides for the state to step in and manage nature preserves that other owners don’t have the resources to manage. But that would inevitably be those same few Heritage Biologists, so, forget it. In the short term, if the preserves have to rely on staff alone, they’re probably doomed. 
Every burn starts with trained personnel and an approved plan. Here the personnel – all volunteers from the Orland Grassland, North Branch Restoration Project, and Indian Boundary Prairies – discuss strategy and safety. Groups like this do impressive work all around the state, but many more are needed. 

Which brings us to one of the most compelling (if tantalizingly obscure) comments in Wetli’s account: “'Ecosystems evolved with people participating,' said Leavens. 'It’s something people stopped doing.'”

Friends volunteer and leader, Emma Leavens, displays the malignant garlic mustard.
By pulling it, we have a personal relationship with nature. 

Emma Leavens, one of the coordinators of the Friends of Langham Island (in Kankakee River Nature Preserve) was making a profound point about us, as people, and our relationship to real natureIllinois plant and animal species are the product of millions of years of evolution, but their ecological communities took their current shapes and compositions in the last 12,000 to 8,000 years. 

During all this time, ever since the retreat of the last glacier, indigenous people burned, hunted deer, harvested food and medicine, and (judging from Kat Anderson’s book Before the Wilderness) had natural impacts more profound than beavers, ants, and tornados. (See also: Endnote 2.) Thus, if our culture removes, for example, the influence of fire, we lose most of the animal and plant species that survive on Earth today in the tallgrass region’s ancient, fire-dependent ecosystems. Emma sought to evoke the profound point that: contrary to long-held attitudes, without fire nature would not “take its course.” Nature would be gone. 

So stewards must burn. But the lack of regular fire today is only one challenge to the nature of the preserves. The elimination of wolves, mountain lions, and indigenous hunters permitted malignant over-populations of deer, which unchecked can wipe out many other species. Fragmentation of big contiguous landscapes into “postage stamp” preserves has prevented gene flow and made many animal populations too small to sustainably resist extinction as populations rise and fall in response to disease, weather events, and other challenges. There’s a long list of varied problem that various preserves face. It is unlikely that there will ever be enough staff to do the job alone. We need more and better-paid staff. But even one steward dedicated to each site would be insufficient. Caring for this nature has to be a community effort.

Some professionals have been dubious about the ability of volunteers to learn enough and lead enough to make major contributions – without impractical levels of supervision by spread-thin staff. INPC Preservation Specialist Kim Roman has done a great job mentoring volunteer leaders. She writes, “What really makes this work is the relationships and social networks created around individual sites... Once skill is demonstrated and trust is established, these volunteers can be empowered, and transform dozens of IL Nature Preserves. It’s pretty exciting stuff.”

Most people once believed, falsely, that “nature” and “biodiversity” reflected (and indeed were defined by) the absence of people. But especially in the rich “Tallgrass Region” of the cornbelt – the past and future of biodiversity depended on and will depend on people's actions, as part of the natural community.

And that brings us back to the sentence this post opened with. 

“Less than 0.1% of Illinois’ landscape remains as it was 
when first seen by early European settlers.”

Perhaps we might edit it to be: 

“Less than 0.01% of Illinois’ landscape remains as it was for millennia, 
managed and sustainably harvested by indigenous people ... and part of their culture.” 

As for we the people who live here now, it's time to grasp that the biodiversity crucial to the future of this region cannot be conserved in the rain forest. With serious dedication and joy, some of us are figuring out how best to be sustainable true Friends with that nature. 
Endnote 1
Who are these people, the Friends?
Early Founders of the Friends of Illinois Nature Preserves.
Every person has a story.

Let’s start with the people in this pre-Friends photo. On the left, participating in a “Field Seminar” among Somme Woods zone stewards, is Matt Evans, currently president of the Friends, then a botany student and manager of a hockey rink. Matt used his volunteer experience with the Illinois Environmental Council to travel around the state two summers ago, meeting with people and exploring how the Nature Preserves System was doing. He decided to help start the organization. He now also helps coordinate the Friends’ work at Short Cemetery Nature Preserve and Middlefork Savanna. 

Next, heading right, is Stephanie Place, a medical doctor, and volunteer steward of Fifth Pond Zone at Somme Woods in Northbrook, a Cook County Forest Preserve. Here she leads a planning session for seven of the site’s zone stewards. 

