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Begin Hierarchical Links EPA Home > Great Lakes Ecosystems >End Hierarchical LinksGreen Landscaping > Bridge of Seeds > Part Three
Part 1: Context and Needs
Part 2: Partners and Property
Part 3: Analysis
Part 4: Conclusion
Memorandum on  Landscaping


Bridge of Seeds
Chicago Native Seed Gardens Study

PART III: Analysis 

Chapter 7
Why Gardens?

First and foremost, native seed garden businesses are based on ecological principles. No amount of money, machinery or labor can overcome the need for an intimate knowledge of biodiversity and horticulture to be successful in the seed production business. Fortunately, several cutting edge seed propagation programs already exist in the Chicago area. Volunteers, professional horticulturists and public agency staff produce seed in home gardens, commercial nurseries and greenhouses throughout the Chicago area. There are several reasons why these intensive forms of seed production are used instead of solely collecting seed from the wild: 1) to increase the quantity of species that are very rare in the wild or that are difficult to collect; 2) raising native plants in a garden greatly improves seed viability rates since plants can receive extra water throughout the growing season and face less competition for soil nutrients and sunlight; 3) since some natural areas are being harvested at their limit or contain very small populations of native species sufficient sources of wild seed simply do not exist. As Steve Packard, Director of Science and Stewardship for Illinois TNC, has commented, "Near Chicago many prairie or savanna remnants are too small to function as complete ecosystems. What we can do is use the genetic material they contain to help restore larger sites that can be self-sustaining." In general wild seed sources from natural areas are rare.

Molecular biologist Alan Kapular states, "When I saw that the backyard gardeners were able and willing to maintain diversity where seed companies, universities, and all the government agencies were totally uninterested, I realized that it's in the hands of the backyard gardener that the salvation of diversity is going to remain, because we are destroying all the native habitats. So rather than having the conservation of genetic materials based on an economic success model, we need to have the conservation of genetic materials based on interest and devotion to life by a large fraction of our population."45 Factors such as drought, competition, insects, grazing and disease can put stress on plants and lower the amount of seed they produce in any given year. Even when they do set seed under these adverse conditions much of it will be inviable. Though little scientific work has been done in this area local ecologists estimate that garden grown seeds can have viability rates as high as 99%. This is much higher than the estimated average viability rates of 30% to 40% for seed collected from the wild. Currently, the biggest challenge is managing and disseminating the knowledge required to succeed in native seed production.

Current Programs

Several programs have been created to capitalize on the advantages of garden production and bolster seed production. A collaboration between the Chicago Botanic Garden (CBG) and the Volunteer Stewardship Network (VSN) was started in 1991. CBG provides resources and greenhouse space for volunteers who have propagated thousands of seedlings for VSN restoration projects. CBG staff also provide important advice on rare and endangered species propagation. In another successful program sponsored by the VSN, over 150 volunteers grow rare plants for seed in their back yards for the Wild Gardeners project. Home gardeners are given seedlings and trained on how to care for them and how and when to collect the seeds. The gardeners agree to return all seed to the sponsoring volunteer restoration group so that it can be included in their seed mixes for reseeding areas that have been cleared of brush or weeds. In addition, several local Conservation and Forest Preserve Districts have begun on-site gardening programs to augment their volunteer collection and commercial seed purchasing programs.

Lindsey McGee, Wild Gardens coordinator, recommends first time gardening programs start with seedlings because novice gardeners often have difficulty recognizing first year plants grown from seed sown directly in the ground. When seeds are used they are usually sown in the fall so that stratification can occur during the winter. However, seeds often wander out of even well marked rows as rain and snow washes them away or the freeze/thaw cycles of winter heaves the soil. Seedlings are also preferred because many species will flower and produce some seed during this first growing season. Planting seedlings also gives native plants a head start against weeds which can often out-compete native plants in the early spring making proper care difficult.

As described in the section on ecological needs, a major obstacle to increased production is the lack of easily accessible information. Adequate, though not extensive, information exists for producing the majority of common or commercially available species. Unfortunately, accessing the information maintained by volunteer or academic sources in a timely manner is extremely difficult. The alternative is to hire a native plant consultant or ecologist at a rate of approximately $50.00 per hour. Ecological restoration throughout the entire Chicago region would greatly benefit from the publication of regularly updated reference materials that support native species production and use. While other horticultural businesses may be driven by weather, prices or labor costs, native seed businesses are definitely driven by information.46 While performing the research for this study it was disconcerting to learn how many people thought growing native plants for seed was like vegetable gardening or planting marigolds. The ecological issues and knowledge required for successful production are very demanding.

Local Genotypes

There are three levels of biological diversity: ecosystem, species and genetic. Genetic diversity is defined as the genetic variability of individuals within a species. Each individual carries a unique set of genes that have been inherited from its ancestors. These genes give the individual certain traits that allow it to survive within its habitat. A local genotype refers to a population of a species that is specially adapted to the conditions of a specific area. Even though a plant may grow throughout the state of Illinois local environmental conditions, such as climate or soil, will create genetically unique populations within that species. These local genotypes share common traits that are a direct result of natural selection based on the local environment. They posses genetic information that is found nowhere else on Earth. Protecting local genotypes is vital to maintaining and enhancing biodiversity. Allowing local genotypes to be destroyed or corrupted diminishes biodiversity.

The following are common examples of genetic corruption. Seed from a population of native grass from a commercial grower out west is planted in near a natural area in the Chicago area. The western population may have several advantages over the local population based on its unique genetic make-up. Since precipitation is much lower out west this population has adapted to thriving with less water. When it is exposed to the higher precipitation rates of Chicago it may grow much faster than the local population which is dependent on a greater amount of water for normal growth. It may even out-compete the local population over time and push it out. However, our unique local conditions will eventually demand a response to some extreme environmental pressure. Perhaps a long, cold winter will be too much for the re-located western population and it will perish. Our investment in money and effort has been wasted. More likely the introduced population will persist and its genetic material will be mixed with that of nearby local populations as pollen travels from one plant to the next. Traits unique to our local genotypes will be lost as genes from the western population are mixed in. When adverse conditions arise that are unique to our area the local population will no longer contain the genetic traits necessary to adapt and survive. The natural selection process that has progressed for thousands of years has been short-circuited. The overall level of biodiversity is diminished when this unique genetic information is lost.

Maintaining Local Genotypes

Unfortunately, little scientific knowledge exists for determining the extent of local genotypes. Since each species reproduces and spreads in a unique manner the amount of research required is immense. For these reasons natural areas managers rely on arbitrary limits to protect local genotypes. Regulations adopted by the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission (INPC) for Illinois Nature Preserves currently call for using seed sources located within a 15 mile radius of designated site. This has very recently been replaced by a system that is based on the natural divisions within the state. This regulation serves to protect our highest quality natural areas from the introduction of non-indigenous genetic material. Meanwhile private landowners and even the Illinois Department of Transportation introduce seeds on their lands from who knows where.

