Friday, November 07, 2014

Unexpected Big-ass "Forest Fire"

It was becoming a beautiful day. The prediction had been for damp and cold, but the actual weather looked increasingly great. I spread an alert through the new Somme 2030 stewards. "Anyone free to do some planning, exploration, and loving the ecosystem, before the cold comes?"

Part of our thought was that it might be the perfect day to find and mark (and protect from slaughter) a beautiful little viburnum tree called black haw. This could be important, because the new mission of Somme 2030 (also called the "Somme Revival Party") was to restore 150 acres of rare oak woodland and wetland habitat, and most efforts fail when it comes to the plum trees, hazelnuts, and black haws that may have been a crucial part of the habitat.

Would anyone be free at the last minute? It turns out that Travis had already scheduled a day off - and both Michael and Josh managed to wiggle out of whatever, and now we four assembled in the wilderness of Somme East to plan the future.

We weren't expecting drama today. Josh, Michael, Travis and I searched for seedlings
of rare understory trees that might become important habitat by the year 2030. 

Why do haw, plum, and hazelnut need help? First, because they've been nearly obliterated by the shade of invasive trees (from buckthorn to maple) that - in the absence of fire - destroy the richness of the oak woodlands. Second, because now that we're starting to restore the habitat, our controlled burns will also unfortunately kill the few native shrubs that survive. And last, because eager-to-be-helpful brush cutters will snip them if they're not marked, when they cut the buckthorn.

Oh, they may not look like much now, but the color of those two surviving leaves give away a patch of one- to four-foot-tall black haw sprouts, scattered over an area the size of a house. If protected, this shrub thicket could be twenty feet tall by 2030. It could bear the nests of blue-winged warblers, eastern towhees, black-billed cuckoos and other now-rare birds that once helped the woods to thrive.

The blue-black fruits 
of the haw (on their bright red stems) would once again be eagerly devoured, in the words of Donald Culross Peattie, by "gray foxes, white-tailed deer, bobwhites, wood-wandering boys, and botanists." (But why do wood-wantering girls get left out?)

When we'd find a patch of black haw, we'd record the location on cell phone GPS, tie ribbons on the young trunks (so lopper-wielding brush cutters could avoid them) and rake leaves away - because - we hoped - if all went well - this whole area would soon be treated to a prescribed burn by Forest Preserve staff or contractors. 

Did we really think that would happen? Sure, we'd made the request earlier this fall. Forest preserve restoration has indeed been getting better and better. But we've also been disappointed. And this large area has never been burned since the days of the bison and the Potawatomi. 

That's when the miracle happened. We were intent, focused, thinking through plans, tying ribbons, raking leaves - and having a harder and harder time hearing each other's voices - because distant trucks or trains or some ungodly noise was getting louder and louder. Suddenly Travis said, "Leaf blower!"

Really? Out in the middle of the forest? Two of us immediately knew what that meant. Staff were making fire breaks, right where we'd hoped. At first we assumed the breaks were being prepared for another day. But then we saw growing billows of smoke. What serendipity! It was happening now!

Before we knew it, we were being treated to the drama of a Forest Preserve on fire. 

Many people might think perhaps we'd be scared. But a woods fire on a calm day like this moves at the speed of a very ill patient with a walker. The average person could crawl out of the way. You could hop over it. You could walk through it, stepping briefly right in the flames for that matter, if you were wearing clothes and footwear not made of petroleum. Not that anyone would recommend it. But the level of danger is trivial. Don't lie down in the flames, and you're okay. (On the other hand, don't try the "walking through fire" trick with "synthetics." Some melt. Some burn.)

How about the worry that the fire will "get out of control" and burn down buildings? Here we can first look at the record. All the region's conservation agencies burn their prairies and oaks woods, and no fire has escaped to burn down buildings. The reasons are simple. Competence and firebreaks.

Before the burn was lit, those leaf blowers emptied a narrow strip of soil of any flammable leaves, wood, or anything else.
In the photo on the left you can barely see the leaf-blown area to the right of the black. But look how effective it was.

It works because the person spreading the fire starts it right on that edge, and other crew with water backpack pumps are carefully watching to make sure no hint of flame tries to sneak across.

Once the fire has burned a few feet in, leaving behind a black area of no fuel, the woods outside the break are safe.

Notice the little flames moving left in the photo. The farther they get, the safer the area outside the break.

(On the other hand, "don't try this at home." There are many dangers that are not obvious to the untrained. Only people with extensive training and expertise can do controlled burns.)