Katie Kucera, zone steward for First Pond Zone, is one of many younger people trying to cobble many small jobs together. She headed up last year’s Wild Things conference and gathers rare seed for the Pollinator Partnership. She has coordinated the Friends work at Somme Prairie Nature Preserve as well as the Friends website, data, and communications.  

Jim Hensel works in finance. In addition to being North Fork Middlebrook zone steward, he pursues a variety of Internet initiatives to help recruit and enrich the conservation community. 

Next, Peter Kim spends “day job time” in real estate, but every weekend and often during the week he contributes as an ace chain-sawyer at sites in four counties. 

With the group’s most obscure profession, Sai Ramakrishna researched the physics and chemistry of incomprehensibly small particles at Northwestern. Now he spends most of his time as steward for Central Middlebrook Zone and conducting volunteer conservation botany experiments in cooperation with Chicago Botanic Garden. 

An airplane maintenance mechanic at O’Hare, Paul Swanson focuses on “Powerline Prairie” – the Com Ed right-of-way on the north side of Somme Woods – where massive populations of teasel, crown vetch, and other malignants were beginning to invade the preserve. He conquered them, with at least the worst infestations now gone.

Eriko Kojima works, when she has to, as a Japanese/English interpreter. But most of her time is devoted to her "real work" as volunteer steward of Shooting Star zone, leading many communications, recruiting, and empowering initiatives for Somme Woods and doing much of the same for Langham Island, Plank Road, and whatever’s needed at many other Nature Preserves. 

🙏 Bless all these great and fine people!

And then, a later look:
The photo above (taken by Eriko) shows a planning discussion at break time on Langham Island - the famous "Island of Rare Plants" in Kankakee River State Park Nature Preserve. The INPC's Kim Roman is at right. Among the volunteer leaders here are Emma Leavens, upper left, Katie Kucera at lower left, sitting down, Christos Economou, center - with a mouth full of sandwich, and Don Nelson, upper right, long time Langham steward. They brainstorm about ecology (how a few people can do as much good as possible) and community (how to welcome more people into this fellowship).

Other Friends leaders (not mentioned above) now also include Bill Fath (Plank Road), Steve Bohan, Molly Ulrich and John Sullivan, Randy Eichler, and Karen Horn (Langham), Mark Kluge (Short, Santa Fe, and Langham), and in DeKalb, Amy Doll, new staff director of the Friends. You can keep tabs on developments at the Friends website. Or – perhaps the best option – pitch in as a Friends volunteer (and soon leader?) and be part of this history yourself? Fun and good! This is a new organization, trying to build toward the major force as needed. All are welcome to contribute help and leadership. 

Endnote 2
A bit more about perspective and those earlier "pioneers” and "settlers" ... 

“The land as first seen by the pioneers” was once the standard, Eurocentric way to invoke the glories of the rich tallgrass region. Many people believed that nature here was “God’s Country” – the way the world looked before the people started to improve it (for ourselves) and degrade it (from what had been its nature). 

Even many conservationists once imagined that North America was an Eden without the corroding impact of people – just waiting for pioneers. In fact, America was not discovered by Columbus and Vespucci. It was already settled, by people who cared for and managed it, in part because they depended on it materially, but also, in many instances, for beliefs correlated with biodiversity itself – essentially for the very biodiversity that Nature Preserve Systems now seek to conserve. So the old adage about ‘victors writing history’ has made real losers of Illinois conservationists today. The general dearth of firsthand historical accounts of the landscape from an indigenous perspective is a huge impediment to truly understanding native ecosystems.

Luckily, along with the rest of society, conservation evolves. More and more, we affirm that the conquered indigenous peoples deserve the same respect and rights as anyone else and seek ways to uplift their viewpoints. There's also been a gradual reexamination of basic assumptions, and today conservationists generally recognize the historical scale and impact of indigenous management on native ecosystems. An extremely sophisticated ecological knowledge base guided (and in some places still guides) this management, which includes many types of burning, plant propagation and distribution, selective pruning, hunting, and harvesting, and more. Critically, this knowledge is embedded in broader indigenous cultural and economic systems. 

ally, the Pomo of the northwest California coast classified four distinct ecotypes of a species of sedge (Carex barbarae) by differences in their rhizome structure, each with specific uses in basketweaving. That is an enviable level of ecological awareness, even for a trained botanist. Perhaps it doesn't matter that most of us today can't tell different sedges apart, or don't know what a rhizome is, much less which type is best suited for which use. Or perhaps, if such knowledge vanishes from our culture, we're fundamentally missing out on what it means to live on this planet of tremendous, wonderful diversity – and missing opportunities to make our lives materially and spiritually healthier, better, and more prosperous.  