The numerous volunteer groups in the Chicago region currently follow the radius distance method established by INPC, to a widely varying degree, for determining local genotypes. In addition, local supplies of seed on their sites are jealously guarded and seed sharing between groups is limited to protect local genotypes. The North Branch Prairie Project has a written seed sharing policy which is strictly adhered to. Volunteers and students at Joliet Junior College has been discussed creating a pedigree data-base to help them track where seeds come from.

In the horticulture field there are few requirements that protect or enhance local genotypes of native plant species. At the federal level the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (COE) requires the use of appropriate, local genotypes in wetlands mitigation projects. However, there are no formal, written regulations for their use. This standard exists in the form of verbal instructions to mitigation applicants and the current industry standards that are upheld by ecological planners. Even these requirements have not always been upheld due to an extreme lack of local seed and plant supplies. If COE forced private contractors to use only local genotypes it would bring wetland mitigation to a crawl by temporarily creating an insurmountable supply shortage. There is also concern that contractors are substituting less expensive, non-local genotypes during the implementation phase of mitigation work to save money. COE has considered requiring proof of purchase for local seeds to prevent inappropriate substitutions. Currently seed sources from as far away as Colorado and Nebraska are being used for a some species since local supplies are so limited. Imposing tighter local genotypes restrictions on mitigation projects would either reduce the total amount of acreage or create mitigations with a very limited number of plant species which will decrease their biodiversity value.

There is a great demand for research in this area. Some have suggested that the newly formed National Biological Survey has the potential for providing high-level scientific support for genotype research or management. Currently no one knows if local genotypes should be determined by watershed, geologic region, vegetative zone, etc. Commercial landscape operations need to understand and accept the importance of maintaining local genotypes. Requiring certification of native seed stock in commercial specifications would be one way for them to implement this goal. Any certification system will need the acceptance of local volunteer restoration community since this is probably the group that will exercise the strictest control over local genotypes. They are currently at the forefront of ecological restoration and since most of their seed supply comes from local, wild sources they are not as likely to use non-local seeds just because they are less expensive. Creation of a local, commercial native seed growers certification association may be helpful in addressing many of these needs.

The influence of volunteer, academic and scientific organizations over the genetic future of the native seed production industry is critical. Kenny Ausubel, author of Seeds of Change, provides a frightening look at how our modern agricultural seed production industry destroys biodiversity. Multi-national chemical and pharmaceutical corporations have purchased over 1000 independent seed companies in the last twenty years. The U.S. home gardening seed market is dominated by only five major corporations. 80% of the European market is controlled by only three companies. These chemical companies genetically select and engineer crops for resistance to the pesticides they sell. The crops (and thus farmers) become dependent on these chemical products since they can only grow within the narrow growth parameters produced by this artificial environment. Genetic diversity is lost as crop varieties that are not chemically tolerant are removed from the market.47

Quality Control

There are several levels of quality for native seeds depending on their origin and growing conditions. Seeds that are collected from local natural areas that are known to contain no "imported" seeds stocks are considered "wild". These seeds are the most valuable because they have been produced under predominantly natural conditions and contain the genetic material that is the basis for maintaining biodiversity. Plants, and the seeds they produce, grown from wild seed in a garden are called "first generation". Even though these seedlings and seeds have lost some of their wildness, since they were nurtured in a controlled setting, they are still suitable for use in restoring high quality natural areas according to current standards. Seed that is collected from these restored areas in the future is still considered wild since the first generation seeds or seedlings have survived the forces of selection that are particular to that site. In contrast, when first generation seed is planted back into a garden the plants or seed it produces are considered "second generation" because they start to become clones or varieties of the parent plants. They have not been exposed to pollen from other wild plants and have not had to survive the rigors of natural selection. These are of considerably less value to restoration projects and most organizations will not accept them for any natural area restoration work. For example, the NBBP Wild Garden project requires that any plants that grow from seed that accidently falls from the plants already in a garden are be removed or destroyed so that second generation seed does not enter their seed mixes by mistake. Second or even third generation seeds and plants may be appropriate for commercial and residential landscaping purposes only and should be avoided for any kind of seed production gardens, educational plots or restoration projects. All too often records of the pedigree and genetic quality of restored areas are lost over the decades. Future land managers are left without the benefit of using any seed from these areas because of concern for genetic corruption.

Loss of biodiversity through improper mixing of genetic material is probably the single most important issue of quality control. Buyers for natural areas restoration programs that are suspicious of the origin or genetic quality of a growers material will buy elsewhere or do without. Viability is another important quality control issue. Low viability rates for purchased seed will eventually be discovered and a grower's reputation can be tarnished. Germination tests performed by a lab cost between $25 and $50 per test. However, a quick seed germination test using wet paper towels can be performed prior to shipment to determine viability. Growers can protect their reputation by compensating for unusually poor germination rates through price or quantity adjustments or by even taking a species off market for that season.

Many factors effect viability including: collection timing; proper storage to prevent heat damage and moisture; timing of seed sowing based on weather; seeding rates; and sowing methods. The establishment of production standards would assist commercial nurseries, volunteers, and public agencies as well as urban gardeners. Urban gardens will have to meet or exceed the viability rates for both commercial and volunteer producers to maintain market position with these clients. Since most urban gardens will tend to be relatively small compared to the existing commercial growers they will probably specialize in rarer and more expensive plant types and species. Clients may expect higher viability rates for these more costly products even though their lower reproduction rates may be one of the factors that makes them rare in the first place. The smaller quantities of seeds produced will also mean that a bad season for a single species could adversely effect the revenues in any given year since this would represent a larger percentage of the year's total production. Nursery owner Neil Diboll comments that even though these plants are native and are adapted to our climate they still need to be babied: "That is why they call it a 'nursery'".

Available Resources

At this point in time the amount and quality of technical information and expertise that exists is more than adequate to sustain native seed gardeners and gardens. The VSN and its various volunteer groups, commercial growers, and academic institutions all contribute to this pool of knowledge. Unfortunately, the main component that is missing is a coordinated, regionally based system for organizing and publishing the information. The information is largely inaccessible even to the volunteers that produce it and is not in a format that would allow its timely dissemination to businesses. The organizations that currently possess the majority of this data are not designed or equipped to support the information needs of native seed businesses. For businesses to succeed they must have quick access to these critical information sources. The idea of producing a "Seed Encyclopedia" was generated at a recent volunteer conference. This would be an invaluable tool to both volunteer and for-profit seed growers. However, this encyclopedia would eventually be so large that publishing it would be too costly and time consuming for volunteers alone to manage. This could be a situation where the native seeds gardens creates an opportunity for additional businesses. There are numerous examples of businesses that provide "value added" services based on public data bases that are marketed on a subscription basis (e.g. stock prices in the Wall Street Journal).