Perhaps this is the time to consider the "cost" or "harm" of such a fire - compared to the benefits. People with respiratory problems should stay out of the smoke, but they could just walk away. Air pollution is indeed a cost. We'd all prefer no air pollution, but we degrade the air by driving our cars (or taking the bus or train). We increase carbon dioxide in the atmosphere every time we breathe. We put particulates in the air every time we have a cook-out or burn a fire in a fireplace. We as a culture have decided that some benefits outweigh some costs.

In this case, the benefits accrue to ecosystem services performed for the planet by healthy woods, and biodiversity conservation, and recreation. It used to be that the natural lands of the Cook County Forest Preserves were treasured for recreation by hikers, artists, photographers, birders, foragers, and kids of all ages. It used to be that these 55,000 acres cleaned our urban air throughout the growing season ("the lungs of the city"). It used to be that the ecosystem preserved the soil from erosion and sponged up rain to mitigate floods.

Insidiously, "invasive" or "malignant" species began progressively to destroy all these values. Only in recent decades have we gradually come to understand that an impenetrable thorn thicket where an open woodland used to be was not "nature" or "natural" or good. Fire restores the plant community, animal habitat, and ecosystem services.

Small buckthorns (the nasty saplings here with green leaves) bite the dust.

The most obvious benefit is the control of buckthorn. This small tree - in the absence of fire - destroys animal habitat and shades out the grasses and wildflowers so severely that even the soil erodes off and clogs streams, lakes, and ultimately the Gulf of Mexico. After this fire, not only will the buckthorn be reduced, but the thick mat of leaves will uncover the soil just long enough to seed. Right away Travis, Michael, Josh and the rest of the Somme Revival Party will plant the rare seeds they've been gathering all summer and fall. Next spring they'll sprout in perfect conditions. Healing has begun.

If you checked out the Somme Facebook page, you might have seen the video of this fire in which 
burn boss Evan Barker seems to be walking through the woods spreading fire at random. That too deserves comment.

Carefully placed strip fires do what was once done by a mighty wind. 

For millions of years, grasslands and oak woodlands burned from fires ignited by lightning. Most of the grasses, leaves, and dead trees were then burned by fires spreading with the wind on the very driest, hottest, windiest days. Considering how slowly today's tamer fires are spreading, large areas like Somme east (150 acres) would have to burn for days if a single fire were to spread slowly on its own. So a drip torch is used to start new lines of flame, back and forth through all the key areas. This fire will spread in out in both directions, burning the leaf litter (and many invasives) from the entire area of this photo in ten or fifteen minutes.

Wonderful day. Now we approach about the future with greater hope and confidence.

Oak woodland in Somme Prairie Grove after decades of restoration.

What comes next? First finish gathering, and then broadcasting, all that crucial seed.
Then cutting bigger brush and burning it in bonfires throughout the cold winter.
Then more study, planning, and month to month of rewarding stewardship in the beautiful and recovering Somme Woods (inspired in part by the pilot work to the west in Somme Prairie Grove).
A worthy, wonderful, and generous dream.
Whether you end up calling yourselves Somme 2030 or the Somme Revival Party or whatever ...
... thank you and best of wishes in your noble quest. 

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Fall Burn - Somme Prairie - November 2, 2014

Every year, one day is most important to a prairie - bar none.
That's the day it burns.

Fire is so important to ecosystem sustainability that "evolutionists pray for it."

Usually a burn is planned for about half of each of the three Somme restoration areas. The principle is that half is left unburned as habitat for rare animals that may be sensitive to fire.

This year was the time for the west half of Somme Prairie to burn, and that's where we'll look next year for all the rarest plants to do best - for the richest wildflower displays and most butterflies. That's where we'll see wholesale reduction of some invasives and the best advances in diversity and health.

Burns are good.
Preparing the fire break
The fuel is cut and blown out of the break by leaf blowers. The whole process is carefully planned and carried out.

A modest fire
On somewhat of a cool and damp day, this fire through average to light fuels was easy to control - yet making life and death difference for the plants and animals of the prairie. (These first two photos courtesy of Troy Showerman, burn boss for the fire. Troy, thanks a little for the photos - and a huge massive lot for the burn.)

Happy crew when the burn is done. This is actually the crew that burned Black Partridge Woods.
The burn program has many crews out across the county on every good burn day.
This photo from FP burn boss John McCabe.
The next photos were taken on the following day - the black aftermath. The quick fire may be colorful and dramatic, but what counts is the long-term work the fire does.
Sedge meadow - only the upper layers burned in damp areas like this. 
In the sedge meadow, above, if you kicked at the char, you'd find that a couple of inches of unburned vegetation survives under the black in many places. Some people argue that the best plan is to burn the whole site every year under moderate conditions in fall. You can see how that might work in this photo. Their argument is that plenty of habitat for rare animals survives in unburned vegetation or just "randomly" missed patches, also seen above. Most land managers recommend: burn half; leave half unburned.

