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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. 


  1. The crucial importance of fire was clear to me today when I visited Sauk Trail Woods (an FPCC site, that had been significantly managed/burned) and Thorn Creek Nature Preserve (managed by Prof. Jon Mendelson until his death in 2014 and apparently still following his philosophy). In the late 80s I met JM, Stephen Aultz, Wally & Mary McCarthy at Cap Sauer's NP to discuss fire. Wally & Mary were stewards of Cap Sauers and also students of Prof. Mendelson at Govenor's State. A patch Cap Sauers had been burned. Mendelson wanted to persuade the McCarthy's it had negative effects. I tried to persuade them it had positive impacts. The McCarthy's resigned as stewards apparently accepting Mendelson and Aultz opinions. Mendelson published an attack on fire in 1992.
    Today as I walked around Sauk Lake I saw many flowers, with wild geranium and woodland phlox being most abundant but there were many other species blooming as well. On the Thorn Creek trail I saw some woodland phlox, but little other color (but brown (last years oak leaves) and green from diverse native and exotic species). At Thorn Creek Nature Preserve I was surprised by the low abundance of bush honeysuckle and garlic mustard, but distressed by the high abundance of Japanese barberry and Oriental bittersweet and the very low abundance of blooming herbaceous species.
    I visited Thorn Creek NP in the 90s. I do not remember it as substantially different from other preserves at that time. It is now. Thorn Creek NP illustrates the negative effects of >25 years of fire suppression.
    Dennis Nyberg

  2. Dennis,

    You raise questions that are difficult and crucial. Many people don't want to speak or write for public consumption about how nature preserves are doing - so as not to offend hard-working, over-worked staff. Are there better ways to to assess and publicize the ongoing "status" or "health" or "quality" or (in many cases) "decline" of biodiversity in "preserved in perpetuity" nature preserves? The system needs advocates who speak difficult truths. It also needs collaborative constituency-building that leads to increased support and resources. Many minds and spirits need to come together for our important Illinois Nature Preserves System to thrive.