Windy City Wilderness
In the shadows of
Armed with a flashlight and a tape recorder, Sue Sullivan slogs through a dense oak-hickory forest, trying to ignore the damp rain on this chilly spring night. Nervous yet resolute, Sullivan hikes on until she reaches the edge of a marsh, where she stands silently, waiting for "the big capture." Ten minutes later, it happens: A chorus of frogs erupts in a full-throated symphony, and Sullivan feverishly begins jotting down names and numbers in her notebook. During the next two hours she visits a pond, a creek, and an ephemeral pool, recording the calls of the western chorus frog and the northern leopard frog, before wrapping up at about 11 p.m. In no time, Sullivan and her boyfriend, Neil Timlin, backtrack out of the lush, 115-acre Flint Creek Savanna, in Barrington, Illinois, a leafy suburb about 25 miles outside of Chicago. Her mission complete--at least for tonight--Sullivan hops in her car and heads toward home, about 15 minutes away. After all, she has to be up early the next morning for the daily commute to her office on the outskirts of Chicago, where she works as a computer programmer.
One of 375 volunteer frog monitors for Chicago Audubon's Habitat Project, Sullivan is part of a growing cadre of "citizen scientists," who, as part of a wide-ranging conservation plan, are fanning out across metropolitan Chicago to survey the area's native species.
The plan's overall aim--embraced by a consortium of 130 public agencies and private organizations under the umbrella term Chicago Wilderness--is to preserve and restore natural ecological communities and native species in some of the largest surviving woodlands, wetlands, and prairies in heavily populated parts of the Midwest.
Launched in 1996, the collaborative venture has since grown into a diverse alliance whose participants run from Audubon and other conservation groups to the U.S. Forest Service and the Chicago Academy of Sciences to the Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission. Despite the name "Chicago Wilderness"--it refers to both the massive initiative and the participating organizations--many of the "wild" pockets exist almost in the shadows of Chicago's skyscrapers, amid a sprawling population of 8 million people.
Chicago Wilderness relies heavily on programs like the Habitat Project and on volunteers like Sue Sullivan. Audubon trains these citizen scientists--from carpenters to schoolteachers to stockbrokers--in workshops to collect data that will be used in the restoration of the remnant oak forests, prairies, and wetlands that ring the greater Chicago area. In the past year, 857 people have participated in various citizen-science projects for Audubon, ranging from monitoring frogs and butterflies to studying the habitats of migratory birds. Volunteers are encouraged to pursue their particular interests within ongoing projects. Sullivan, for example, has been hooked on frogs since the age of six, when her mother taught her how to catch them during a family vacation in Wisconsin. "Some people are dog people," she says with a laugh. "But ever since I was a little girl, I've been a frog person."
Sullivan started preparing for her night with the frogs at an Audubon training session a month earlier. "They gave us a tape of the common frog calls, and I listened to them a lot--at home and in the car. I got to where I knew them pretty well, but some calls were easier than others. So we were instructed to bring a recorder and a blank tape with us in case we had a problem with identification."
The data generated by Audubon's citizen scientists is turned over to ecologists and land managers for habitat-restoration plans in places like Flint Creek Savanna. Their findings are also now being passed on to state and federal officials, who, in turn, are using them to develop long-term plans for metropolitan Chicago. Habitat Project surveys are examined by land managers and scientists monitoring indigenous plants and animals at specific locations.
The irony of restoring nature within sight of the Sears Tower isn't lost on Stephen Packard, director of Chicago Audubon and coordinator of the Habitat Project. "It's true that all this so-called wilderness is within a heavily urban and suburban core," he says. "But the term in this context refers to the natural communities that extend into parts of Wisconsin, Indiana, and the six-county Chicago region, and that have existed here for thousands of years."
Totaling more than 200,000 acres, the "wilderness" in Chicago comprises an unlikely archipelago of formally protected land, including a number of forest preserves--some as small as a few acres--and other considerably larger preserves, such as the 19,000-acre Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, in Joliet, Illinois.
The preserves were created by the city's early leaders. In 1909 the Plan for Chicago, or the Burnham Plan, as it's often called, proposed a network of natural areas to be protected as public land; these areas became the forest-preserve system in Cook and neighboring counties. The mixed landscape supports a rare convergence of major biomes, from tallgrass prairies to marshes and oak woodlands.
And yet for all its richness, the landscape is losing its native biodiversity at an alarming rate. Some species, like the prairie chicken and the regal fritillary butterfly, have disappeared from the region altogether. Others, such as the black tern and the rare Kirtland's snake, are found in isolated patches that carry small numbers. A combination of development, overgrazing, and agricultural row crops has left the land in need of serious repair. A primary concern is the rapid spread of invasive species, which are crowding out the natives and pushing a historically diverse ecosystem toward a sterile homogeneity. Chicago Wilderness proposes to save what remains of the degraded habitat through active stewardship rather than by taking the more traditional hands-off approach. "Simply letting nature take its course will not work," says John Rogner, field supervisor of the Chicago field office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which belongs to the Chicago Wilderness consortium. "We're talking about 200,000 acres in an urban matrix of 6 million acres. If these presettlement natural communities are to survive, they need our help."
