Skip common site navigation and headers
United States Environmental Protection Agency
Great Lakes Ecosystems
Begin Hierarchical Links EPA Home > Great Lakes EcosystemsUpland Ecosystems > 1993 Oak Savanna Conferences > Lynne M. Westphal
Aquatic Ecosystems
EPA Region 5 Critical Ecosystems
Ecosystem Funding
Great Lakes Basin Ecosystem
Great Lakes Biological Diversity
Green Landscaping
Rivers and Streams
Upland Ecosystem



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



Lynne M. Westphal
U.S. Forest Service Experimental Station
845 Chicago Ave., Suite 225
Evanston, IL 60202
Tel: (847) 866-9311


Volunteers play a crucial role in the restoration of savanna ecosystems, but little is known about the motivations of these volunteers. Recent research indicates that a desire for an improved connection with nature, an ability to do something tangible to help the environment, and a deep appreciation of the aesthetic and emotional benefits of nature play a key role in a volunteer's choosing to work in urban ecosystem restoration. Implications of these findings for managers and planners are addressed.


We know that birds and bees play a real, integral role in the functioning of savanna ecosystems, but in many savannas, be they existing or reemerging, volunteers play an equally important role. Without volunteers, many of the gains in prairie and savanna restoration would have been impossible. Future success in the restoration movement, too, depends on volunteers, so understanding them is important. We need to know how many volunteers are there, what they are doing, and why they are doing it. This last item is the focus of this paper.


Why are these volunteers drawn to restoration work? What values do they have about the natural world, and do these values motivate them to volunteer? Research with the TreeKeepers, a group of urban forestry volunteers organized by the Openlands Project in Chicago, sheds some light on these questions. This research used surveys, participant observation, and interviews to examine the values and motivations of volunteers involved in preserving and restoring urban forests and natural areas. 

The TreeKeepers are trained in tree planting and care in a series of classes taught by urban forestry professionals. The survey was administered to the first two groups of TreeKeepers before the training course orientation session. It combined open and closed-ended questions, and asked about what the participants' attitudes and values were about trees, why they signed up for the volunteer program, what their previous "greening" activities had been, where they lived and grew up, and other demographic questions. The participant observation part of the study included the researcher's attendance at all class sessions and several workdays. Ten participants were interviewed in depth in their neighborhoods (where they could show their local projects or problem areas).

Responses to several of the survey questions will be presented in this paper, with supporting material from other survey questions and interviews with the volunteers. These questions include a values ranking exercise, "What are your favorite outdoor activities, and why are they favorite?" and "Is there a tree that is (or was) special or important to you; if yes, what is (or was) special or important about this tree?" 

Results indicate that several key areas are involved in the desire to volunteer. These are: searching for an improved connection with nature, having an ability to do something tangible to help the environment, and recognizing the aesthetic and emotional benefits of nature. These three areas are intertwined and complex. 


The values ranking exercise presented respondents with a diverse list of values of trees in their community and asked them to pick the five most important to them (figure 1). The top five values selected were bring nature closer, provides shade, are pleasing to the eye, provide environmental benefits, and provide spiritual values (figure 2). 

The interrelatedness of these benefits is particularly clear in the volunteers' open-ended responses. Each benefit is related to at least one other, for instance:

...shade envelopes you, it's like "oh," it's comforting, when it's really hot out, to be able to sit in shade. I think it refreshes your soul, besides your body..... The picture in my mind right now is this huge oak, and you're in the middle of this meadow on a hot summer day, and there's something very protective, very enveloping, comforting, very homey about being in that shade. 

Bringing nature closer and providing spiritual benefits are both included in this comment about shade. 

Another volunteer spoke about her reasons for joining the program:

...I wanted to take advantage of a class that offered intensive learning and an opportunity to give something back to the environment! I remember when the tree in front of my apartment (when I was a girl) was cut down because of Dutch elm disease--I felt terrible about this one piece of nature outside my window being lost....

