Sunday, June 25, 2017

TED Talk (all secrets revealed) Part 1

On May 20, 2017, I gave a TED talk that lasted just shy of the 18 minutes allowed.
That talk can be seen at:
The talk introduced an optimistic community of eco-stewards.
Trying to fit the story into TED format, I was shocked by how much needed to be glossed over.
Below is some of the best stuff that was left out.

This post - "Part 1" - covers the first 22 slides of this 80-slide talk.
Under the photos in bold, are my approved TED words - that I was asked to memorize. (If you check the talk, you'll find that I flubbed many of them.)  
Underneath the bold are additions, clarifications, tidbits, apologies, etc. in regular text.
On August 6, 1977, a dozen of us newly authorized volunteer stewards
gathered our first rare seed. 
For months I had been begging for permission to start restoring some little gems of degraded prairies in the Forest Preserves of Cook County. Initially the staff said - no.

I had read a little book/essay by Professor Robert Betz where he briefly described the prairie's plight, needs, and some "how to". I gave speeches and tours of these little gems. Many people wrote letters supporting the idea. Finally, a phone call authorized us to go ahead. For our first "workday" - we gathered rare prairie seeds on a semi-abandoned military installation, adjacent to Somme Prairie.
We might have looked kind of random.
But decades later, books would record
that we helped launch a community with a mission
that would that would have its influence from coast to coast, and across continents.
For our second "workday" on August 13th, (which I suspect may be what's shown in the photo above), we planted those seeds in the three struggling "prairies" that were now under our care. We also pulled some weeds. We were off to a start.

Does "coast to coast, and across continents" (in bold, above) seem like self-puffery? Others claimed it to be true, once the New York Times, TV specials, etc. picked up our story. There will be more specifics below, of what we did and didn't accomplish.

We initially called ourselves the North Branch Prairie Project. The dozen people who rose to the occasion that first day were reached by the 2.5-minute announcement I bargained to be permitted to deliver at a Sierra Club meeting. (I had begged for 5 minutes.) In the early years, we were just the handful of people who showed up weekly to work. But that would change - as the science developed - and we got our message right.
In time, the seeds we gathered and planted came
to symbolize something new about this planet:
we hold the future of its ecosystems in our hands. 
The photo above shows the Orland Grassland Volunteers (one of a long list of groups that we helped launch) planting handfuls of seed. We on the North Branch in 1977 weren't the first people to cut brush from prairies or plant seeds in nature. But we were doing it on high-profile public land. And we worked in a media center (Chicago). We began contributing to an advancing popular culture. Also, we were inventive - and began helping advance new science.

By the mid eighties, hundreds of prairies, woodlands, and wetlands would have groups of stewards doing what the North Branch folks had pioneered. We helped launch new initiatives in California, Massachusetts, Florida, Alaska, and many places in between. (The "across continents" part would come later.)
We now know that the natural richness
of an ancient prairie Nature Preserve
like this one at Somme – without skilled care …
This is a high-quality original prairie - unplowed since the last glacier. But when we first saw it, invasive brush had blotted much of it out. For millennia it had depended on fires set by lightning and Native-Americans. When our fire departments stopped the fires, brush began to shade out and kill the prairie's many hundreds of plant and animal species. The most visible species in the photo above are smooth phlox (magenta), prairie dock (big leaves), and black-eyed Susan (yellow with black eyes). Blooming earlier, or later, in a space the size of this photo, are thirty or forty rare species, competing with and interdependent on each other.

… would get blotted out and replaced entirely, by invasive brush.    

The pathetic photo above is what's left of a fine original prairie. Fire had been withheld for so long that there was nothing left but buckthorn. This prairie had been prized by scientists - and strategized about by officials of the Forest Preserve District that owned it. But no one stopped its slide into invasive chaos. Back when the progressive degradation was noticed and provoked concern, officials seemed to think that irresistible natural forces were at work. Fire was considered by forest preserve staff (and most of the scientific community) to be bad for nature. 

Or, to look from a little more hopeful angle, this invasive-choked woods,
thanks to years of good work by generous stewards, could be and was …
The typical oak woodland of the Somme preserves looked like the above when we started - so dark from brush that few animal or plant species survived. The photo below shows how this kind of woods looks after decades of stewardship (burning, invasives control, and the scattering of hundreds of species of rare, local seed). It now more closely approximates what most ecologists believe it had looked like when it had the richness and diversity of ancient nature.

… restored with the diverse plants and animals that for eons constituted oak woods biodiversity, its ecosystem services, and its very “nature.” 
Here bur and scarlet oak and shagbark hickory trees have a shrub understory of hazelnut, plum, blackberries, and raspberries. The most obvious wildflowers in bloom are Joe-Pye-weed (purple) and woodland sunflower (yellow). Not obvious in this photo, these taller species are mixed on this site with more than 400 other uncommon or rare wildflowers and grasses.