At the Somme Prairie Grove, a recovering oak savanna 30 minutes north of Chicago, help is already on the way. Braving a cold, relentless drizzle, Packard and 15 volunteers are raking and seeding a muddy patch of land, which they had earlier cleared of European buckthorn. All of them could be doing something less gritty on this Sunday morning. But Packard, an ardent champion of the discipline known as restoration ecology, is obviously in his element. "What we're doing is an example of citizen science at work," he explains, grabbing a handful of seeds and spreading them so others can rake them into the soil. "As restorationists, we're using the data gathered by volunteers to help figure out which seeds we should use here." Leaning against the trunk of a white oak are clear plastic bags, each of which contains seeds of 50 to 100 different species; each mixture is ideally suited to a specific environment--wet prairie, dry prairie, pond, oak savanna, or woodland opening. Restoration ecology's essential aim is to restore an ecosystem's native biodiversity and natural processes. In this case, by replanting the prairie's native seeds and reintroducing fire--which had been suppressed for decades--Packard's group is setting the stage for the land's rebirth. "Next summer," he says proudly, "we'll see prairie grasses and flowers, meadow parsnip, hoary puccoon, and purple milkweed."
At a far corner of one of Somme Prairie Grove's restoration sites, Stuart Goldman is doing his part to repair the prairie, weed by weed. Goldman, on his hands and knees, is pulling patches of invasive garlic mustard from the wet earth. Garlic mustard, light green with heart-shaped leaves, is easily recognizable, but the trick is to grab each plant down at its base, so that the whole root system comes out with one pull. Two years ago Goldman got hooked on the environment during his first outing at Somme Prairie Grove. "After a half day of cutting brush and pulling weeds, I was utterly exhausted and utterly exhilarated," he recalls. Today, in addition to his volunteer activities with Audubon, Goldman works as a naturalist's aide for the Forest Preserve District of Cook County.
In applying the methods of restoration ecology, Packard sees the emergence of citizen science as crucial to the rehabilitation and management of natural landscapes--especially those that dot an ever-growing Chicago metropolis. "The key," Packard says, "is helping people become active guardians and stewards of their natural heritage."
Ultimately, he envisions the region's population providing the workforce for the job of ecological management. "If there are people out there who care about the land and keep an eye on it, then it's going to last from generation to generation," he says.
Using the data collected by citizen scientists, this goal is well on its way to being achieved at several other preserves under the Chicago Wilderness umbrella. In 2000, volunteers worked year-round at sites from Chiwaukee Prairie, in southern Wisconsin, to the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. The restorationists removed smothering invasives, helped set controlled spring burns, and sowed the seeds of native plants. A healthy prairie, Packard says, should be home to hundreds of plant species as well as thousands of species of birds, mammals, reptiles, insects, mites, fungi, and bacteria.
While Packard's army of citizen scientists and restorationists are clearly making their mark in the Midwest, other members of Chicago Wilderness say the initiative is attracting attention well beyond the region. George Rabb, the director of the Brookfield Zoo and president of the Chicago Zoological Society, has been fielding inquiries about the conservation plan and its novel implementation from environmental officials in such far-flung places as Prague, New York, and the Hawaiian island of Oahu. Debby Moskovits, the director of environmental and conservation programs at Chicago's Field Museum, another member of Chicago Wilderness, is advising on a similar project, called Condomínio da Biodiversidade, in Curitiba, a Brazilian city of 3 million people. "Condomínio," Moskovits says, "is fighting to save remnants of the Curitiba region's Atlantic forest, and we are doing what we can to help."
Back at the Somme Prairie Grove, Goldman picks up his rake and joins the other volunteers, who are admiring the immense trunk of a fallen bur oak. Packard estimates the tree's age at 275 years, old enough to have been around when herds of buffalo and 14 Indian tribes, among them the Potowatomis, roamed what were then vast prairies and woods. Though guided by the land's rich history, Packard remains focused on its precarious future. "None of this will survive if people don't take care of it," he cautions. "The beauty and richness of the entire prairie ecosystem is crying out to be preserved. Every prairie bird, every prairie butterfly, is dependent on us. Restoring 200,000 acres is a daunting challenge. But with the help of committed volunteers, we can do it. In fact, we are already doing it."
James Campbell lives in Wisconsin with his family near the Ice Age National Scenic Trail, where oak savanna and prairie remnants are still found. He has written for Men's Journal, National Geographic Adventure, and Backpacker.