Management support for community based gardens is also quite strong. The American Community Gardens Association has three local affiliates with strong, urban, community gardening programs: the University of Illinois Cooperative Extension Service, the Chicago Botanic Garden and Openlands Project. In addition, the City of Chicago sponsors the Master Gardeners Program. The option of renting greenhouse space from the Chicago Botanic Garden, the Garfield Park Conservatory or a commercial nursery could also be investigated by individual business managers. These facilities have limited space and would probably be used only for propagation of very rare or difficult species. They also have staff with considerable horticultural expertise.

Numerous broad brush growing guides exist for wildflowers and gardening that have limited value to local native seed gardeners. The ecological range of knowledge required for growing native seeds is both vast and narrowly focused since the issue of maintaining local genotypes drives much of the local market. Add to this the particulars of any given site and "rules of thumb" quickly fall by the wayside. Both technical and management information programs need to respond to the very small scale and site specific needs of native seed growers. Native seed growers are not just in the seed production business, they are in the biodiversity business.

Culturally Programmed Biodiversity

The relationship between humans and plant diversity is as old as the history of agriculture which began 10,000 years ago.48 Even before agriculture humans have continuously programmed the genetic structure of plants as they hunted animals and gathered resources.49 Each have evolved in relationship to the other. Kenny Ausubel states, "The secret of evolution is actually coevolution. Nothing has evolved in isolation. Everything has coevolved in relationship. People have coevoled in a special kinship with other organisms, especially plants, for many thousands of years, a relationship that is now declining. Although Charles Darwin believed that competition is what sustains life, biology shows that cooperation is what sustains life. Mutualism is at the core of diversity. Partnership is the law of nature, and it is distinctly unwise for a symbiont to destroy its host."50

In the Chicago region fires set by humans helped to create and maintain the prairies, savannas, forests and wetlands we know today.51 Humans also influenced the numbers and types of wild and domesticated animals that impacted the local plant resources. By burning the prairie enhancing the growth of tender grass shoots, bison were encouraged to forage near human settlements so they could be more easily hunted. In response, the grasses evolved to survive fire and the grazing pressure of these animals. Later, this pattern was turned upside down so that wildfires were suppressed and the bison were extirpated from Illinois altogether. Domestic animals and alien crops were introduced in their place. Today only 7/100ths of 1% of the original Illinois landscape remains.52 Elimination of dozens of plant and animal species from our region plus the nearly complete destruction of entire ecosystems has forever changed the genetic make-up of the organisms with which we share this Earth. Over the past two centuries, Chicagoans have been genetically selecting wild species for their tolerance to human induced disturbance, grazing pressure from domestic livestock, toxins, competition from alien vegetation, habitat fragmentation and long list of other modern forces.

The point is that if we desire to create native seed gardens we must acknowledge the fact that our cultural values will program the evolution of these species. Regardless of our purely ecological intentions to maintain local genotypes and native gene pools, our relationship to these plants through the gardens will effect their genetic make-up. From a physiological standpoint, plants that are in a garden do not have to compete as much for nutrients, water and sunlight as they do in the wild. Harvesting of wild seed stocks to supply the gardens is usually done by hand and the visual selection of seeds is inherent in this process.53 Larger, more colorful or well known seeds get more human attention. Likewise, the human perceived beauty of the blossoms or foliage will have an impact on the species that are grown and marketed for sale. Some people favor prairies over forested areas, many people view wetlands as dank and sinister, while savannas were nearly exterminated by European settlers who favored them as sites for homesteads and farms since they resembled the park-like landscapes of western Europe. Even in "pure science" type ecological restoration, human values are intrinsically intertwined with the process and the final product.

Historically, many wild species depended on human forces for survival. Without human created wildfires there would be no tallgrass prairie in much of Illinois.54 Without intensive care by people this entire ecosystem could disappear. It has even been shown that human induced change and management can increase biodiversity. Ethnobotanical research performed by Kat Anderson and Gary Paul Nabham reveals that, "The first people of America not only revered the wildness, they managed it with loving attention to the needs of diversity and abundance." and "Through burning, flood-irrigating, transplanting, and seed sowing to create different continuous patches of vegetation, O'odham families have nurtured a diversity of plant and bird species far greater than that for any areas of comparable size in the Sonoran Desert."55 These human instructed traits are neither good nor bad, since humans are as much a part of nature as any other animal.

Having this awareness gives us the choice and the responsibility to decide how these gardens will effect biodiversity. By consciously applying the best scientific, moral and cultural values we have at any given time, we can continue the positive impact humans have had on the plant world. Not making an informed choice will leave the genetic future up to the forces of economic expediency, fashion or ignorance with predictable negative results.

Chapter 8 back to TOC page
Community Conservation Education

The following is a brief description of general environmental education and outreach needs and current programs. In a broad sense, there is an abundance of educational opportunities in the Chicago area in general ecology, botany, natural history and other topics that support native seed gardens. Specifically there exists a small, but well defined, number of educational offerings that address native seed gardening. The conservation education needs of inner-city communities is potentially great and many current programs have been successful. The limiting factor is access to the institutions and courses.

Historically the distribution of environmental education facilities and programs within Chicago has often excluded impoverished and minority communities. Currently there is only one nature center within the City of Chicago, North Park Village, which is located on the northwest side. This is a unique situation in which a natural area was slated for destruction and the local community organized and petitioned for its preservation. All other nature centers are located outside the city limits in the more suburban parts of Cook County and the collar counties near existing natural areas. For community residents that must rely on public transportation this represents a definite disadvantage with regards to access. Inner-city communities have often lacked the political resources to demand equitable allocations of City or Park District staff and programs. Even though parks are distributed throughout the city, the staff required to run programs and maintain property is often concentrated in more affluent or politically influential communities. To illustrate the extent of this problem a consent decree between the Chicago Park District (CPD) and the federal government was in effect between 1984 and 1990 that required CPD to distribute its services more equally throughout the city.

Non-profit conservation groups in Chicago are beginning to address this problem by creating education programs that focus on communities of color. The Nature Conservancy (TNC) created the Mighty Acorns program to provide grade school students with direct experience in natural areas stewardship. It recently received a grant from USEPA to expand the program to southeast Chicago communities and the staff position for this portion of the program has been filled with a local community organizer. The City of Chicago, Department of Environment has also launched a Parks Appreciation Program where 15 of 17 participating Chicago Schools are located in poor and/or minority neighborhoods.

Current Education Programs

Currently there are only a few programs that specifically address native seed growing but an enormous variety covering conservation education in general. Prairie University is a free quarterly listing that serves as "a guide to the wealth of educational offerings in natural history and ecological restoration in northeastern Illinois."56 It is written entirely by volunteers and is published by TNC. The support Prairie University can provide to local native seed gardens is great. It provides a timely and easy to use resource for local residents. Many of the courses listed are free or available at very low cost and some are accessible by public transportation. All of the local universities list their natural sciences courses in Prairie University, in addition there is the Chicago Region Cooperative College Botany Program available through fourteen Chicago area colleges and universities. Argonne National Laboratory is currently compiling "An Environmental Education Resource List" for Chicago area teachers wishing to include environmental programs in their classes. While this does not concentrate on native plants it does represent a trend towards increased environmental education on a grand scale. The Chicago Agricultural High School trains students in horticultural topics. The University of Illinois, Cooperative Extension Service has a full complement of educational and vocational training programs established throughout Chicago's communities. They range from community gardening to job skills to classes on nutrition.