Here, the TED talk sticks with this slide as I summarize the beginnings of the Volunteer Stewardship Network, sponsored by the Illinois Nature Conservancy and Illinois Nature Preserves Commission. I said:

"Six years after we began our mission, politics eliminated the entire budget of the Illinois Nature Preserves System. (Director George Fell and staff were fired in August 1982 because Fell wouldn't play ball with the bureaucrats and politicians.) Suddenly without staff to protect approximately 100 important preserves, the commissioners asked us to organize a volunteer program. Within a year, little fellowships like the one at Somme were protecting more than 60 preserves. These communities sprang up like mushrooms, because some people cared a lot.

"For example, recent college graduate John Sheerin signed up to be steward of a thousand-acre preserve southwest of Chicago. He requested $100 for tools. We offered 50 – if he could raise a match. John organized a fund-raiser beer party in his parents’ basement. He raised his match, and now, with 100 bucks and momentum, he asked the forest preserve to match that. They bought him $200 worth of tools, and let him keep his initial 100 for gloves, newsletter and other start-up costs. This is entrepreneurial America.

"Jean Farwell volunteered for McCormick Ravine in Lake Forest. A long-standing problem there had been massive garbage dumping. Jean quickly got the village to clean it up. We asked, “After all these years, how’d you convince them?” She replied, “My husband’s the mayor.” This is the suburbs. 

"John and Jane Balaban volunteered for Bunker Hill Savanna in Chicago. Though most sites gradually got approval for trained teams to conduct the controlled burns the sites needed, the City of Chicago approved no burn permits, despite years of official requests. But John Balaban taught at St. Ignatius College Prep. Frustrated with the bureaucracy, John talked to one of the Jesuits, who happened to have a brother, who was a chief in the Chicago Fire Department, and we had that permit the next week.  This is Chicago."

Thus the Volunteer Stewardship Network was born.

Soon, we volunteers were being coached and inspired by some of
the region’s most-respected ecosystem scientists and creative conservation officials.
Prairie expert, Prof. Robert F. Betz (beard), had inspired many to "catch prairie fever" and become prairie advocates and restoration volunteers. Roland Eisenbeis, forest preserve Superintendent of Conservation (with the pipe in his mouth) recognized that his agency was failing its prairies. He made a courageous gamble on what volunteers might be able to do. But others on his staff sometimes worked to sabotage us.

The photo above shows a meeting called by Eisenbeis after the Maintenance Department (a supervisor of which stands, back to the camera, in the foreground, above) unexpectedly mowed all the prairies we were restoring (and Eisenbeis had committed to protect) in 1978. Also in this photo are the Chief Forester (obscured, right) and me, taking notes, on the left.

We cut invasive brush, we pulled aggressive weeds
and safely conducted controlled burns.
We learned from the best experts, and we learned by doing. The initially trained leaders quickly taught other volunteers how to recognize and cut invasive buckthorn - and how to pull invasive white sweet clover. As people learned more, they could do more. Some volunteers became more expert than most staff in the park and forest preserve agencies that owned most of the "protected" (but neglected) preserves.

For years, well qualified and supervised volunteer teams conducted much of the region's ecological burning over eight counties. No fire ever got out of control or did damage to any adjacent property (not through fire, smoke, nor any other impact). We may not have worn what are now considered proper uniforms, nor did we have advanced equipment. But we were smart and careful.

A new avocation, a new profession, and a new community began to take shape.

In time, many brush patches that had looked like this …    
Most surviving grasslands and oak woods went through decades when they were grazed by farm animals. Most species survived the grazing, when it wasn't too severe, but were then wiped out by invasives, ironically, when conservation agencies bought the land and "left it to natural processes." In the absence of natural fire - trees and shrubs (alien and 'native') killed off the understory.

… became natural prairies once again. We volunteer stewards became known
for public lands ecosystem restoration. Press coverage was great.
People in surrounding states (and soon countries) sought our support and guidance. Some of us were hired by conservation agencies to head up new programs.
But there would never be remotely enough paid folks
to do all the needed work – with all the needed care
The diverse grassland in this photo grows where we first found brush. Seeds of hundreds of species had been gathered, prepped for planting, and thrown to the wind here for many years. And the whole site was burned every couple of years - for decades - before rich biodiversity like this triumphed over common weeds.

Many volunteers learned a lot, made names for themselves, and were hired into this growing profession.

Many others preferred to "keep their day jobs" and do this work as an inspiring and peaceful hobby or avocation.