Here we see a shrub patch that the fire has top-killed. The invasive dogwood shrub would destroy the prairie by its shade without fires. The dogwood will re-sprout from the bottom next spring. But it has lost its edge, and frequent burns in some parts of this site have demonstrated that the high quality prairie can completely out-compete the dogwood if the burns are frequent.

Burns reveal the structure of the ecosystem - like an X-ray. Here at the edge of the sedge meadow, vole tunnels can be seen running from the tall grass into the drier dogwood thicket. Before the burn, the vole tunnels (foreground) were invisible. Only the sharp-nosed coyotes knew where they were. Now we see them everywhere.

Another "X-ray." The white clumps are recent excavations of sub-soil from crayfish burrows. This shot in from the highest, driest ground on the site. But the ancient crustaceans are tunneling from the water-table to the surface everywhere.

Upland "high quality" prairie. Some patches had too little fuel to burn. This is tallgrass prairie?
The photo above shows an area that the Illinois Natural Areas Inventory (1970s) rated as "high quality" (Grade B) prairie. (Grade A = "very high quality.") It has diverse conservative species but not Grade A structure. The assumption was that this area had been subjected to excessive grazing by cattle or horses at some point - but that with Grade A prairie right near by, it would recover on its own in time.  Yet after three decades of burning every couple of years, it doesn't look all that much better. Perhaps it needs seed restoration with some of the taller conservatives, like dropseed grass, prairie clover, and others, the seed of which "don't get around much anymore," by itself.

A firebreak - neatly raked.
Prior to the burn, the crew mowed and raked a firebreak through the center of the site. The burn is started as a backfire, so it burns slowly away from the downwind edge of the intended unburned area. Fire does not burn one foot beyond where it's supposed to.

Meadow vole trails, diggings, and tunnel entrances. 
Now we can see the under-the-grasses architecture of our little hamster-like, gerbil-like meadow voles. Their otherwise invisible influence is massive. Although they're the main food of coyotes, red-tailed hawks, and many other predators, some people speculate that voles are a lot more common than they used to be. They seem to destroy all the seed of some conservative species every year. Perhaps an unbalance has been created by the loss of other predators (for example weasels, big snakes, short-eared and long-eared owls). Or could it be that the problem is that we leave voles half the site to hide in after the burn? Perhaps they were less common when the burn patches were bigger?

Wet thickets don't burn on most years.
Another concern of many ecologists is the loss of the shrub communities in prairies, savannas, and oak woods. This thicket of dogwoods and willows won't burn unless there's a fire during very dry times. These wet shrub thickets seem crucial for some rare birds and other animals.

In the northwest corner of the prairie is a large area that is shrubby throughout. If left alone, these little shrubs would grow up and wipe out all prairie plants and animals. With regular burns and seeding with more diverse conservative plants, the prairie will win. It's a long process and needs the help of many stewards, but it's worth it to restore size and quality to at least a few fine eastern tallgrass prairies, which otherwise would be gone from the Earth, with all their biodiversity.

Where the shrubs are biggest and densest, the fire goes out. 
As they grow annually larger in the absence of fires, dogwood thickets kill the grass and wildflowers, the dried remains of which fuel the prairie's health-restoring fires. Once the shrubs get this big, they can be removed only by "catastrophic" fires under extreme conditions - or the laborious work of people like you and me. Frequent fire is the better option.

Unburned. High quality. 
Here's what a piece of the unburned eastern section looks like. The fine low grass is the conservative prairie dropseed. The green patch in the lower left middle is a young buckthorn. Without fire, in time it would destroy the whole ecosystem.

Prairie plants rejoicing after a burn
And because a clear vision of process and potential is crucial to understanding and caring for the prairie, here's what Somme will look like at the height of next summer. We burn the prairie for hope, happiness, and the future.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

A Walk in the Opulence of July

Nine photos of restored savanna and woodland 
at Somme Prairie Grove
July 2014
followed by thoughts on what they mean to conservation.

Elderberry (white flowers, above) is a shrub that meets the needs of birds, wine-makers, jelly-cookers, photographers ... it's a great shrub. Most of our shrubs and small trees burn off with every prescribed burn. One of our challenges at Somme is managing, despite frequent fire, to keep the thriving patches of shrubs that birds need for nesting and foraging. 

Shade in mid-day. Ninety degrees. Like people, many animals need to move in and out of shade to regulate our (and their) temperatures. Flowers in bloom here: starry campion, woodland sunflower, and purple Joe-pye-weed. 