Proposed Programs

There are several educational programs in the works that would directly support the native seed gardens concept. The Society for Ecological Restoration, TNC, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum are currently proposing an educational program called "Earthkeeping Academy". Its goal is to train field managers in the art and science of restoration ecology. A draft prospectus for the program says, "There are many reasons why we plan to establish the first Earthkeeping Academy center in the Chicago area. Perhaps the most important of these is the fact that Chicago offers a metropolitan setting with a rich mix of urban, suburban and semi-rural and protected landscapes centrally located in the region of prairies and oak openings [savannas] that have been the birthplace of the craft of restoration during the past century."57 Part of the promise of the native seed garden idea is that it can provide intense job training for the burgeoning ecological restoration industry in the Chicago region. Furthermore, the University of Illinois Cooperative Extension Service (CES) in Chicago is currently studying a pilot project that would create economic opportunities by training inner-city residents to grow and market produce for profit. CES is focusing more resources on economic development issues as it continues to develop grant proposals and programs.

Outreach Opportunities

The potential for outreach and educational opportunities for urban communities through the native seed gardens proposal is mixed. It is estimated that there may be as many as 40,000 residents involved with community gardening in Chicago. They would be prime candidates as business managers or employees of native seed garden businesses. Far fewer inner-city residents have a connection to the issues of natural areas protection and restoration. However, many do have connections to community based organizations, local schools and churches. By combining the issues of environmental empowerment and urban gardening, a new approach is possible to reach out to people. For conservation organizations mainly concerned with biodiversity and natural areas protection this can present a dilemma if scarce resources are dedicated to natural areas programs only.

Increasing urban support for conservation is important because the agenda of the environmental and conservation debate has already been redefined by people of color to include their interests. In 1990 the Southwest Organizing Project, located in New Mexico, sent a letter to the "Group of Ten" (the largest environmental and conservation organizations in the U.S.) and flatly accused them of racism.58 Sierra magazine quoted then Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Fischer, as he advocated "a friendly takeover of the Sierra Club by people of color" or it would "remain a middle-class group of backpackers, overwhelmingly white in membership, program, and agenda--and thus condemn[ed] to losing influence in an increasingly multicultural country..."59 On the local scene, this year Chicago featured its first Peoples Earth Day which was held at Wolf Lake on the southeast side. It was sponsored by Greenpeace and several local community organizations as an alternative to the overly commercialized Earth Day Chicago event.60 Dr. Robert Bullard, professor of sociology at the University of California, Riverside and a leading author on the environmental justice movement, writes that, "grassroots environmental justice groups have become the fastest growing segment of the environmental movement."61 For "traditional" environmental organizations it is not just a matter of reaching out to gain more members from within these groups but a race to catch up as they continue to lead the way in this important arena.

Many city dwellers view conservation of natural resources and nature as important only to rural or down state residents with little importance to their lives. Since approximately one fourth of the Illinois population lives in Chicago, urban issues often drive the political agenda. The urban environmental movement is defined by pollution, transportation, solid waste and other issues. This creates a dilemma for conservation programs because they must compete for limited public and private funds with programs that address health, education, police and fire protection, and commerce. This is evident in the fact that the annual budget for the Illinois Department of Conservation is only 6/10ths of 1% of the total state budget! Gaining support from urban residents is crucial for the survival of large scale conservation efforts since this is where a great deal of political power is concentrated. Competing with the urban environmental agenda instead of embracing it will become increasingly futile.

Though critical, no amount of education focused on biodiversity and ecosystem concepts alone can change this situation. In fact, why should it? It seems clear from recent events that the national environmental groups need some education as well. Approaching environmental issues from the point of view of inner-city residents is the only real way to engage these communities. As was pointed out to the author several times the vocabulary and the complex concepts of ecological restoration are beyond the grasp of most people without a degree in the natural sciences. This study itself, which is intended for ecologists and community organizers, is too complex to serve as an easy to use community guide for the native seed garden concept. In order to participate within any community one must become a part of it and communicate using language that is appropriate for the audience.

As an education and outreach tool the native seed gardens can act as a bridge to urban residents because it incorporates a profit making component while it demands an ever increasing knowledge of biodiversity and native ecosystems. It is limited by these same reasons because it does not directly address the environmental issues of greatest concern as defined by inner-city residents.

Chapter 9 back to TOC page

Before launching into any economic analysis of the native seed gardens proposal the financial and social goals of the business must be defined. Not all businesses are out to make money at the expense of everything else. Paul Hawken states that, "The ultimate purpose of business is not, or should not be, simple to make money. Nor is it merely a system of making and selling things. The promise of business is to increase the general well-being of humankind through service, a creative invention and ethical philosophy. Making money is, on its own terms, totally meaningless, an insufficient pursuit for the complex and decaying world we live in."62 Several of the commercial growers in the Chicago area indicated that other values, such as preserving biodiversity, restoring native ecosystems and providing customer service and education, were equally as important as financial success in their business and professional careers. For many growers their love of nature is intertwined with all aspects of their work. Indeed this commitment to the value of biodiversity drives the native seed production in the Chicago area. Many of the local nurseries surveyed indicated that adherence to strict ecological principles were just as important as profits. Plant materials and services that do not meet these standards are considered obsolete or unmarketable. All of the analysis that follows relies on these assumptions.

Capital Requirements

Start-up costs for a native seed garden are relatively small when compared to other business types in a typical Chicago neighborhood. The main reasons for this are the lower capital requirements for facilities and equipment compared to businesses that require buildings, manufacturing equipment or a large inventory. Capital requirements for continued development and growth of the businesses will be primarily directed towards land acquisition. Technological fixes (i.e. money, synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, petroleum dependent machinery, etc.) are not necessarily the answer for succeeding in such a small scale operation. The ability of the business manager to manage well and persevere was mentioned time and again by commercial growers as the most important "economic" factors leading to success in this field. These businesses present the opportunity to manage a venture that does not require large, ongoing inputs of money and technology; resources that many impoverished communities may lack. By keeping capital costs very low, exploiting locally based markets and relying on nature for much of the technology these businesses may have certain advantages over conventional economic development schemes.

Capital Resources

All businesses require capital to get started and to eventually expand. New businesses require funds to meet their expenses until the business starts to generate a profit. A few quick definitions as described by the UIC Center for Urban Economic Development are helpful.

"There are two types of monies used by business--equity and debt capital funds. Equity financing is capital given to a firm in exchange for a share of income it will earn in the future. Equity funds can come from the personal savings of the entrepreneur and associates or can be accumulated by selling stock in the company to the public or a venture capital firm. Equity financing is "patient" money (i.e., it does not have to be immediately repaid).