Endnote 3
This note is from Packard.

Wetli's article includes the following:
        "Those 'heavy hitter' names come from Stephen Packard," said Evans. "He has a lot of contacts around the state." Packard is in many ways the godfather of ecological restoration in Chicago ..."

Well, first of all, Packard deserves no credit for many of the 'heavy hitter' advisors, who came to the Friends thanks to founding board member Fran Harty, with his long history of initiative and success in natural areas conservation - while working with IL DNR and The Nature Conservancy. 

Second, the link above claims that Packard is "one of the most widely respected nature advocates in the Midwest" whose "ultimate goal is to help North American bird populations." 

Well, golly, I'm sorry. I apologize too if it seems egocentric for me to take space to correct some of this stuff. But when I get false credit for what others have mostly done, there's understandable resentment, and I get backlash, and the community misses opportunities for growth, wisdom, and solidarity. 

Perhaps I could post something called "What Have We Done?" - to try to tell the basic story as well as I can. 


This piece was written and rewritten by Christos Economou, Matt Evans, and Stephen Packard.
Plank Road burn photo by Shane Tripp.
Thanks for proofing and edits to Eriko Kojima and Kathy Garness. 

Saturday, April 10, 2021

The status of this blog.

I hadn’t written a post in quite a while – because of the demands of the burn season, the spring planting season, and mostly the opportunity to help build the much-needed Friends of Illinois Nature Preserves.
Sorry these posts are not better in the hundred ways they deserve to be. But I do what I can. 
I just posted some history of “Mr. Prairie” – Professor Robert F. Betz.
I wish I could have taken the time to research many of the details better. I “quote” fragments of conversation from vague memories of decades ago – surely without the complete accuracy that quoted lines deserve – and only to make the writing easier and, I hope, more compelling. My qualified apologies for that. 
I’m publishing it now only because I ran across it, while working to help restore lost quality to Betz's beloved and first love, Santa Fe Prairie. As I worked on Santa Fe (to be published soon) the unfinished collection of Betz stories popped up from somewhere in my computer, when I was trying to find something else. I resolved to take time from other work and finish this account of what I had learned (and others might learn?) from Betz – before the 2021 prairie vegetation emerged. I’m barely in time. 
My friend Christos pleads with me to record more of these tidbits of history. I recently “celebrated” my 78th birthday, which is a reminder that “time’s a wasting” and I don’t have forever to do it. For some reason, I did a quick count of the posts that I’ve started because I thought they might be valuable – and haven’t finished. I got as far as 65 for the Stewards blog before I quit. I guess I don’t have time or mental energy for that count. And then there are also the drafts that I’m slow on finishing for the Vestal Grove blog. 
Christos recommends that I do some kind of Table of Contents or Index for the previous 120 posts on the Strategies for Stewards (“more technical, but not all that technical”) blog and the 102 on the Vestal Grove (“more fun, but not all that fun”) blog. Yeah, good idea. 

What Kind of a Person Does it Take?

To Preserve Nature


To Make A Lasting Impact

In this case – to usher in a new approach 
to saving the biodiversity of the Earth


Here’s one example:

“Unstoppable, Irrepressible, Vulnerable, Tender, Profound”


Eleven Adventures in the Tallgrass Prairie with Professor Bob Betz




Robert Betz and his prairies changed the world and its people. There had been prairie restoration before Betz, but not like this. His mind and sweat mingled with the grasses and pollinators and the hearts of neighbors. He focused on vanishing remnants, finding them and caring for them, with the goal of making them whole again. Inspiring a new and grittier view of nature.


Few cared about prairies in 1959. Betz made caring for them the rage. Later we found that we hadn't effectively cared about our last good wetlands or forests either. We the people of 1959 America were alienated from the ecosystem – unknowing what it needed, having none of its dirt under our fingernails, more focused on cars and air conditioners. We strongly believed the best care for nature, if we thought about it at all, was to leave it alone.


Betz was a biochemistry professor. He never became professional in his adopted prairie world. Love, the pure science of amateurism, was what empowered him. He would explain (below) why that was key. 


I later learned what the word “prairie” meant through Dr. Betz’ essay in Torkel Korling’s influential, tiny book of photographs, Prairie Swell and Swale. A precious jewel had come into my possession. Could it really be that those electrifying photos had been taken in nature around Chicago somewhere? And when I read the essay – ten little unnumbered pages – suddenly prairie plants and animals were crying out to us: “People! What’s the matter with you?! Help us!”


