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.