Debt capital is the type of financing received through a loan. Regular repayment of the principal of funds borrowed is required along with a specified rate of return to the lender for allowing his or her money to be used (i.e., the "interest" portion of the payment). This type of financing is difficult to obtain since a new business has little collateral or track record to show a lender."63

As discussed in the chapter on economic needs, inner-city communities often lack access to the capital they need to improve their businesses or even survive. Commercial banks are an unlikely source of loans for native seed garden businesses. One area that may be the exception is neighborhood lending programs. As part of the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) creation process the Chicago Reinvestment Alliance negotiated with three large banks (First Chicago, Harris and The Northern Trust) to create neighborhood lending programs to better serve neighborhood needs. Neighborhood lending programs provide a certain amount of money for loans that are directed to neighborhood businesses and grants for non-profit community development organizations.64 This is important since the availability of small business loans (under $50,000) can be low since these loans must be serviced like the larger loans made by a lending institution but they do not generate as much profit.

Alternative sources of capital include community development banks, community development loan funds, community credit unions and micro-loan funds.65 These institutions find creative ways to extend credit and combine it with other tools for community development.58 Unfortunately, several telephone interviews with not-for-profit economic development groups confirmed that there is a huge gulf between the conservation/nature industry and the business community. The three city-wide community development groups that were contacted are not familiar with any conservation or agricultural business ventures within the city. This is an area of concern since these groups are potentially an excellent resource for arranging micro-loans and public/private loan packages that the native seed gardens will need. Working with these groups to secure the capital needed to create native seed businesses should be a high priority. Since the economic analysis in this study is admittedly thin, it is recommended that one of these organizations be contracted to produce an in-depth economic analysis of the total native seed business proposal. This would provide a much clearer and more accurate picture of the economic issues involved and the potential market. It would also serve to educate these groups about conservation businesses and issues.

Government community development and conservation grant programs are also another potential source of funds. IDOC Wildlife Fund grants are very small ($1000), but have been used successfully by numerous local conservation groups for natural areas work. Other sources to investigate would include the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Interior. Capital resources often come from interesting places.

A new concept of capital should also be investigated. Biodiversity itself can be viewed as a form of evolutionary "capital". Several possible ways to leverage this non-traditional capital resource are as follows:

Lease-Back Biodiversity

  1. A public agency would lease the use of seeds to a grower in exchange for twice as much seed to be returned to the agency by a specified time in the future.
  2. A security deposit could be secured for the seeds and returned on completion of the contract; the interest earned could be retained by the lending agency to help pay for administrative costs; the grower would get their original capital investment back and still have a permanent supply of seeds from their plants for sale on open market.
  3. the public agency would safely double its own seed supply with minimal risk.

Harvest Contracts

  1. Currently county forest preserves lease agricultural land for row crop production; this could be extended to native seed production as well and would make better use of public land.
  2. A commercial grower could provide seeds and technical assistance in exchange for a share of the seeds produced, future profits or a ownership stake in the business.

Several people have raised the concern that the use of government grants, services or seed stocks to create these gardens will be unfair to existing commercial growers. At first glance this appears to be true. However, the small size of any individual inner-city gardens poses little threat to the profits of the existing growers in the collar counties. Our research showed that most growers desperately need additional suppliers to meet the growing demand for native seeds. It should also be noted that agriculture in general is a highly subsidized industry. This does not justify the further dependence on government resources, however growers should expect the same level of assistance from the U of I Cooperative Extension Service, the Soil Conservation Service, the Department of Agriculture and state agencies for research, business assistance and grant programs that agribusiness receives. To be fair though, native plant material producers receive little in the way of direct research on their crops compared to conventional food or livestock producers. Perhaps by engaging the local, state and federal government programs through as many avenues as possible the native plant material industry will gain more financial support in general.

Economic Returns

Calculating the various economic rates of return for native seed garden businesses is beyond the scope of this study. The quality of this information is too critical to the success of the proposed businesses to only provide a rough estimate. People interested in creating these businesses need to feel confident that they are basing their decisions on exact and sound financial information. A few results can be inferred from the research performed to date.

Local retention of capital would be high since most businesses would be located within the communities where the owners and employees live. The businesses that would support the native seed gardens also tend to be local (carpenters, fencing, garden centers, hardware stores). Other businesses are regional (existing nurseries, transportation services, consultants) while a few are not local at all (vehicles, energy and fuels, farm equipment).

Maintaining a positive cash flow is one of the most difficult financial challenges the native seed garden businesses will face. Sales will not even occur until perhaps the second or third year. Positive net revenues will lag sales until a certain portion of the planting reaches full capacity. In the long run however, the plants will continue to produce a crop with little additional capital input since they are mostly perennials. Cash flow will also by effected by yearly fluctuations due to poor weather and market demand. Seasonal fluctuations will also be a factor since harvests occur during only a portion of the year. The harvest season is however, much longer than that of many food crops and the sales season is longer still. It may be possible to combine several crop types or products to reduce seasonal cash flow fluctuations. These could include:

  1. Adding gourmet vegetable and herb crops for sale to local restaurants as is being done by the Cabrini Greens Program.
  2. Growing and drying herbs or native plants for sale as potpourri or cooking material. The local retail outlet of the international beauty products company, The Body Shop, was looking for local growers to produce lavender for sale in their shop.
  3. In addition to seeds, some native plants have foliage or other parts that can be collected and used as tea, smoking mixtures or foods. Health food stores currently carry indigenous food products from other parts of the country such as blue corn chips and wild berry jams.
  4. Supplying plant materials for academic and medical research.

A very simplified planning budget might appear as follows:

Size: 75' x 125'(a triple lot) = 9375 sq. ft. = 0.2 acres
Seed Production: 50 lbs./acre/year x 0.2 acres = 10 lbs./year
Gross sales: 10 lbs. x $200 /lb. = $2000 /year

The figure of 50 lbs./acre/year is a conservative estimate based on current production of non-specialized forb species planted as row crops and under moderate cultivation. Rates as high as 100-200 lbs./acre/year can be achieved for some species under very intensive cultivation during good years. However, the more conservative number is used for planning purposes to account for poor weather, different species types, inaccurate harvest timing or the potential for crop damage from vandalism. The figure of $200/lb. is based on approximately 80% of the average retail price for forbs. Specific figures from existing commercial nurseries for current $/acre/year and mark-up rates for wholesale suppliers were not available. Some nurseries do not measure these rates and others consider this information proprietary. Overall, these figures are very favorable when compared to community vegetable gardens where the produce is valued at $0.45/lb.66.