1.  How the professor learned what the word prairie meant


July 6, 1959 opened a mental door. Betz had loved wild plants and animals since he was a kid and thought he pretty much knew the local ones. But on this day, now a professor, he attended a little field seminar with ace botanist Floyd Swink at what is now called Santa Fe Prairie. A few acres on the side of a railroad, it teemed with hundreds of plant species, all new to Betz. How could this be? Swink explained that these were the true prairie species, and they could rarely be found, except along railroads, where the soil had never been plowed.

An original prairie. Less than 1/100th of 1% of this great ecosystem survives. 

Betz was changed forever when he saw one. 

The richness haunted Betz. He started trekking down railroad rights-of-way through farm country to learn what he could about this nearly lost world. Yes, occasionally he found remnants, mostly with just a few of his newly-learned plant species. One day, as he walked along a railroad in northwestern Will County, slogging past mile after mile of corn and soybeans, he glanced across a road to the east at what first seemed like a mirage. Blooming prairie docks waved in the wind. He raced over and found another real remnant, as rich as Santa Fe. But this one had tombstones in it. Settler cemeteries turned out to be another place where the prairie was not plowed – and survived. Soon in spare hours he was searching maps and driving down back roads checking out both railroads and cemeteries. 


Later after Betz had become famous, the media followed him, and volunteers helped him work miracles. But he was always playing the long game. In the meantime, his railroad and cemetery discoveries helped inspire a whole corps of discovery, the Illinois Natural Areas Inventory (see Endnote 1.), a world first in biodiversity conservation. 


2. Experimenting with a different relationship


Betz very much respected the academics for what they knew, but he was dubious about some of their judgments. They’d known of prairies, but in a different way. A favorite story was of his meeting Professor Almut Jones, a stern Germanic botanist , as he told it. 


Betz was on hands and knees, grimy and sweating under a hot sun in a cemetery. He was learning to protect these orphan remnants from the “weeds” or “invasives” that seemed to be slowly erasing them. He was focused on this work and thoughts, when a loud voice commanded, “Who are you? And What Are You Doing?!” In front stood the august Professor, behind her a puzzled group of students. He claimed to have replied in a high-pitched voice, “Well, I’m just Bobby Betz, and I’m trying to care for this precious prairie remnant.” 


To her credit, this botanist knew what prairie plants were and was trying to interest others. But she did not approve of Betz inserting himself. Indeed, the few people who cared about nature back then pretty much all thought: Don’t meddle. You can only hurt it.


For example, another highly respected early botanist who deserves credit for her many contributions, Alice Kibbe, wrote somewhere (as I vaguely remember) of the tragedy of railroads burning their rights-of-way to control brush: The delicate prairie flowers are being eliminated by that thoughtless burning, she wrote, completely wrong. 


Betz explained to Jones and whoever would listen – and continued explaining for decades. Gradual agreement from most academics was slow, but it came. Nature needs us.


3. How to negotiate like a blow-up toy


Later, after we’d become friends of sorts, Betz would drive me to places he had found – and was now acting steward of. He’d tell me their stories. He spoke with a passion for changing the world. Those stories mentored me, as he intended them to. (I pass them on to you, attempting that same gift.)


I asked, “If I understand right, you’re now somehow in charge of some of these cemetery gems?” 


“Oh, the cemetery boards!” he responded, with a tone of doom, and wincing, as if to ward off a blow.


In each little town there’d be a few guys who had authority over the cemetery – perhaps one banker, one hardware store owner, and the adjacent farmer, not a fan of untended weeds. 


Betz would explain that true prairie species would never invade a corn field, that these were all very rare plants, the last remnants on the planet, a fitting memorial to their pioneer ancestors who had seen and conquered the original prairies. He’d ask the board to stop mowing. He’d offer to pull all the farm weeds out. He wanted to burn. 


“They always said no at first,” he admitted. But Betz had a technique. “You know those beach toys that kids like? A blow-up clown, with a weighted bottom, and a big painted-on smile, and you could tip it over, and it would always stand back up? I was that clown. I’d say, ‘Please mister official,’ and they’d punch me right in the face. But I’d pop back up, a week or a month later. I’d give them some new news, some new discovery, I’d ask more about their crops and family. I provided the results of research into whatever questions they’d asked. And then I remind them of my requests.”


“Bam, I’m knocked back down. Bam, again and again. But you know what? I kept smiling. I actually liked these men. They took their responsibilities seriously, they were learning, and sooner or later, after too many punches, their arms would get tired. They’d say okay.”