Near woods and thickets, the diverse, short-statured "prairie" vegetation gives way to the exuberant tangles that mushroom up when a woody edge is cut or burned back. The sprawling monster plant that takes up most of the top half of this photo is showy tick trefoil. Would you like a plant ID challenge? Can you find, in this photo (in rough order of prominence): purple prairie clover, prairie dock, lead plant, rattlesnake master, black-eyed susan, gayfeather, Culver's root, yellow coneflower, fleabane, early goldenrod, Kalm's brome, obedient plant, gray dogwood, cordgrass, prairie dropseed, big bluestem, saw-toothed sunflower, and river grape? Find 'em all? Notice any others that I missed? 

Carolina rose and prairie sundrops both have seeds that are difficult to separate for efficient planting. But just get a few going, and they'll spread splendidly by themselves.

Amid purple prairie clover and leadplant, the fine leaves of grass that arc horizontally are prairie dropseed. It's the dominant grass of our finest black-soil prairies. 

Even rarer than the purple is white prairie clover. Note how much wider its leaves are. It can grow in somewhat wetter and shadier habitats.

The lonely yellow bloom here is a "prairie" or "yellow" coneflower. Twenty years ago such coneflowers waved in all our open areas by the thousands. But they don't compete well with such conservatives (above) as dropseed, lead plant, silphiums, and white and purple prairie clover. Look for them in young restorations - or around animal burrows.

Still mostly buds here, the coming of the cardinal flower makes us already wistful. The richness of early summer is soon behind us. The richness of late summer approaches. Cardinal flower will attract daredevil hummingbirds through August and September. Soon to bloom: the tall grasses, blazing stars, asters, sunflowers. Golly. 

Your “Comments” and discussion are always appreciated by this blog.

There’s a different treatment of these same photos at 
where they’re described from a more technical, restoration perspective. Check out that blog too? Find "Nine Ideas - July 2014" and see which you find more interesting?

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

A History of Collaboration

DRAFT: March 24, 2014

To Restore and Restock
Biodiversity Restoration in the Forest Preserves of Cook County

This account summarizes the pioneering work done by professionals and volunteers as they developed new (and now widely respected) approaches to conserving our natural woodlands, prairies, and wetlands.

A goal for the Forest Preserves of Cook County from their inception, was “to restore, restock, protect and preserve the natural forests and such lands together with their flora and fauna, as nearly as may be, in their natural state and condition.”

Learning to do this well would take decades. But it is worth noting that even the earliest reports and plans of the District featured a map of the original vegetation of the county (mostly prairie but with woodlands along the rivers) and celebrated the woodlands, prairies, and wetlands for their natural beauty and recreational value. The early reports also featured collaboration with citizen volunteers and conservation groups, as it was obvious from the beginning that more ambitious goals could be achieved this way.

Starting in the early decades, Forest Preserve resource managers have done restoration, as it was then understood. They planted woodland and grassland (maintained initially by mowing) for both wildlife and people. Staff members were among the first to experiment with habitat restoration. At the inception of ecological restoration as a scientific discipline in the 1940s, conservation superintendent Roberts Mann and others were in touch with Aldo Leopold and others at the University of Wisconsin as restoration concepts developed.

Researcher Natalie Bump Vena found:
Following the Illinois Natural History Survey's recommendation, in 1940, Roberts Mann contacted a University of Wisconsin ecologist who was leading a prairie restoration with CCC labor in Madison. The ecologist, Theodore Sperry, traveled to Cook County in August 1940 to help the Forest Preserve District plan its own prairie restoration using work relief labor. Sperry drafted a plan for the work, but with the onset of WWII and the end of the work relief programs, the District had to abandon the restoration. Between Roberts Mann and Doc Thompson (who had worked at the Illinois Natural History Survey), an interest in prairies lingered in the Department of Conservation. During the 1950s, important Chicago-area naturalists, namely Floyd Swink and Doc Beecher, worked in that Department.

“Beginning in 1962, naturalists in the Forest Preserve District began developing expertise in prairie restoration by experimenting with land management techniques on property attached to the nature centers. In the mid-1960s there even existed a nursery for prairie plants in southern Cook County. People often attribute the first use of agricultural techniques in large-scale prairie restoration to Bob Betz in the 1970s. In fact, Westcott and naturalists at Crabtree Nature Center began using farm equipment to establish prairies there in the 1960s. At Camp Sagawau, Dave Blenz carried out a meticulous restoration that resembled Ray Schulenberg's Morton Arboretum project in technique.”[1]

For a time, the tree and grass species that were planted reflected what was available and practical, without limitation to local or even North American native species. But expectations changed as the prairie restoration experiments at the University of Wisconsin began to show that true ecosystem restoration was practical. David Blenz’ highly respected prairie restoration at Camp Sagawa was one of the first in the Chicago region.