Property and Empowerment

Land ownership by local residents is often low in impoverished communities. One of the economic benefits of creating for-profit seed gardens is that is puts idle land back into economic use with a very small capital investment compared to building a structure. Furthermore, if the land can be obtained for little or no money then a business manager's assets will increase with very little capital input. Even if the business only breaks even, transferring the ownership of vacant land into the hands of local residents would be a great economic return. The ecological restoration community may cringe at the following suggestions, but the garden lots could eventually be used to construct family owned homes or businesses or used to attract outside developers to invest in the community. In an earlier chapter it was indicated that outside developers often target community garden plots for purchase since they have been improved. It may seem like a waste of effort or resources to destroy a working seed garden to erect a structure until one visits these neighborhoods and sees the devastation and the lack of housing and businesses. It is imperative to place the needs of the individual community first when formulating ideas for the use of their land. Once people start to own and care for property they also become empowered to take on additional political and social issues in their communities.

Business Ventures

Our research was unable to uncover any organizational studies for nature based businesses let alone native seed production businesses. Furthermore, no data has been collected on how conservation based businesses function or how the market functions as a whole. Community vegetable gardens was a business type that was looked at for models. Unfortunately, most for-profit community gardens have not succeeded as profit making businesses.67

Another issue that must be addressed prior to beginning an economic analysis is whether the business will be managed by an individual or a community group. According to Bill Howard, Director of the University of Illinois Center for Urban Economic Development, these two forms of business ventures are very different. While individuals may promote values similar to those of community groups, community groups usually place a community's needs before those of the officers or leaders of the group. This frequently effects the economic goals and performance of the business venture. Describing not-for-profit business ventures, authors Robert Giloth and Wim Wiewel remarked that "If success is only defined as generating profits, few organizations will ever be successful; most small businesses aren't. The odds get better as we defined success as "breaking even" or covering costs, however precisely those may be defined. But success may also mean generating revenue from the marketplace for a program which used to be wholly dependent on grant support, or which would not have existed without covering some of its own costs."68 This is a good description of the native seed gardens proposal since native seed production is not a quick or easy way to earn a living yet it can provide numerous additional benefits. According to several local economic development leaders individuals have been far more successful in starting businesses and prospering than community groups. In fact no meaningful, statistical data could be found for community organization based businesses because they are such a rarity.

In any event, several non-profit groups and community organizations have expressed interest in this project for use in their youth education or community outreach programs. This is not the same as creating a for-profit business program nor will it greatly increase the production of the local, native seed supply which are the two main goals of this proposal. First, local non-profit, conservation and environmental organizations do not possess the business skills or staffing levels to manage or support the gardens on a for-profit basis. The policies and tools that are successful for the ongoing operation of a non-profit organization cannot necessarily be directly transferred to a for-profit business. It would be naive for conservation groups to expect that because these businesses can be beneficial for increasing the seed supply that they will automatically become profitable business ventures.

The creation of separate for-profit corporations can be one way for not-for-profit groups to participate in the action without interfering with their basic mission.69 This arrangement would also give the for-profit group freedom to focus more on business activities and make quick financial decisions. The question remains if this is a good use of staff and/or community group time.

Various business structures for native seed garden businesses are possible including:

  1. Seasonal: closing down operations during winter or school months.
  2. Part-time: combine a garden business with day-care services, data processing and other neighborhood based, part-time work.
  3. Full-time: combine a garden business with greenhouse production of vegetable and flower crops or provide native plant consulting and design services during winter months.


The level of net job creation for the native seed garden businesses could be very high since these businesses are labor intensive. The communities that have the most vacant land also tend to have the highest levels of unemployment in the city. It does not appear that the businesses created would reduce the total number of jobs available since there are currently no competing businesses within these areas. The number of jobs per square foot of land would be lower than that of say, a small manufacturing shop or offices, however.

The job multiplier effect of the local seed growing businesses will create additional jobs within the region in the following areas:

  1. seed suppliers
  2. nursery supplies
  3. tools/hardware stores
  4. fencing/paving contractors
  5. ecological and farm services
  6. transportation
  7. storage facilities

Local retention of jobs will also tend to be high for the same reasons that were stated for capital retention. An effort on the demand side to increase the amount of locally purchased seed, thus protecting genetic diversity and increasing local jobs, would be extremely helpful. Buy Local/Produce Local programs are strategies that can be used to indirectly create local jobs.70

The quality of jobs related to native seed production varies immensely. They range from very unskilled field labor positions to professional, very highly trained and educated ecological and landscape architecture positions. Ongoing educational and vocational training is an integral part of these jobs since biodiversity is their main technological focus.

A list of typical positions includes:

  1. landscape architect/planner/ecologist
  2. plant specialist/botanist
  3. plant propagator
  4. marketing/buyer/administrative
  5. field laborer/processor

Several individuals have shown interest in becoming native seed garden business managers. However, most have seen this as an opportunity to expand their non-profit community gardening or educational operations and were not interested in a for-profit business ventures. Several people stated that they did not consider horticulture as a worthwhile venture. Several community organizers also mentioned that their experience with several minority groups has revealed that many people consider horticultural jobs as having a low status within society. They stated that historically, many individuals left agricultural jobs in rural areas, the South and Mexico to find higher paying and higher status jobs in urban areas.

The limited number of higher paying jobs is due, in part, to the current lack of jobs in the conservation and ecological restoration fields at many levels. Competition for professional positions is often so fierce that employers require specialized college degrees and are still left with a large number of overqualified applicants. Stories of conservation professionals with doctorate degrees competing for low wage or entry level jobs abound. There is also a lack of full time jobs in the conservation field since many agencies reduce their staff levels during the winter season. This also holds true for native seed producers since production schedules are vary seasonally. A lack of jobs for skilled neighborhood residents may also inhibit the formation of seed garden businesses. The jobs programs that serve the horticultural field generally prepare workers for jobs in the commercial landscape industry as laborers and grounds people. Public agencies and universities are another major source of conservation employment opportunities but often posses limited budgets that are susceptible to political changes. In addition, these groups are not designed as profit generating enterprises.

Several programs currently exist that demonstrate additional economic and societal benefits of development programs based on gardens. Providing meaningful work goes beyond jobs providing a certain level of pay. A recent conference held in Chicago entitled, "Roots for the Community", looked at the therapeutic uses of gardens and community gardening. It was hosted by the American Community Gardening Association and the American Horticultural Therapy Association. Community gardening coordinators and horticultural therapists are additional careers that can spring from the native seed gardens ideas. Taking pride in growing living things is a tangible benefit of horticultural jobs. Discussions during the conference revealed that "Involvement with plants can occur within a wide range of activity levels-- from passively observing a natural scene to organizing, planting and harvesting a garden. All levels are meaningful and can be considered to be participatory."71 Similar programs include the "Greening of Harlem" in New York city and Kenya's "Greenbelt Movement" in Africa which promotes economic and social development.72

The potential for economic success is mixed. If the only goal of an individual or group interested in using vacant, inner-city land for native seed gardens is pure profit then their chances for success are very low. Even though the demand for seeds is very high, the long start-up process and seasonal cash flow issues remain challenges that will make it difficult to create successful businesses. If the economic analysis includes measures such as greater community pride and investment, increases in land values and property ownership, and job training opportunities then a positive result is more likely.