When he got approval, he’d put up a sign explaining that this rare remnant, in honor of the pioneers interred here, was being protected by the Prairie Preservation Society. (“I didn’t mention that I was the only member.”) 


4. The first book


His was a very new vision – learned by work and dedication to the little remnants he was finding. Prairie nature would die without our help. His was the single most influential book in my life and in some other people’s lives back then. Photographer Torkel Korling self-published the thin, small, exquisitely printed book of 64 photos of prairie plants in nature – each on a 4 ¼ by 6 ½ inch page. The message was the beauty and the words packed into those ten pages. 


Neither the front nor back cover of the book contained a word.

Given the photo, any word would have detracted.

Here, eleven prairie white-fringed orchids stand in Grade A prairie.

Perhaps no such patch of quality survives today.

But with so many sites recovering so well under restoration, some day they may be common. 

The simple title of Betz's essay: “What is a Prairie?”


“The destruction has been so complete that most of the farmers in this vast region have never seen a virgin prairie. Most prairie plants are so rare or uncommon today that field guides published to aid amateur naturalists in identifying plants do not even mention them.”

“To the uninitiated, the idea of a walk through a prairie might seem to be no more exciting than crossing a field of wheat, a cow pasture, or an unmowed blue-grass lawn. Nothing could be further from the truth.”


He describes the richness of plant and animal species – and the scientific and practical value of the genes represented in those barely surviving relics. But he ends:


“It seems immoral to destroy an integral and important part of the biological world from which mankind arose … In our modern … artificiality, complexity, and instability … places to go for peace and solitude. For this alone, prairies should be preserved and cherished.”


Note the word “cherished.” He loved them. He sought to empower us to love them too. 


5. Cyclone fences


“Prairie Preservation Society” signs helped but were often insufficient. People rutted prairie remnants with vehicles. They dumped farm waste, dug rare plants, disposed of old tires.


Betz and a growing army of activist colleagues started raising funds for fencing, which soon surrounded many prairies including Woodworth, Vermont, and Glenbrook Prairies. For St. Stephan’s Cemetery Prairie, folks raised what funds they could, but the campaign stalled. So they used what funds they had to put in just the poles. The prairie became surrounded by what looked like an anorexic Stonehenge. It made a statement, and expressed a confidence that the cyclone fence “fabric” would eventually come, as eventually it did.


Betz had a speech that he’d often make about those fences. His tone would be ominous and harsh. “These precious ecosystem remnants can stand no more degradation! I want to fence them all! Put a big padlock on the gate! No one has the key!” And then in a very small voice and a hint of a smile he’d add, “except me.” 


Today I would judge that a mistake. He wanted appreciation but didn’t think many people worthy of being part of the ecosystem’s recovery, as he was. 


6. Ambush


My first actual encounter with Betz was a shock, and a trap of sorts. Inspired and educated by his book, some of us had started the North Branch Prairie Project in 1977. A year later we were a struggling group with a certain amount of momentum. But, to our horror, despite their promises, the Forest Preserve staff mowed four beautiful prairies they’d allowed us to become stewards of.   


People who had been out carefully tending these precious fields of wildflowers at first felt devastated. But soon outrage and determination set in. People flooded the Forest Preserve staff and Commissioners with heartfelt concern and earnest arguments. Dr. William Beecher, director of the Chicago Academy of Sciences, weighed in strongly. Perhaps more important, a Democratic Ward Committeeman did the same. Opinion makers and neighborhood organizations wanted answers.


Superintendent of Conservation Roland Eisenbeis had tentatively approved our work on these Forest Preserve “prairie remnants” – as we claimed them to be. But a year later, some staff person (perhaps with more political pull?) decided they should go. Eisenbeis organized a field meeting, bringing with him the most important higher-ups he could assemble, including John Mark, the North Branch Maintenance Superintendent (who seemed to have ordered the mowing). Representing the NBPP were Larry Hodak and me. Eisenbeis introduced all his people, including chief forester Sam Gabriel and Landscape Architect Joe Nevius (who was soon to rise to General Superintendent of the preserves), but they seemed not ready to start. We stood around for a while, and then a final car pulled into the Wayside Woods lot.


Out stepped a bearded guy. It turned out that Betz had been asked to come to pass judgment on whether these areas were prairies or not. In fact, Eisenbeis seemed to be asking for his judgment in quite a prejudicial way. We knew that these patches weren’t high quality. They had some remnant species mixed with larger numbers of weeds and invasives. Eisenbeis asked, “So, Professor Betz, we know that there are a number of high-quality prairies that you want us to care for. Now we want you to look at four sites here and tell us whether we should put our efforts here, or in those other ones you’ve told us about.”