Another strong influence on ecosystem management was the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission. Recognizing the importance of new insights into nature preservation, Forest Preserve Superintendent “Cap” Sauers was a founding member of the Commission and helped develop its principles and goals. When the Forest Preserve District enrolled key parcels of its land (as eleven of the first twelve Illinois Nature Preserves), it gave prestige and momentum to this important new institution.

Both Blenz and the Commission emphasized the importance of fire to the natural prairies. When in the 1970s, additional prairie restorations were planted at River Trail, Crab Tree, and Sand Ridge Nature Centers – controlled burns were conducted regularly by staff as a critical part of management. For the Nature Preserve prairies, such as Shoe Factory Road Prairie, Forest Preserve staff sometimes authorized the Nature Preserves Commission to take responsibility for the burns.

As was true for many agencies, prairie restoration fostered a rethinking of the basic principles of forest preserve management. Until the 1940s the consensus was to “leave nature to manage itself.” Gradually, ecologists and resource managers everywhere were learning that fire could be a valuable tool and than cancer-like invasive species could degrade healthy ecosystems and eliminate the diverse “natural flora and fauna.”

The heritage of Blenz and the ongoing work of Westcott, Strand, and others focused the Forest Preserve ecosystem restoration on the Nature Center plantings and the high quality prairies and savannas at Shoe-Factory Road, Sand Ridge, and Thornton-Lansing Road Nature Preserves.

In 1977, volunteers offered to help out on half a dozen little prairie remnants along the North Branch of the Chicago River. Superintendent of Conservation Roland Eisenbeis thought long and hard about approving their offer, but he was a dedicated conservationist, and the losses were increasingly apparent in many Forest Preserve grasslands, so in August of 1977 he approved a trial. The volunteers were given the okay to cut small brush with hand tools and gather and plant seed in the areas cleared. He also asked Westcott to be their mentor.  

It was an auspicious time for such a beginning. Television and newpapers often featured Dr. Betz’ prairie conservation efforts, and environmentalism was flowering everywhere. A spirit of optimism reigned as the national gloom of Viet Nam and racial conflict receded. Volunteers from the surrounding communities adopted the new mission, and the brushy or formerly mowed prairies increasingly burgeoned with life.

After an auspicious start to the North Branch experiment, “disaster” struck in August of 1978(?). Staff from the North Branch maintenance division mowed its prairies at the height of bloom. Although little long-term harm was done, it seemed like at least the maintenance staff were not “with the program.” A flood of phone calls and letters criticized this apparent reversal. Those objecting included neighbors, conservationists including Dr. William Beecher of the Chicago Academy of Sciences and, perhaps equally influentially, the Ward Committeeman from the Sauganash area. Support for the volunteer initiative that Eisenbeis had approved was impressive. The maintenance staff (not always on the same page with the conservation staff) was chastened.

At this point, Eisenbeis decided that the program needed more depth. He invited the highly respected Dr. Betz to tour the sites with forest preserve staff heads: Sam Gabriel (chief forester), Joe Nevius (landscape architect), John Mark (Superintendent of the North Branch Maintenance Division), and Eisenbeis himself. Representing the new North Branch Prairie Project (NBPP) were volunteers Larry Hodak and Steve Packard.

Betz endorsed the project and suggested expanding from just small brush and seeds to full prairie restoration. The meeting established ongoing relationships among all those present, which served the effort well for many years. One result was increased mentoring by Chuck Westcott, who began to supervise burns at the prairies. The entire leadership of the NBPP met from time to time with Eisenbeis and other staff to improve management plans and discuss progress. A key person who joined this process was Richard Buck, long time Chief Landscape Architect for the preserves. Though Eisenbeis was the ecologist and conservationist, Buck seemed to have more influence with staff outside the nature centers. He also shared ideas on prairie and forest restoration that dated back to his work with legendary preserves superintendent Cap Sauers.

Restoration expanded substantially in 1978 when the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission began to donate resources in support. It hired a Steve Packard to recruit volunteers for the most important preserves in the six counties of northeastern Illinois. The Nature Preserves Commission had already been doing some of the management in the District’s eleven nature preserves, and now Packard was able to provide more support to that effort. At that time, Illinois had a crop of young biologists and conservationists who were “state of the art” in ecosystem restoration. Packard joined in the training they all were getting and soon was writing management plans, supervising burns, and partnering with agency landowners in all six counties. Soon Cook County was benefitting from the advances of this new field as staff from the state and many counties worked on plans and developed techniques collaboratively. Key people in Cook County at this time were Marlin Bowles, Jerry Paulson, and Packard from the state along with Eisenbeis, Buck, Westcott, Strand, and eventually Ralph Thornton in the newly created position of Land Manager.