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Current Markets

As described in previous chapters current production of local seeds falls far short of the demand. In fact it was not possible to accurately determine what current levels of production are. A native nursery association does not exist to track the industry or provide marketing information. The data in this study was collected from independent commercial and non-profit growers is admittedly incomplete. Furthermore, many commercial growers do not have detailed, or often any, records of production or sales for native seeds alone. Many of these businesses are also involved in non-native plant production, retail sales, seedling production and consulting. A simple written survey of 13 commercial growers, landscape architects/designers and restoration groups was performed with additional follow-up be telephone. Of the 13 selected participants 10 responded.

Commercial nursery catalogs list over 200 native plant species seeds on the market in the Chicago area. The following ecosystem types were identified as having the highest demand: (in order)

commercial customers

  1. short prairie grasses
  2. partial shade
  3. wet areas
  4. tall prairie species

non-profit/volunteer restoration

  1. closed savanna/woodland
  2. conservative species

For commercial customers the individual species types that have the highest demand are showy forbs, climax grasses and quick growing species in general. Non-profit and volunteer groups are more interested in species that are difficult to collect in the wild or very rare. Quality and local genotype purity are the driving forces behind commercial seeds produced for restoration of natural areas. Other requirements include clean seed and high viability rates. Prices are highly variable and are more important in the commercial landscape market than the volunteer or non-profit markets.

The current native seeds market is very disorganized and inefficient. This represents an excellent opportunity for new businesses to be created and to flourish. The field of community vegetable gardening has been highlighted as a potential model for the native seed gardens idea. However, efforts to date to create for-profit businesses out of these efforts has proved fruitless. It is important to note the differences between these markets. The commercial produce market is highly efficient and competitive within Chicago. Chicago is the transportation hub for the region and is surrounded by very rich farmland so supplies are large. For-profit community gardens have tried to gain access to this market by focusing on the narrow niche market of gourmet or specialty produce to avoid competition. However, Chicago also has numerous ethnic specialty shops that serve this market and is beginning to support large, health-food grocery chains that sell organic produce as well. Competing within a market like this is very difficult.

In contrast the number of seed growers and the quantities they produce are small and the pricing of these products is highly variable and inefficient. Numerous market niches exist due to the great variety of ecosystems throughout the region that are being restored. Northeastern Illinois has the largest number of both threatened and endangered species and high quality natural areas.73,74 This wide open market with numerous specialized niches will allow easy market entry. Also their are a variety of customer types. These include: commercial landscape contractors; volunteer restoration groups; public agencies; and retail. Of the ten survey respondents six indicated they would purchase seeds from inner-city growers and four saw the need for a local, native seed growers association.

Even though the demand is great, current producers are having trouble increasing production due to lack of capital. Competition from western producers is also a problem because they charge much lower prices. Many species, especially grasses, are sold for as little as 25% of the cost of locally grown seed. By using tractors and combines to plant and harvest crops on large monocrop fields western growers are able to capitalize on economies of scale. Not only does this undermine local prices it also brings genetically inappropriate plant material into the region.

The native plant and seed industry is heavily dependent on customer services for both income and marketing. A typical brochure is like a small ecological text with recommendations for planting, care and ecological restoration methods. Many nurseries have native plant consults, native landscape architects or designers on their staff. Planning and management services can continue through the winter and help offset seasonal cash flow problems. Likewise, many landscape contractors use their vehicles and heavy equipment to provide snow removal services during the winter to augment their income.


Pricing of native seeds depends on many factors. Availability is often low so prices for many species are quite high. The number of seeds per unit of measure also effect the price. One ounce of Woodland Sunflower seed contains approximately 4,500 seeds while an ounce of Gentian seed may contain as many as 800,000 seeds.75 The labor required for the care of the plants and cleaning and processing the seeds varies with each species. Discounts are usually given for large orders or large quantities of a single species and conversely higher prices are charged for small quantities for cover usual overhead and packaging.

Potential Markets

There are also a wide variety of potential markets besides naturals areas restoration and commercial landscaping that have not been explored. These might include: corporations with large land holdings, transportation agencies and public utilities that manage extensive rights-of-ways; and retail. It should be mentioned that retail is an expensive delivery method because of labor and inventory costs. Many commercial growers provide retail sales as a customer service and not their main income generating market. Most growers prefer small scale, bulk sales so that packaging and inventory problems are eliminated. Mail order has long been a method to market seeds for home gardening. Even a highly specialized company like Seeds of Change, a strictly organic seed company based in New Mexico, has created a thriving business based on selling seed packets by mail order. Many of the species they sell as ornamental flowers are native to the Chicago area. A note of caution is in order. Marketing local genotypes from the Chicago area to far away customers is ecologically incorrect.

The use of native plant materials as herbal medicines has been around for thousands of years. Native Americans and early European settlers were totally dependent on what the land provided. In fact a rich source of historical information on native plants and ecosystems comes from the journals and diaries of pioneer doctors. As they made their calls they made lists and noted the locations of plants for use in treating their patients. Similarly, 23 out of the 100 most commonly used herbs listed in the book, The Healing Herbs76, are native to the Chicago region. There are several local shops that carry herbs in bulk for medicinal purposes. Purity laws and labelling requirements should be checked out prior to marketing native plant materials in this way. Chicago also has a tremendous resource in the medical use of plants at the University of Illinois at Chicago. The College of Pharmacy's interim director was quoted in the Reader recently stating that "UIC is 'number one in the U.S., maybe in the world' among institutions devoted to collecting and testing plants for medicinal use."77 "Plant-derived compounds still make up about a fourth of all prescriptions."78 Local schools and universities also need material for botany classes and scientific research.

A working example of using native plants for commercial purposes is the use of reconstructed wetlands as part of municipal wastewater treatment facilities. Another interesting topic not covered in this study is using native plant species to in bioremediation projects. This involves using biological methods to detoxify land that has been contaminated with toxic waste. These lands are known as "brownfields" because they are often industrial properties that are devoid of any significant biological material. Urban grown seed may even have a genetic advantage for use in remediation projects if it has a greater ability to withstand toxins than that grown in "greenfield" areas. Greenfields are somewhat of a myth since applications of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers on agricultural land can be heavy.

Though some of the uses mentioned here may seem far fetched for urban native seed gardens and some represent small or highly specialized market niches, the fact is that these markets exist and companies outside Chicago produce native plant materials for our markets and profit from them. Chicago loses economic opportunities and capital by having our markets served by outside growers.