From left to right: volunteer Larry Hodak. Chief Forester Sam Gabriel. Professor Bob Betz. Superintendent of Conservation Roland Eisenbeis. (Photo by Steve Packard)

Betz agonized. He didn't like controversy.
From left: Steve Packard, Prof. Betz, Roland Eisenbeis, John Mark, Sam Gabriel.
(Photo by Larry Hodak. There weren't many of us back then.)

It seemed almost as if the better quality gems would be held hostage. Betz, always expressive, kept getting this look of great pain on his face. We sought to exacerbate that pain by asking a follow-up question whenever Eisenbeis asked his. “Dr. Betz, do you think people who are getting “prairie fever” should go visit the best ones – and trample all over them – or should they come to places like this – and watch the miracle of recovery?” (I don’t guarantee that we used the exact words in quotes here. But I remember them as best I can to tell the story.) In favor of our side was the fact that Betz wanted to encourage “prairie fever” as he called it. Against us was the perhaps more significant fact that Betz's main goal in life was to save the best remnants by charming and pleading with the agencies that owned them. There were indeed a few dozen acres of fine original prairies among the 60,000 acres of forest preserves, and they weren’t yet being cared for. 


We spent much of the day looking at our four putative prairies – Wayside, Miami, Bunker Hill, and Sauganash. Each time Betz was asked the same questions. Each time he squirmed. 


I later learned that Forest Preserve naturalist Paul Strand had been convinced by Betz’s campaigning and had advocated for prairies to the Superintendent of Conservation. Eisenbeis's reply? “I could count the Cook County taxpayers who care about prairie on the fingers of one hand.” Eisenbeis had been a dedicated and visionary Forest Preserve staff leader, with much to his credit. And it was very in keeping with that dedication that he was sensitive to what the public would support and would not. Dr. Betz was learning this same lesson. Cyclone fences were not enough. Much prairie life would not survive over the long haul on an acre or two inside a fence. Forest preserves had thousands of acres where prairie could recover, if anybody cared enough. He weighed these ideas as he agonized over Eisenbeis’s questions. 


Finally at Sauganash Prairie, I mentioned the need to cut some trees, and the previously smiling Chief Forester, Sam Gabriel, now turned a bit white with horror. Betz pulled me aside and whispered, “Steve, let up. You’ve got ‘em. Just say what’s easy and positive.” I was thrilled with the mentoring. It meant he was on our side.


Finally Betz said, “Okay, I’ve seen enough. Yes, these are incipient prairies.” 


A glorious victory. North Branch Regional Superintendent John Mark looked crabby, but in time he liked us. He became a good friend and supporter. His staff did what they could to help the prairies. Amen. 


7. How to deal with authority


In public and formal situations Betz was impressively deferential to authority – especially to the biology academic establishment. He had no degrees in the fields he dedicated his free time to, that is botany, ecology, entomology, ornithology, etc. 


When asked a technical question, if biology academics were present, he’d likely toss the ball to one of them. When he gave papers at conferences, he’d always make humble reference to the official experts in the field and suggest that he hoped his little contribution would have some minor worth. 


He shied away from stating anything as a fact but rather used language like “it would seem” or “the data suggest” or “one might wonder if” when he expressed what he was learning about the ecosystem. At first, I couldn’t help think he seemed too vaguely abject. In time, as he became my friend and sought out my company on prairie road trips, he made it plain that the good of the prairie required him not to step on the toes of the powerful, like the biology professors especially of the Illinois state university system.

Professors, especially from Illinois State, Eastern, Northern, Western and Southern Illinois Universities, were key to the decisions of the emerging Illinois Nature Preserves Commission. Betz would describe debates at Commission meetings on whether the prairies should be burned. The academic opposition was ill-informed but ferocious. He’d shudder and raise his shoulders as if to protect his head when he’d describe the barbs that would be aimed at him when he would “suggest” or “wonder” about various management questions. He’d never argue with them. But bit by bit, most of the academics came around. Some grew old and died. Gradually, the prairies were being burned more and getting healthier, but progress depended on not rocking the wrong boats, and he was always cautious about giving the remotest offense to academics or officials. He’d either win them over with positivity and kindness … or wear them down with commitment.  


