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1993 Proceedings of the Midwest Oak Savanna Conferences1993 Proceedings of the Midwest Oak Savanna Conferences



Karen Holland
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 
77 W. Jackson
Chicago, IL 60604
Tel: (312) 353-2690

Tom Besore
Village of Northbrook
1225 Cedar Lane
Northbrook, IL 60062
Tel: (708) 272-5050

North Branch Prairie Project volunteers restorating oak savannas in northeastern Illinois are taking a proactive approach to recruiting volunteers and educating the public in order to protect sites from harmful disturbances. A Good Neighbor Group of community members can act as monitors, watching for activities that would impact a site, and as teachers, trained to tell others about site ecology and restoration activities.

In the last couple of years, North Branch Prairie Project restoration sites have been affected by various site "emergencies", activities that negatively impact ecosystems. To stewards, these activities seem beyond their control. Off trail mountain bike usage, for example, has increased, creating deep ruts through prairie and savanna habitats. Native plants have been dug up and grasses cut, presumably for home gardens and flower arrangements. Garbage and yard waste is dumped on the edges of preserves. Stewards are rarely on site when destructive activities occur.

Stewards react by calling appropriate Forest Preserve District officials and North Branch Coordinating Committee members. Steps are taken to minimize damage. Defensive measures, however, while necessary and important, are frustrating for stewards. What can we do, they ask, to prevent future emergencies, to prevent these things from occurring in the first place?

Until recently, North Branch volunteers were concerned with the ecology of sites with definite boundaries. What happened outside of those boundaries was not important to the restoration. What happened within the boundaries the volunteers made happen. Things have changed.

The North Branch volunteer organization started to grow as a result of good publicity. More and more people began to know about restoration, and therefore, the sites became better known as well. Now these sites seem exposed thereby opening the way to a greater potential for mishaps and mischief. Volunteers have begun to pay closer attention to what goes on beyond site boundaries and how community activities affect the restoration within the boundaries.

Traditionally, the North Branch engages in volunteer development and educational activities. School children are brought to sites for field trips or Mighty Acorn school days. Slide presentations are given to garden clubs and citizen's groups. Classes are conducted in plant identification. On-the-ground training in restoration techniques is given to new volunteers. Big events like lecture series are staged. There are two goals: to recruit new volunteers and to educate.

All in all, the work is good. Membership has grown. People know about the North Branch. But everything has been ad hoc. Recruitment and education have not been the focus of organized North Branch planning and management. Until now.

It is now understood that thought needs to be given to how sites fit as part of the greater community. A network of neighbors who can watch over restoration sites in the absence of stewards needs to be built. Neighbors and the general community need to be given information about the value of these precious and unique places. A stronger public constituency that will help to protect biologically important sites is needed to begin to teach others about the importance of the sites so that good decisions are made that reflect a new-found appreciation for ecosystems.

Careful planning can bring neighbors and restoration volunteers together. The following suggestions to develop a Good Neighbor Plan were formulated by North Branch Prairie Project volunteers to encourage active participation of the community in site restoration and management. 

  1. Begin by calling together a few interested volunteers to brainstorm about involving neighbors in site management. Make sure several of the participants are new. New volunteers generally have a fresh outlook and original ideas. Use the brainstorming session to fact find:
    • Look at a map of the site in relation to surrounding areas. Who are the immediate neighbors? Are there any industries or subdivisions with a property line common to the site?
    • What town or municipality is the site in? What is the decision-making process? What are the zoning requirements of properties adjacent to and nearby the site?
    • Who are the decision-makers in the community you shoudl get to know? Don't forget themayor and the city planner.
    • Identify the greater community of site neighbors such as schools and community groups.

  2. Now that you have facts, establish how and who will contact the above neighbors. The how involves:
    • Be clear about your group's mission. Write out what it is you do and why. People are interested in the process of restoration every bit as much as the philosophy underlying it.
    • Record the value of the site and restoration activities to the community. This is a community resource and something to be proud of.
    • Decide what actions are required to interest various groups. Perhaps a series of brown bag lunches with employees of the neighbor corporation to inform them about what's happening in that "field" next door would be of interst. The lunches could be followed by guided tours of the site. And that could be followed by a corporate workday. The neighbors in a subdivision may walk, jog, or bicylcle through or near a site. If neighbors were provided with the phone numbers of stewards, they might be able to deter or curb harmful activities.
    • Prioritize what actions you decide are appropriate and when you want them to occur according to the resources available. Resources means volunteer time as well as dollars.
    • Write everything down. Ask for more suggestions from those who were not part of the brainstorming session. When it's in print, things sometimes get done more quickly than you think because it may capture someone's imagination.

  3. Begin. But don't forget to ask for help. Implementation will require the efforts of many dedicated people.

The scope of volunteer stewardship needs to be widened. One way to do this is to look beyond the borders of each site at a larger geographic area and all that encompasses. Neighbors can become volunteers. They can monitor activities in the stewards' absence. An understanding of restoration and management will shape informed decision-makers. In turn, volunteers can offer the natural areas as a resource to the community.

Good Neighbor Groups will not prevent all emergencies. Good Neighbor Groups will, however, create a positive connection of the community to a resource which is worth protecting.


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