In 1983, Packard left the Commission and joined The Nature Conservancy (TNC), which recognized the opportunity to add resources to and expand this good program. TNC staffers who worked on the expanding number of Cook County restoration efforts in included Jill Riddell, Gill Moreland, Paul Dye, and Laurel Ross. The Conservancy trained its staff intensively, flying them to extended “field seminars” in Nebraska, California, Florida, and wherever the most respected scientists and land managers could teach the best planning and management. As with many agencies from coast to coast, the District’s contributed to and benefited from principles and practices being developed by the Conservancy.

Recognizing the need for more staff leadership, in 1995(?) the District added two key people to Thornton’s Land Management staff. Kelly Treese became Volunteer Coordinator and Steve Thomas became Restoration Ecologist. Although each site had its own individual management plan (initially in the form used by the Nature Preserves Commission but then moving toward the more simplified and practical forms developed by the Conservancy), Thornton and Thomas saw the need for county-wide plans and standards. Thomas developed the District’s first standardized community descriptions (for its various types of woodlands, grasslands and wetlands), with management protocols for each. Rather than re-inventing the wheel at each site, why not list the major problems and treatments appropriate to each community? Management plans could then cite the general protocols and focus on the detail of whatever is special about each site. As the Field Museum’s president Sandy Boyd later said about the work on Chicago Wilderness, “Nothing is ever born full grown.” But gradually the discipline of ecological restoration was maturing.    

Throughout the eighties and nineties, the restoration program grew, with staff support from both the Conservancy and the District. Familiar landscapes were being gradually changed in sometimes dramatic ways, and though public response had been overwhelmingly favorable, it seemed important to add more outreach. Well-known writer, birder, and conservationist Jerry Sullivan (formerly with TNC) joined the District staff and began producing materials to support the growing biodiversity conservation initiatives. Dave Eubanks (formerly with Openlands Project) joined the staff as “Greenways Planner.”

In the mid nineties, highly publicized protests were directed at the forest preserve conservation programs of DuPage, Lake, and Cook Counties. The conflict had initially focused on the deer control programs of these three counties, where the restoration efforts were most advanced. It expanded to include criticism of tree and brush control, fire, and herbicides. This “political headache” and “teachable moment” is described elsewhere, but part of the fallout included divisions within the staff. Disappointed and frustrated by perceived lack of support – Westcott, Thornton, Treese, Thomas, and Eubanks took early retirement or resigned. With the untimely death of Sullivan, the entire program needed to be rebuilt.

A new Volunteer Coordinator, William Koenig, made some progress at re-establishing the staff support for the volunteer program, but it was too much for one person. Yet he deserves great credit for restoring morale and maintaining the collaborative nature of the program. He also engaged Resource Management staffer, John McCabe, who gradually became the principal trainer (and defender from staff members who had been at odds with the program).

Partner organizations also increasingly chipped in. The Chicago Region Biodiversity Council (nick-named “Chicago Wilderness”) brought together the region’s best conservation scientists, land managers, planners and educators – dramatically improving the expertise available to staff and volunteers alike. Key Chicago Wilderness member organizations included the Field Museum, Openlands Project, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission, Chicago Botanic Garden, Morton Arboretum, Chicago Academy of Sciences, Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Illinois Nature Preserves Commission, Nature Conservancy, Audubon, many universities, and all six of the region’s forest preserve and conservation districts. Some critics continued to complain that the science behind the conservation and restoration program was insufficient. But now they were clearly criticizing one of the most impressive assemblages of ecosystem management expertise on the planet, so the charges lost their credibility for most. 

Leadership from Nature Conservancy diminished (with changes in national priorities) as it discontinued its volunteer staff in the region. Packard and Ross went to the Audubon Society and Field Museum, expanding the partnership through these locally larger institutions. Nature Conservancy conservation scientists continued to advise.

A new organization, Friends of the Forest Preserves, also began to help. In one of its first initiatives, it joined with the Audubon Society and Sierra Club to organize an impressive “Land Audit” in which forty expert botanists with forty trained assistants took data on trees, shrubs, wildflowers, and grasses under protocols scientifically designed to assess the ecological health of the 55,000 most “natural” acres of the preserves. The study was supervised by Wayne Lampa, recently retired DuPage Forest Preserve ecologist, who had supervised a similar study there.

The results, widely reported by area newspapers, showed that the small areas under restoration were doing well, but that 68% of these preserves’ natural land were in poor condition. A parallel study of FPD management overall (conducted by Friends of the Forest Preserves and Friends of the Parks and coordinated by Steven Christy, former head of planning for the Lake County Forest Preserves) reflected the need for changes long recommended by FPD staff. These studies had a major impact on the FPD Board, and president John Stroger appointed an excellent Acting General Superintendent, Albert Pritchett, who began needed reforms. Stroger then hired a new General Superintendent (City of Chicago forestry chief Steve Bylina) who made major improvements. A Resource Management Department was created and many new resource managers hired.