Betz's plant taxonomy mentor was Floyd Swink, a person who competed to be the center of attention. Swink also had no degrees in his field, botany. But Betz would laughingly refer to him as “Der Floydl” which I never quite understood, but somehow was meant to remind us that Swink’s botanical brilliance was a force of nature and to convey reverence and affection. The competitive Swink was eager for primacy. More than once I heard Betz say to us amateurs, “If the heads of the botany departments of the greatest universities claimed the plant was a white-fringed orchid, and Floyd said it was a dandelion – it was a dandelion.” 


When a Chicago Sun-Times photographer was taking a later celebrated photo of Swink, Schulenberg, Betz, and me for a feature on the prairie, Betz raised his hand and took Swink by the shoulder and pushed him forward, rearranging us, saying “Wait a minute. Floyd should be out front.” 


Betz’s humility was strategic. He might say, “No I don’t think I could do that. Too many people would be unhappy with me. You know, I’ll tell you what, people don’t like to hear ideas that are too new. First they say it’s obviously wrong, then they claim it’s insignificant, then they say, ‘of course, it’s obvious, we knew that all the time’. That’s the point when you give them the credit, and the argument is won.” 


8. Old Testament prophet


On the other hand, in private, Betz was irrepressible about what impassioned him. A National Geographic article that featured him introduced him as “a man who speaks in italics.” Despite his beard and lofty language, when he’d talk about the plight of the prairie his voice would verge on crying as his eyes would go wide and his face adopt an expression of fear or panic. Next he might thunder like an Old Testament prophet. 


Betz's passion didn’t work on everyone. I convinced Illinois Nature Conservancy director, Ralph Brown, to ride with him to look at some site that Betz wanted to save. When Brown returned, I expected him to be impressed positively with Betz. Instead Brown said, “What an ordeal! He yells at you the whole way!” I didn’t push for any more such trips. 


Betz could decry the tragedy of alienated modern life and a moment later be tenderly cradling a tiny rare flower and speaking to, and about, it with the deepest tenderness. 


He could also share confidences. He said to me, more than once, “You and I can have the ideas and try the things we do because we’ve never studied this academically.” We have a different role.


9. Milkweed dramas


Betz was a star at conferences. After hearing him once, in my new position as ‘Director of Public Information’ with the Natural Land Institute, I convinced Betz to be a featured speaker at our conference to announce the new Illinois Natural Areas Inventory. 


I asked Betz to speak on milkweeds. It was an insanely-nerdy-sounding topic for a major speech to the general public, even to him. I believed that his passion for milkweeds and pollinators would triumph. We talked it up and people flocked into a huge amphitheater where we scheduled it. 


People were puzzled about the buzz for this one – and grew more puzzled as he dryly opened with a lot of “It would seem that the genus Asclepias blah blah blah.” The slides were interesting, but Betz gave only Latin names of the plants, despite calls from the audience for common names. People fidgeted. 


But everything changed when he started recounting his efforts to save rare species. Wooly milkweed was failing to get pollinated. Could we restore missing pollinators? Mead’s milkweed survived in only a couple of prairies in the entire state (and was already extinct in many states). Its only large Illinois population had recently been destroyed when a garden club bulldozed it (he looked increasingly dispirited, disheartened, despondent) for “beautification” to plant ornamental shrubs. 


The only surviving Mead's milkweed in an Illinois railroad prairie. Here in bud: The few, large flowers will range from pale whitish yellow to yellowish green. 

Dr. Betz photographing that milkweed. 


So he experimented with propagating many species in his garden. At first they thrived. But then something started killing them. Too many together? (Most milkweeds in nature tend to be spread out.) Was something eating them? He had a hunch and went out one evening with a flashlight. “And There They Came!” By this point the entire audience was sitting on the edge of their seats – mouths as wide as their eyes. “Out of the Ground! Weevils!!!” And the audience nearly screamed with horror. “Gardens won’t hold them,” he summarized. “We need to save whole prairies.” 


10. Fermilab


His biggest project (measured by acres) was a testament to “prairie fever” (companies, subdivisions, and whatnot were increasingly being named “Prairie This” and “Prairie That”) and the vision of a great physicist. Manhattan Project physicist Robert R. Wilson was building a “best in the world” electron accelerator around a mile-wide circle on former cornfields in DuPage county. Betz talked him into restoring prairie in the protected center of that circle. Its story has been told many times, for example on the Fermilab website.


