Monday, January 12, 2015

The Grand Narrative of Planetary Restoration

an outline for a book or video

Episode 1. The Earth forms. Moving continents, life and mass extinctions, botanical marvels, and the tenderness of animal mothers. Gradually our story focuses on what will become a special place. 12,000 years ago, by the side of Glacial Lake Chicago, wooly mammoths, musk oxen, and saber-tooth cats pursue their frosty-breathed and unruly lives. But the planet warms, the musk oxen move north, and Jefferson’s mammoths, long-horned bison, and other prairie creatures re-invade from the southeast and southwest. Grasslands and oak woodlands form, as they have, moving around the continent in response to climate, for 5M years. But these lands are about to incorporate unexpected newcomers.

Episode 2. Native American humans arrive from Asia. As they do, the mammoth, mastodon, long-horned bison, short-faced bear, camel, and giant ground sloth vanish into the mist. Now from Asia also come: grizzly bear, elk, and wolves. Though the prairies and woods have burned for millions of years, ignition by lightning is now largely replaced by purposeful burning (to manage plants for medicine and food, to hunt, for protection, and for war). Much of the time, people find life is good. This ecologically richest landscape of the temperate world is a mosaic of woodlands, prairies, wetlands, orchids, passenger pigeons, Carolina parakeets, and white-tailed deer.

Episode 3. Europeans invade across the Atlantic, bringing disease that kills 90% of the native people. Reduced hunting and consumption for a while makes space for invasion by the plains bison (never before part of our tallgrass prairie). As Europeans grab land, tribes fight tribes for what's left, the mighty Illiniwek (with their towns of wooden houses) fall to more flexible (and fierce) hunter-gatherers. The tenderness of human mothers sometimes clashes with the harshness of fathers. Some visionary people (Tecumseh, Abraham Lincoln, Jane Addams) imagine better worlds.

Episode 4. As the last Sac, Fox, and Potawatomi retreat north and west, European Americans develop a family farm economy over nearly every acre of the former tallgrass prairie, oak savanna, and woodland. On the edge of the cold lake, a metropolis emerges through commerce in the nature – exhausting first wildlife, then trees, even gradually depleting the rich soil itself. Yet for many new citizens, refugees from stress and misery, life gradually improved.

Episode 5. Jens Jensen, fleeing European wars (and authority), has a vision worthy of the “New World.” The Committee on the Universe (Dwight Perkins, Jane Addams, Frank Lloyd Wright, and others) think up new elements of culture, including the idea of saving natural landscapes and playgrounds as a part of nature’s metropolis. Friends of the Native Landscape and the Prairie Club form to campaign for the new vision. 15 years of legal and social battles lead finally to victory as the world’s first metropolitan Forest Preserve is born. Its charter:
“ … to acquire and hold land for the purpose of protecting and preserving the flora, fauna, and scenic beauties within such district and to restore and 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, for the purpose of the education, pleasure and recreation of the public.”

Episode 6. People search for the most rich and beautiful land, and the Forest Preserve District buys it. People work to maintain nature traditions from the Native Americans, European American farmers, and the customs of immigrants. Preserve managers plant trees, mow scenic meadows, hold festivals. Cap Sauers rescues the institution from corruption and makes peace with the politicians. He helps George Fell found the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission. The District dedicates 11 of the state’s first twelve nature preserves including Shoe Factory Road Prairie, Busse Woods, Cranberry Slough, and the compellingly named Thornton-Lansing Road Nature Preserve (a complex of savanna, prairie, wetland, and woodland).

Episode 7. Henry Cowles of the University of Chicago, studying Lake Michigan dunes, develops the concept of the ecosystem. Roberts Mann (FPD staff leader) and Aldo Leopold (University of Wisconsin) teach, write papers, and exchange correspondence about what forest preserves can be. “Mushroom Fests” appeal to middle-European foragers. Performances, pageants, dances, and picnics draw millions of people to the preserves (on their one day off each week). The FPD explores restoration of deer, turkeys, and prairie chickens. May Theilgaard Watts writes “Reading the Landscape” to engage people with local prairies, ravines, bogs, and nature generally. Learning that the ‘Chicago vision’ is lacking elsewhere, she then writes “Reading the Landscape of America” and later “… of Europe.” But imperceptibly, much of what’s appreciated in the forest preserves is slipping away.

Episode 8. Leopold and other University of Wisconsin biologists invent prairie restoration – the world’s first ‘ecosystem medicine.’ Dr. Robert Betz a biochemist at Northeastern Illinois University in his free time wages a personal campaign to discover, preserve, and restore the region’s remnant prairies. Betz, Ray Schulenburg (Morton Arboretum) and Dot and Doug Wade (NIU) educate scores of activist volunteers who hold conferences and look for prairie conservation opportunities. George Fell, founder of The Nature Conservancy (not-for-profit) and Illinois Nature Preserves Commission (government), help launch another planetary first, the Illinois Natural Areas Inventory, which searches the entire state and finds 610 surviving “natural areas” – pitifully representing only 7/100th of 1% of the state.