The election of FPD Board President Toni Preckwinkle brought in many reform principles and Arnold Randall as General Superintendent. Substantial funds were appropriated for contract restoration work (gradually increasing to $5M in 2013) and the volunteer program got three new staffers (Kathy Wurster, Mike Saxton, and Jonathan Schlessenger) to strengthen and expand that program.   

The District (now calling itself the Forest Preserves of Cook County) is poised to embark on new leadership initiatives with its “Next Century Conservation Plan” and a joint planning process with the Illinois Natural History Survey and other partners.

Anyone want to edit or contribute to this?

[1] Natalie Bump Vena, Ph.D./J.D. candidate, Northwestern University, personal communication, December 12, 2013.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Historic Commitment (if we follow through)

Forest Preserves President Tony Preckwinkle Proposes Major Initiatives

January 24th, 2014 may go down in history - beside the launching of the Burnham Plan and the founding of the Forest Preserve District - as a day that changed the future. 

Under the plan announced by Preckwinkle, the Cook County Forest Preserves would spend $40 million dollars a year to restore 30,000 acres of woodlands, prairies and wetlands to Natural Areas Inventory quality. The plan envisions 400 expert volunteer stewards playing a key role alongside staff and partner organizations. 
The "Next Century Conservation Plan" is filled with photos of people
using and appreciating the woods and prairies. This plan is for the generations.
The photo below from Somme Prairie Grove is the main cover graphic. (Somme deeply appreciates the honor.) The photo seems to say, "Biodiversity is a treasure to cherish." Underneath the nature photo are five photos of diverse people enjoying compatible recreation. Yes, public involvement, appreciation, support are key. The full plan in on line at  
Restoring this quality at Somme took three decades. The plan proposes
restoring 30,000 acres to "Natural Areas Inventory quality" in 25 years. 
The Technical Report of the plan cites the 2007 study 
designed by scientists from the Illinois Natural History Survey, the FPD, and Audubon -
which was carried out largely by expert Habitat Project volunteers: 

"According to this most recent land audit, only 25% of high-opriority conservation areas (approximately 3,500 of 14,000 high-priority acres, or about 5% of the Forest Preserve' total holdings) were found to be in good or excellent condition. Given the ongoing deterioration of the Preserves' biodiversity, the restoration and maintenance of the natural areas is a matter of the utmost urgency."   
A bur oak woodland - its understory and reproduction gradually being choked out by buckthorn
The plan (which in February will go to the FPD board for approval, with President Preckwinkle's support) calls for the training and empowerment of 400 expert volunteer stewards. Recognizing that such a goal will take many years, the plan also credits the existing stewards with much of the best restoration work done to date.

The plan also proposes jobs. In addition to beefing up the Forest Preserve professional staff, the plan proposes a "permanent" force of "at least 500 conservation corps members - built on partnerships that provide supportive workforce training for at-risk youth and young adults." 

This oak woodland was as choked with brush as the one shown previously. After thirty years of restoration
it has attained good quality - but still has a way to go to achieve high quality. Staff and stewards are rapidly learning the more effective and efficient approaches that make the plan's 10- and 25-year goals achievable.
Students from Evanston Township High School exult in victory over brush, as a bonfire burns behind them.
From the plan:
"Decades of neglect have allowed our diverse woodlands and grasslands 
to lose their wildflowers and become impenetrable thorn thickets. 
Eroding soil silts our streams, ponds and wetlands. 
With the loss of natural systems comes the loss of public benefits. 
Without a healthy restored landscape, our metropolitan region
 will be dirtier, hotter, less safe and less attractive."

Processing rare seeds for woodland restoration. It will take tens of thousands of people many decades to accomplish the plan's goals. Those diverse people, if you believe this photo, include one with an orange jacket and no head. 
The vision statement of the Next Century Conservation Plan:


The people of Cook County will celebrate and nurture 
our thriving woodlands, prairies, and waters as world-class treasures 
that sustain our great metropolis. 

There's a lot to consider in the actual plan. Check out 
Stewards may find the "Technical report" (under the first tab, "The Plan") 
to be especially worth some thought.

Comments on this blog can also help the discussion.
Much education, listening, and support will be needed if this plan is to achieve its wise goals.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Plant Quests and Questions from 2013

These photos by Lisa Culp seemed worth
some reverence (and some thought) in the cold of winter.