Soon the prairie was spilling out of the ring and covering much larger swaths of federal land. Betz used to say something like “The half-life of government research institutions is (some number) of years. We’ve got to get this prairie good enough and appreciated enough that the public will demand saving it when the physics research goes belly up.” 


11. Markham


Perhaps Betz's preeminent love was a discovery he made while visiting relatives in a suburb south of Chicago. He named it the Gensburg-Markham Prairie after the suburb and the Gensburg family who owned most of it. With the ownership fragmented as part of a failed subdivision, most people had stopped paying taxes. As a result of the recognition (and upon being shown that economically they “could do well by doing good”), they donated 60 acres to The Nature Conservancy (TNC) in 1971. 


When Betz discovered Markham Prairie, it was nearly covered with brush. Some experts said, "It's not a prairie. Too many trees." Betz studied the flora and said, "It's a degraded high-quality prairie. It can be brought back." 

There was a great deal more surviving prairie nearby, and Betz advocated tirelessly for more to be saved. He was so persistent that the TNC director at the time, Neal Gaston, got the board to pass a resolution decreeing that the Markham project was finished. Done. No more land. 


At that time, I was Field Rep for the Natural Land Institute, and Betz appealed to me for help. I plunged in, researching ownerships and meeting with the various characters who owned parcels. One was an aging former boxer who still seemed “punchy” and liked to kiss me and most everyone in arms’ reach. Bit by bit we acquired additions from the five semi-separate parcels where the best prairie survived. 


When the Institute lost funding in an unrelated drama and I moved to TNC, I convinced my colleagues that it was embarrassing that TNC had dropped this important project, and we rolled up our sleeves again. Betz was thrilled. The protected prairie there is now 468 acres. 


Betz burns Markham Prairie, accompanied by media, to teach the world. 

Like all large prairies, much of it was degraded in various ways. Betz used what he’d learned from the cemeteries, gathered seed of species that survived nearby, and broadcast it in the preserved areas, to great results. (See Endnotes 2 and 3.) As with every biodiversity site, the threats, challenges, and opportunities continue. But the jewel survives and brightens in many ways. These 468 teeming acres are now part of the 115,923 acres of the 607-site Illinois Nature Preserves System. That system (and initiatives that have been inspired by it and by Betz across the country and around the world) owe their greatness to thousands of volunteers and staff who are now an increasingly solid part of our culture, and to Professor Robert F. Betz. 



Endnote 1

The Illinois Natural Areas Inventory asked the question “Where does nature survive in Illinois?” In the process, the Inventory defined what a “natural area” was -  and found 610 of them, comprising 7/100th of 1% of the surface area of the state. At the time, people asked if it might not be too ambitious to try to preserve that much. Apparently not, as most sites got preserved. But keeping them thriving has been a challenge in many cases.  

Endnote 2

At first Betz told me that scattering seeds wouldn't work. But we both experimented with it and found that, done right, it would. He was reluctant to talk about inter-seeding into remnants, fearing that people would criticize both him and the genuineness of the site. That's an important topic for a future blog post. In the meantime, for more details on how Betz and others thought about it back then, see: "Successional Restoration: Thinking Like a Prairie" by Steve Packard in Restoration & Management Notes. Vol. 12, No. 1 (summer 1994) pages 32-39.

Endnote 3

Dr. Betz's wife Eleanor privately published his book "The Prairie of the Illinois Country" posthumously. It's a splendid contribution, but perhaps hard to find, as only a few hundred copies were published. He had offered it to a publisher in his lifetime, but editors wanted to make changes that he couldn't work up much enthusiasm for. 



Thanks to Rebeccah Hartz, Kathy Garness, and Eriko Kojima for much proofing and editing.

And the following added comment from Kathy. 

The way I heard the Almut Jones story was this:

"Dr. Robert Betz was deeply interested in natural remnants, some of the best of which were small cemetery prairies. One day – out in Ford County, possibly – he was pulling weeds and tending this small cemetery prairie, when Almut came by with one of her classes. They made many (maybe too many??) plant collections from this prairie for their study ( ?) pages. Dr. Betz was not pleased with this loss of precious plant material. But he was less pleased when he heard Almut point to a plant and say “This is Oenothera biennis”. Unable to remain silent any longer, Bob stood up and said ‘You mean that is GAURA biennis!” Almut did not know what to make of this shirtless man, presumably the cemetery gardener, and certainly not aware that she was coming head to head with the soon-to-be famous botanist, Dr. Robert Betz."

(This is from a conversation with Gerould Wilhelm, which account seemed worth writing down at the time, because of my interest in early Illinois botanists.)