Episode 9. Inspired by Betz and Fell, a group of volunteers wins approval to restore vanishing prairies on public land. The North Branch Restoration Project engages scores of neighbors in the mission (with the spirit of ‘the sixties’ and emerging environmentalism). Rare and endangered plants and animals respond with drama and beauty. Betz spurs them on, saying that “people like you and me need to act on the ideas that the ‘properly educated’ academics can’t have.” “Unproven” ideas start to save what’s been vanishing so fast. After a mere decade of hard work and stunning successes, the group is widely celebrated as the first community for ecosystem restoration on public conservation land. First acres, then tens of acres, then hundreds recover biodiversity.

Episode 10. The drama proceeds with many reversals. George Fell and his entire staff are fired by Illinois. Too non-compromising. With nowhere else to turn, the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission reluctantly approves a volunteer program modeled after the North Branch Prairie Project for the state’s nature preserves. The Nature Conservancy hires the former INPC field staff and develops the Volunteer Stewardship Network into a national and international model. Power grows, and with it, foes. Fifteen years into the ‘experiment’ the press and many public officials turn on the program, and the Conservancy pulls out – but that drama will mostly have to wait until Episode 12.

Episode 11. While restoration for prairies is increasingly expert, the region’s oak savannas and woodlands continue to degrade as the prairies once did. To get approval to burn the forests means fighting decades of misleading education. A rough consensus slowly emerges that forests and wetlands too desperately need restoration to cope with modern stresses if their species are to survive. Trained expert volunteers cut great swaths of invasive brush and provide much needed controlled burns to more than 100 prairies, woodlands, and wetlands in the greater Chicago region. Conservation agencies begin hiring restoration staff. Some volunteers launch entrepreneurial companies to satisfy increasing demand for ‘ecosystem medics.’

Episode 12. The new conservation community (paid and volunteer stewards) becomes increasingly numerous, sophisticated, and respected. But the traditional supporters of forest preserves have faded. Preserve land is appropriated by politicians for garbage dumps, a sports stadium, and, if a powerful pol has his way, a neon-lighted gambling casino. Most stewards had tried to stay out of politics, but the casino was too much. Recognizing the need for broader public support and to engage the region’s powerful cultural and scientific institutions, the Nature Conservancy launches “Chicago Wilderness” – a campaign to gain resources and recognition (with tens, then hundreds of organizational partners). Just as Chicago Wilderness is launched, a ferocious media campaign attacks the Conservancy, many individual stewards, and Forest Preserve conservation staff. DuPage, Lake, and Cook Counties take the most heat. Cook FPD President John Stroger declares a “moratorium” that ends all forms or restoration (and even litter clean-up and kids educational activities) at the District’s natural areas. A similar moratorium in DuPage County lasts for months, but in Cook it drags on for years because of obscure politics.

Episode 13. Hoping for an organizational home with reputation for both good conservation science and committed advocacy, steward seek support less from the Nature Conservancy and more from the National Audubon Society. Soon Audubon is hiring the interns, sponsoring the educational conferences, and recruiting the new volunteer groups. For some years, Audubon houses Chicago Wilderness Magazine and the new Friends of the Forest Preserves. Building support from the ground up, stewards gradually resume their ‘controversial’ work: cutting trees, culling deer (professionals only), applying herbicide (as regulated by a special Illinois program), and controlled burns. The new projects span thousands of acres.

Episode 14. This episode predicts the next few decades in Chicago Wilderness. The Cook County Forest Preserves board and Great Foundations decide to fund the Next Century Plan (approved in 2014): 30,000 acres to be restored to high quality, millions of people engaged in nature, 400 volunteer stewards empowered, and much more. Not that we can truly predict even a few years ahead – but we start thinking generations ahead. We are humans; we can do it. Just as people have developed passionate interest in dancing – sports – cars – gardening: so now in their free time citizen-scientist stewards work closely (and distantly) with professionals to develop dramatic advances in sustainable living, solutions to pollution, climate change, and other as-yet-unexpected challenges. Chicago becomes a “Silicon Valley” for ecosystem restoration on larger and larger scales.

Episode 15. “Natural disasters” in the year 2050 force humanity finally to face the fact that it has just two choices: One – take planetary health seriously and devote a level of resources formerly devoted only to war. Or two – accept that most life on the planet including us will soon spiral out of existence. You’ll be glad to know that, with ferocious commitment, creativity, and a bit of good luck, the planet is rescued. We thank ecosystem medicine that started with “A Land Ethic” and “to restore, restock, preserve and protect.” Because there was never enough money to do the quirky science that leads to fundamental breakthroughs, “classic unfunded science pioneers” make some of the key discoveries. Yes, true, the professional scientists, government workers, and entrepreneurs contribute much – partly because of increased demand and resources (ultimately coming from the community of stewards and earth-lovers). The Chicago conservationists play a major role in saving the planet because of politics/community/resources and inspired individuals among the professionals, citizen scientists, and artists who pull it all together.