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1993 Proceedings of the Midwest Oak Savanna Conferences

1993 Proceedings of the Midwest Oak Savanna Conferences


Bob Carter
Poplar Creek Prairie Stewards
410 Audubon Road
Streamwood, IL 60107 
Tel: (708) 289-8040

Interpreters, professional and volunteer alike, historically have concentrated on the natural and cultural features of the sites with which they are concerned. Often, the interpretation of restoration activities is incidental to other interpretations being conducted. The rapid growth of the restoration movement has contributed to this "interpretation gap" in which a completely new resource frequently is given little or no attention. Remedying this situation is imperative for the continued health and growth of restoration. 

Professional interpreters and resource managers must remember to make restoration activities an integral part of their interpretive resource inventories. Volunteer interpreters and stewards need to learn more about the resource inventorying and planning process. In either case, the end result should be a comprehensive, interpretive plan that emphasizes the diversity and importance of restoration activities.

The growth of anything is a result of the growth of its constituent parts. Whether the growth of these parts is in size, number, or both, does not matter. Mostly, the growth occurs and that is that. But growth is only the beginning. It is the instigator of many other changes including changing needs. Organizations, like organisms, face this changing of needs. 

The recent growth of natural area restoration, particularly in the Midwest, has been phenomenal. This growth, like most other types of growth, can be traced to the development of its constituent parts. Science (knowledge) and technology (tools) are increasing as are the number of sites under management and the people participating in restoration activities.

An entirely biased and subjective opinion is that all this growth is good. More sites and more volunteers and professionals who devote their time to these sites, the better. Growth does present problems if some constituent parts grow faster than others an imbalance occurs. This is a problem faced by the restoration movement today. Unlike many other challenges the movement has confronted and continues to deal with, however, this problem has a relatively simple solution.

Traditionally, interpretation of a natural area deals almost entirely with the physical and biological aspects of the site and pertinent ecological concepts. Any interpretation of the impact of human activity on a natural area usually has been limited to the damage done to the site. Interpretation of other human activities has been relegated to a discussion of artifacts and/or historic sites. The fact is, until recently, there were not many positive examples regarding human activity in, or relating to, natural areas. Because this situation is changing, it is time to review the interpretive strategy for natural areas.

The first change needed regards language. Interpretation depends on language. (No language, no interpretation vague language, vague interpretation.) Discussing what he calls the "re" words, William R. Jordan, III states " . . . our words, and the way we define them, shape the landscapes we inhabit (1992)." Today's restoration ecologists and resource managers use a spectrum of overlapping and redundant terms. Words like restoration and rehabilitation (two of Jordan's "re" words), among others, often mean different things to individuals carrying on virtually identical activities. Confusion is the inevitable result among volunteers and professionals, as well as the general public. Resource managers and other ecological professionals should decide on a standardized terminology. In the meantime, volunteer and professional interpreters must become familiar with all terms in order to present them to the visiting public in a clear and concise manner.

Another part of the language problem is the fact that very few people currently think of natural areas when the term restoration is used. An examination of this term in most dictionaries produces references to the repair of buildings, art, or antique furniture, or the return of Charles II to the throne of England, for example as a period in history. The restoration of landscapes is simply not considered. Nor is the term ecological restoration. What restorationists hold so dear is far from being a household word. With increased interpretation of restoration activities this should cease to be a problem. Traditionally, an interpretive presentation contains a description of habitat type, native and exotic flora and fauna, geologic background, presettlement conditions, disturbances caused by settlement, and land use history. If there is any coverage of restoration activities, it is most likely incidental to the program.

At some locations interpretive presentations describe the methods being used to try to restore a site. Because it is attention-getting, prescribed burning has probably received more and better interpretation than other activities. But prescribed burns are only a small, though frequently spectacular, part of the schedule of restoration activities. Other activities such as brush removal, exotic plant control, seed collecting and processing, and seed distribution are beginning to receive interpretive attention. They need more attention, however, at times other than when activities are occurring.

Arguably, interpretive programs based primarily on restoration activities might best be presented at times when the audience is composed of restorationists from other sites and locations. However, a site tour, or off-site talk for the general public, can be infused with much more information regarding restoration activities. These "enhanced" interpretive presentations need not be reserved for volunteer recruitment days either. Once established as part of the continuing interpretive effort it should be easy to keep that information right in with the more traditional subject matter.

The last part of this revised interpretive paradigm is something that so far has been all but ignored in restoration interpretation. The stories of the people involved with individual restorations is an interpretive element glaringly absent from today's on- and off-site programs. One benefit of this form of interpretation is the recognition of the volunteers and professionals who are a part of the restoration movement.

As these projects have grown, their need for sheer numbers of volunteers has grown. Something else that has grown is the variety of skills needed to keep a project healthy. Very seldom are visitors to onsite or offsite programs informed of the routes by which volunteers have arrived at the projects with which they are involved. Audiences of restoration interpretation programs often look at all participants in the project as having brought prior knowledge or skills to that project and feel as though they themselves cannot possibly become involved. No person should be permitted to take that impression away from any interpretive program. Educational and social opportunities within restoration projects should be made part of certain presentations as well as the fact that not many people came to the project with much previous training.

Finally, the increased breadth of opportunity for participation is a subject that must be addressed more directly. Inability to perform physical labor does not prevent anyone from being a contributing member of a restoration project. The growing number of restoration sites, the rising numbers of volunteers, and the increasing complexity of site and personnel management has resulted in a long list of support activities that are no less important than brush cutting or seed collecting. Publications, mailings, telephone contacts, fundraising: all can be accomplished by anyone who simply has a little time to devote to the project and the desire to participate and learn. Potential volunteers for these niches can be made aware of the need for their help through the right interpretive presentation. 

Many people are taking a more responsible attitude toward our environment. They are expending much of their time and energy trying to restore or preserve as much of it as possible. These people, and the activities they conduct, need and deserve the benefits of high quality interpretation. In most cases this is already being done for natural resources. Now it is simply a matter of remembering to include the human resources.


Jordan, William R. III. 1992. Those Rewords: a glossary and a few comments. Land and Water. November/December. 13.


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