Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Chicago Wilderness: Work of the Science Team

These were my introductory remarks at a recent session at the Society For Ecological Restoration meeting in Madison, WI, on recent scientific research in the CW region.

Let me start this session with a vignette of Chicago from a couple of centuries ago – mainly to remind us how recent are the losses of the wild Midwest landscapes.

On August 19th 1833, that is 180 years ago, Colonel Colbee Chamberlain Benton (1805-1880) left Chicago with Louis Ouilmette, a young man of French and Potawatomi heritage, to inform local Indian tribes that their delayed federal annuities would be paid in September of that year.  At that time the white settler population was little more than 150 people.  A few years later in 1837 Chicago was chartered as a city after which growth was explosive.

On the night of August 24th the pair of travelers passed through some oak groves and arrived at a small stream in a little prairie in Southeast Wisconsin and they camped there for the night.  As night fell they heard Indians around their camp.

Benton didn’t sleep.  However, even if they had been “in danger of suffering from the power of… the tomahawk and scalping knives” it was not fear that kept him awake.  He remarked, in fact, there was something about his circumstances “so novel and romantic….that it dispelled every fear…”
So what kept Benton from his sleep?  It was the noise!  Some of the noise certainly may have emanated from the Indians who “mocked almost every wild animal.”  But also there were a loud wild chorus: unfamiliar birds called, as well as foxes and raccoons.  In the distance, wolves howled and the owls hooted in concert with the wolves.  The mosquitoes added their part to “the music”.  A sleepless, noisy, vaguely threatening night, and yet Benton declared that never before had he “passed a night so interestingly and so pleasantly…”
I tell this story, not to depress us, though it may indeed make us melancholy to contemplate the loss, but rather to allow us celebrate the work of a many many people in the Chicago region in recent decades who worked then, and work now, to arrest the degradation of our remaining wildlands, and to restore those systems where and when we can.

Many of these people and the organizations they represent have coalesced over the past decade and a half in the Chicago Wilderness coalition.  The term CW refers both 360,000 acres of protected natural lands in the tristate region surrounding Chicago……but the term also refers to the partners in the coalition – starting with 40 institutional members or so in 1996… but growing to 240 + institutional members in 2012.  I believe we just stopped counting!

The biodiversity goals of the coalition were stated in the Biodiversity Recovery Plan, a foundational document for the coalition, as follows: “To protect the natural communities of the Chicago region and to restore them to long-term viability, in order to enrich the quality of life of its citizens and to contribute to the preservation of global biodiversity.” Note that the goals are both ecological and social and the aspirations are global.

A major metropolitan environment might seem on first inspection an unlikely place to support a conservation project with global aspirations.  Yet in the early development of the Chicago sufficient land of a sort that Colonel Benton and Ouilmette witnessed, was set aside adjacent to and sometimes within the city so that, oddly perhaps, some of the areas of greatest favorability to T+E species are found close to downtown, more so that in the rest of the state.

Although considerable land is set aside nonetheless the health of this land is considerably challenged.  A few years ago expert panels in CW documented the status and changes in CW ecosystems which was then published as a report card.

The results are troubling.  My kids would have had to come up with some impressive excuses to explain these ones away. Our streams make an encouraging C- though!

We now have considerable insight into environmental factors driving the erosion of ecological quality: many of these being the usual suspects: hydrological changes, fragmentation, altered fire regimes, invasive species and so forth.

Chicago Wilderness works to achieve regional impact through four initiatives: Climate Change, Leave No Child inside, Greening Infrastructure and Restoring Nature.

All speakers today contribute to the work of the Chicago Wilderness science team. We are tasked with providing scientifically sound input to assist decision-makers in devising policy and action concerning the protection, acquisition, restoration, and management of natural areas.

We have also been developing research agendas identified those empirical unknowns that needed to be understood on the short to medium time scale in order to remove impediments to CW achieving its long term goals.

Over the past 5 years we have developed a network of sites for long-term observation on biodiversity outcome – we call this “100 sites for 100 years” (recognizing that this terrifies our funders!).  Secondly we have been investigating the institutional context for decision making processes in the CW region, attempting to find ways of linking our social and ecological research so that we can envision the region as a coupled natural ecological system.  We have also been investigating patterns of stewardship in the region.
Today we present summaries on many of our research initiatives.


  1. Very good introduction. I hope the other contributors also spoke about the future and the approaches we need. As you know I have many reservations on the often times closed process, as a small entity I find it extremely difficult to get my work to the table. I feel there are certain gatekeepers that place their personal careers above the rest. I have suggested in the past and do so again now that CW needs to have an event where everyone can contribute their concepts and thoughts. I suggested this six years ago to the Sustainability Team without getting a response. Perhaps an exhibition with the help of institutions such as the Field Museum and Chicago Cultural Center. An open event that allows full expression of possibilities without the selective process of those that now pull the strings.

  2. We have an event scheduled for Nov where it's essentially an open mic opportunity for regional scientists. More details to come.