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The scope of this environmental justice analysis is only a brief overview of the currently documented problems, a few local examples and some potential solutions that the native seed gardens may be able to provide. Environmental justice has been defined as, "racial discrimination in environmental policymaking, enforcement of regulations and laws, and targeting of communities of color for toxic waste disposal and siting of polluting industries." by Reverend Benjamin Chavis, formerly of the United Church of Christ's Commission for Racial Justice, who invented the term.79 Most of the environmental justice discussion is woven into the rest of this document since it quickly became apparent that this "topic" could not be separated out from the others being studied. One may wonder what environmental justice has to do with native seed production. The very premise of the native seed garden proposal being investigated was that it is a means for revitalizing vacant land in the inner-city. Many of the reasons there is so much vacant land in some communities is that they have become disinvested due to racial or class discrimination.80 At one time this land was not vacant at all but filled with homes, businesses or schools. When little new development takes place and as existing buildings and businesses deteriorate because of denial of capital or social isolation communities crumble. Without public or private investment there are no new businesses to take their place, often unemployment and crime become overwhelming. Worldwide, poverty is one of the leading causes of environmental degradation.81 This ties environmental justice directly to economic justice.

As more people move out of the city in search of jobs, urban sprawl takes over the countryside and natural areas fall under greater development pressure while biodiversity suffers. Utilizing vacant land in inner-city neighborhoods helps to curb this trend while it also directs resources to areas that need them the most. It is important to remember that even though these communities may be blighted, they are still home to tens of thousands of people. The vacant land belongs to the community members whether by direct ownership or by a long history of living in relation to it. The native seed gardens' success in caring for the social and economic needs of these communities will directly effect its ability to promote the concept of enhancing biodiversity.


Recently, in the face of charges of racism, many of the country's largest environmental and conservation groups have begun to address this situation directly by launching national affirmative-action hiring and outreach programs. Several of Chicago's prominent conservation groups, including the Forest Preserve District of Cook County (FPDCC), the Sierra Club and The Nature Conservancy, have initiated programs in areas such as diversity training for staff and outreach to local communities. Some positive examples are The Nature Conservancy's Mighty Acorns program which gives inner-city and suburban elementary children learning experiences while performing ecological restoration and the FPDCC's Youth Opportunity Corps which hires high school students from economically disadvantaged communities to perform and learn about ecological restoration work.

The federal government has also made environmental justice a priority. President Clinton signed an "Executive Order on Environmental Justice" in February of this year that offers "guidance to all federal agencies to in addressing environmental justice through Title VI (which prohibits use of federal funds in ways that have a racially discriminatory effect) and through the National Environmental Policy Act.", furthermore, "The agencies have one year to develop implementation plans for the Order."82

Think Locally

Most people do not know what ecological restoration is and even fewer \ understand how propagating native seeds can offset the loss of biodiversity. The positive aspect of this is that there is still time and room to modify the agenda and definitions of this rapidly growing field to embrace larger social issues. Since ecological restoration has not yet been pigeon-holed as part of horticulture, environmental regulation or industrial ecology it is possible to broaden its definition to include environmental justice issues. This will be more beneficial than being accused of environmental racism and then trying to back-paddle and mend the damage in the future. Because many of the most successful ecological restoration projects in the Chicago area have been completed by volunteers, people already are experienced in the human issues involved with restoration work. Expanding the volunteer effort represents a significant opportunity for addressing environmental justice issues.

There are several local opportunities that the restoration community can approach. In Altgeld Gardens on Chicago's southeast side, People for Community Recovery (PCR) "is one of the nation's only environmental education and advocacy organizations which has its roots in a public housing project."83, writes Cheryl Johnson, one of the organization's leaders. They are fighting pollution that is directly impacting their community and lives. They have also started a community garden as part of the Resource Center's Turn-A-Lot-Around program. The larger Lake Calumet area, in which Altgeld Gardens is located, is 140 square miles of some of the most toxic land in the country and also one of the largest wetland systems in the Chicago area. These wetlands contain numerous endangered and threatened species. It drew local attention as one of the potential sites for Chicago's proposed third airport. The plan was defeated amid much controversy over displacement of local residents, cleanup of toxic waste and economic issues. A local citizen's group was created to promote turning part of this area into a national park. Furthermore, the U.S. EPA has begun a program in this area called the Southeast Chicago Urban Environmental Initiative to address the problems of pollution and environmental racism. Local residents are justifiably skeptical of the government program due to past disappointments and are pushing the EPA to adopt some of their goals.84 PCR is also distrustful of the national environmental groups taking over the project, "We don't need no middlemen. We want the money because we can educate our community about the environment. The environmental perspective of[national environmental groups] is totally different from our perspective. They haven't had the experience and they haven't addressed urban issues."85

Potential Solutions

The native seed gardens proposal can only go so far in addressing environmental justice issues. Yet there is some common ground that the native seed gardens can create. Jobs in ecological restoration and native horticulture require an understanding of botany, ecology, hydrology and much more. This understanding includes the language of these disciplines. Conservation professionals and businesses already in these fields need to learn the language of urban environmental and development issues as well. It is wrong to say that urban residents just do not have the ecological knowledge to make native seed garden businesses successful. This is simply prejudice. The native horticulture and ecological restoration industries are so new that very few people anywhere have this knowledge. As the native horticulture industry grows more educational and professional links between people will be created.

Restoration of specifically urban natural areas employing urban residents would be extremely helpful in bridging the gap between people. Even though direct empowerment of volunteers has produced amazing results, this approach can be limited as currently designed within the proposed setting of blighted urban neighborhoods. These organizations are predominantly white, middle and upper-middle class, have access to private vehicles to reach sites which are outside the city. They are also heavily supported by non-profit conservation and government agency staff and have large, publicly held property to work on. Most importantly, volunteer ecological restoration is a form of recreation, not employment, for these people. Significantly redesigning this effort to focus on densely urban areas could generate a better understanding for all people for the issues that conservationists struggle with to preserve biodiversity and what inner-city residents struggle with to survive.

Concern for environmental degradation is another area where there can be common ground. Recognizing the interdependence between the environment, human and ecosystem health has been part of the environmental movement since its inception. Jane Addams, the 19th century community activist, first gained notoriety by taking on environmental issues when she demanded better sanitation and garbage pick-up services in Chicago's poor neighborhoods.86 How does this relate to native seed gardens? By making urban environmental health issues part of the ecological restoration community's agenda perhaps the environmental movement's mistakes of the past can be avoided. The definition of environmentalism has changed. As the ecological restoration industry grows and prospers it will no longer maintain the relative solitude is now enjoys. Regardless of the "science only" work that many people in the field now identify themselves with, ecological issues such as federal wetland definitions and the Endangered Species Act are political not just ecological. Avoiding the human issues involved in restoration only imperils the future of this movement.

Plants must be cared for by people in order to thrive. Gardening has been used in therapy programs because it encourages people to think beyond themselves and care for another living thing which often has a healing effect. Perhaps when people come together to care for these living plants and seeds they will look beyond racial boundaries for a moment and realize that their mutual existence is based on the health of Earth. Every new restoration project creates new advocates for the protection of biodiversity and a greater demand for the seeds that the native seed garden businesses will produce. The key to successfully addressing environmental justice issues is for the ecological restoration community to also become advocates for the protection of human diversity.


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