I chose the place we now call Somme Prairie Grove as the preserve
where I’d be volunteer steward. 
I was Illinois Nature Conservancy's Director of Science and Stewardship, which required me to spend most of my time on hundreds of other important natural areas. I often felt like a "bad parent" - as "my site" was neglected on the basis of more general challenges (budgets, staffing, regulations, media, etc. etc.).

But whenever I could get free, I was at Somme, pulling invasive weeds, gathering seeds, noticing failures and successes, struggling with off-road-vehicle challenges and development proposals, trying to figure out many levels of priorities, and empowering other volunteers to join the team. It was an important relationship to me.

At Somme, we did some good – learned some lessons – and were credited
with some discoveries. We thought we were restoring prairie. Some experts
encouraged us to cut back all the trees, to expand the precious prairie
to a more sustainable size. But, as we cut, we found scattered oaks –
and rare non-prairie plants and animals. We began to suspect that we were
uncovering a poorly understood and even more endangered ecosystem –
the oak savanna.  In time, research at Somme and many sites confirmed
our suspicions. This was really fun – kind of like eco-archeology,
or finding grimy Rembrandts at garage sales.
At first, the site was called "Somme Woods Prairie." In time, we came to know that it was something else. This work is experimental. We need to be constantly testing and learning. I and others started to realize that by limiting our conservation vision to prairies and woods, we were missing an important element. The oak savanna is a fire-dependent grassland with scattered and clumped trees. As we experimented with how to manage and understand it, we reached out to other people struggling with the same questions and organized North America's first "savanna conference" drawing pretty much all the experts that existed. Soon, federal and state agencies and conservation organizations were re-writing their standards and manuals and revising their priorities.

Now – not just prairies - but savannas and woodlands
that had been choked with buckthorn …
These old bur oaks once stood in the open with buffalo and elk underneath. Passenger pigeons ate their acorns and nested in their branches. Native Americans for millennia ignited fires here. Before the arrival of people, a few thousand years ago, this community had evolved with fire, without people, for millions of years. Now its species and genetic richness are being rapidly lost. If we had started this work a few decades earlier, we could have saved so much more. If we had waited a few decades longer, there would have been little left to save.

... began to regain their richness and health.    
This photo shows restoration success. But most the diverse plant species are hidden behind or below the few most common one in bloom when this photo was taken. As for the animals, see below.

The hundreds of species of formerly-vanishing plants now, once again, support thousands of species of animals that are rare or uncommon in the modern landscape.    
Fifty years ago, suburban and rural kids grew up with salamanders, frogs, snakes, and now-rare wildflowers everywhere. Now most areas have lost that nature due to chemicals, alien species, and miscellaneous degenerative processes. At Somme, some species that were barely hanging on in odd corners are now numerous and thriving once again.

Most of those thousands are insects.   
Example, when entomologist Dr. Ron Panzer studied Somme in the early eighties, he suggested that little of the savanna survived, in part because he failed to find savanna indicator species like the Edward's hairstreak butterfly. When Dr. Panzer repeated his survey after a few years of brush cutting and burning, he found many hairstreak species, with the Edward's being the commonest.

But many are species that the average visitor would be inspired by. 
For example, before we started ...  
The scarlet tanager thrives in open oak woodlands. When we started our restoration of Somme Woods (the part of the Somme preserves east of Waukegan Road), no tanagers could be found there. In fact, when we begged a well-respected birder to start monitoring, he checked the site out and (kind of angrily) complained that we had wasted his time. "What's the point of monitoring when there are no birds there?!" he said. But a mere two decades later, multiple pairs of tanagers nest there every year. Indeed many species have returned, with just a few examples shown here.

... none of these birds built their nests or raised their young in the deteriorating Somme Woods.    
Indigo bunting, male.

Indigo bunting, female carrying material for nest.

Eastern bluebird. This bird was so common in open woodlands, orchards, and around homes - decades ago - that it became the state bird for many states. It's much less common now - but breeds annually in both Somme Prairie Grove and Somme Woods.

Now – year after year – all of them do.
Hummingbirds nest in trees - but spend much of their time eating insects and drinking nectar from flowers. Thus, in nature, they need the mix of trees and flowers that characterize burned oak systems. Unlike the slow-dispersal of most frogs, snakes, plants, and even most insects, migratory birds will find good habitat if it's restored.

This concludes notes on the first quarter of the TED talk (22 slides of 80). Part 2 should be ready in a week. Thanks for your interest.

More technical notes on this same talk are at

Photo credits:
Lisa Culp Musgrave took all those outstanding bird, dragonfly, and salamander photos.
Larry Hodak took the photo of Betz, Eisenbeis, etc. mentoring us.
Gloria Fountain took the photo of the "Somme Prairie Grove" sign and people.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Thanks for this great summary of the early years of the North Branch in this post, the TED talk, and the woods and prairie post. So important to record this history! A great read.