Vestal Grove was home to little or no trout lily when we started. But we've thrown seed around, 
and once a plant's established it spreads underground dramatically. 

Hairy stargrass is another one that's hard to restore by seed, 
because the seed is so hard to get.
We've been raising hundreds in a garden, harvesting a little seed, 
but mostly digging and planting out garden-raised bulbs 
in widely scattered prairie, savanna, and woods areas. 
In a few measly years, if all goes well, each spot will be a patch.

The first little purple leaves of prairie betony are often the first spring color we see. Betony is now widespread, because the seeds are easy to gather, and the seeds do very well.
As the central buds unfold, large areas will be bright yellow.

Shooting star is in no rush. From seed, it takes a plant about ten years 
to grow big enough to bloom in the competition of the wild. When we started at Somme Prairie Grove we had only a few single plants. We've gathered some seed from each, but we let some blow around the parent plants. Now we have hundreds - widely scattered plants - 
and big patches where the first ones were. 

Of cream false indigo, we had none. We scattered seed found along railroad tracks. 
Now there are hundreds. These spread their own seed by rolling like tumble weeds when dry in fall.
(We also still pick and scatter a lot by hand, before the weevils can eat it all.)

A few plants of veiny wild pea showed up in our early surveys. Then we saw not a one for decades.
Deer eat it. Nor could we find seed from a single population within 15 miles, our first goal. 
Then in 2012, one plant showed itself where we'd been scything tall goldenrod. 
We put a cage on it, and in 2013 it was many stems needing many cages. Inspired and looking carefully, we found three more plants widely scattered. Now they all have cages.   

We have so many close-ups of the prairie white-fringed orchid.
Lisa decided to try to capture its relationship to the ecosystem. 

Characteristic of only the highest quality prairies, our few prairie lilies are still widely scattered. Every one came from seed gathered elsewhere and started for us by the Chicago Botanic Garden. 
We keep gathering seed and starting more. When there are enough to reproduce on their own, 
we'll have passed a very special milestone. 

Dr. Betz always told us that Leiberg's panic grass typifies the finest prairies.
This species has spread massively for us from the limited seed we've gathered. Its chocolate stamens and feathery pistils make gorgeous flowers, if you can appreciate the minute.

Is purple gerardia a natural plant for us, or not? Unlike slender gerardia, which we have by the thousands, this one has been absent, despite a bit of seed broadcast long ago. Lisa noticed just two plants blooming this year. Where did they come from? Very nice.

Wild plum flowers may be beautiful, but the fruits also have eye beauty (in addition to mouth beauty). 
Here in a tangle with grapes they remind us of how crucial mammals are to the savanna. 
Mammal disperse big seeds. Big fruits and nuts are designed for mammals. 

Of cardinal flower, we had very few, and mostly the deer ate them. We salvaged a few seeds 
and gave them to Bill Valentine who propagated them in his yard. 
Bill returned massive amounts of seed and now these beauties are plentiful in many areas. 
Plant fans - there's also an animal in this photo. See if you can find it. 

Another celebrity for us this year was rough white lettuce. 
We'd never seen it bloom at Somme Prairie Grove. But it wasn't a surprise this year, since we finally found nearby native seed and grew the corms for transplant. In this case, the seeds blow widely 
with the wind in their parachutes. It will be a treat to see where the new colonies appear.

Savanna blazing star is recognized by a) long stalks on the flower heads 
and b) flat, green leafy bracts. After much conservation work, 
this species may be ready to come off the Illinois threatened list.
Hint to plant fans: there's also an animal in this photo. Look carefully. 

When we started, we thought no black-soil fringed gentians survived within out 15-mile limit. 
So we made a deal with Dr. Betz, and Larry Hodak harvested 6 capsules 
from Markham Prairie. We paid back the seed with interest 
when nearly 200 plants thrived at Miami Prairie that very first year. 
Being annuals, they're vulnerable to difficult weather and over-abundant deer. 
Some years we've had none. Some years we've had thousands.

When I see a shot like this, I wish I was a pollinator. I want nectar. I want pollen.
Are the fringes just decoration? No, they're there to ward off pilfering ants.
Only welcome here are flying insects that spread the genes from plant to plant.

We hate to see the prairie gentian, because it's our last flower of the fall. 
We love to see it because that color is so achingly deep. 
Except when warm sunniness inspires the pollinators to fly, this gentian twists to close up tight. 
Bottle gentian never opens at all. Only bumblebees are strong enough to get inside and pollinate.
Gentians protect themselves from crawling bugs, perhaps just too numerous by late fall.
Over evolutionary time, three gentian species came up with three solutions.
Is there more to learn about this?

Thanks, Lisa, for another year's worth of treasures to love and ponder.