A need to help the environment while working to bring nature closer are both important to this volunteer. Environmental benefits are direct--the air is cleaner or habitat restored--but also, as mentioned in the previous quote, volunteering is a way to "give something back to the environment." 


The respondents listed many different outdoor activities they enjoy, including common activities like walking or gardening, to more unusual ones (at least for urbanites) like dog sledding and paleontology. Yet there was one overriding reason why volunteers enjoyed these activities: getting closer to nature.

Examples of comments about gardening as an activity include: "[gardening] satisfies creative needs and enjoyment of green beauty, feeds curiosity," "because I can coexist with nature and observe," "connection with nature/plant growth process," "it makes me feel one with the earth and nature," and "allows for developing knowledge about plants...." 

These comments highlight an important component of the need for improved interactions with nature. For some, this interaction is driven by curiosity and a need for exploration. The Nature Conservancy thinks of some of their volunteers as "citizen scientists" (Ross, 1992). Citizen scientists often become experts in an aspect of savanna restoration--for instance, learning all there is to know about sedges, and then adding to the body of knowledge through their own investigations. This intense fascination can lead volunteers deeper and deeper into the project.


When asked about special trees, some respondents mentioned certain species, while others told stories about specific trees. Of the tree species mentioned, oaks were named most often. Comments about them include:

  • There were three large trees in the middle of a prairie across from our new subdivision where I grew up. We played in and around them constantly. 
  • Oak--they're beautiful, slow growing and hearty. 
  • Bur oak--a tree native to prairie. 
  • There was a huge oak tree at the bottom of our garden on our neighbor's side of the stream. One day when I was about eleven years old I came home from school and it had been cut down. Twenty six years later there is still a wound in the sky. 

The quote earlier about shade also mentioned oaks--that "homey," "comforting" feeling was provided by an oak savanna ("a huge oak... in the middle of [a] meadow...").

Oaks were found to be particularly well liked. Do the survey respondents, who were primarily from the Chicago area, have an innate appreciation for the pre-development ecosystem? Regardless, the appreciation of oaks and the eloquence of some of these stories show strong emotional ties some people have to the natural world around them. These ties may underlie the desire to volunteer for these restoration activities.


Implications are often given in terms of what managers and planners might do differently with their volunteer programs because of the research findings. However, in this field, many of the managers and planners are the volunteers. Many of the sites the volunteers work on do have professional (that is, schooled in the area and paid for their work) land managers responsible for them. Still, we must realize that the neat distinctions of "professional" and "volunteer," of "expert" and "amateur" are blurred in this field. 

Understanding underlying values and motivations can help with outreach and recruitment of new volunteers. Local chapters of the Nature Conservancy and the Sierra Club are obvious sources of new volunteers. But people who want to help the environment in a direct, tangible way (as many of these volunteers want to do) may be found at recycling centers, or perhaps the McDonald's brochure rack (where they tout their environmental sensitivity).

The desire for an improved connection with nature is a strong driving force. It is a deep connection, that gets to people's private thoughts and feelings. People need an open, safe environment where acknowledging these feelings, and talking about them if they want to, is ok. Managers often talk about economics and other measures of the benefits of these places. But we also need to leave room for the "touchy feely" stuff because it may well be why people volunteer.

The development of "citizen scientists" is a unique aspect of this volunteer activity. The quotes earlier about "feeding curiosity" and about nature providing a place to "explore" exemplify this need to study more, learn more, and discover more. As volunteers follow through on this, they will be managing more of the restoration project, and perhaps changing roles over time. Let them do it. (On a pragmatic note, more volunteers leave because they are under used than because they are over worked [Ellis, 1993]).

Don't assume this need for better interactions with nature is only important to Euro-Americans or to the middle class. The values and motivations discussed in this paper were common to all ethnic groups and income levels in the study. Similarly, restoration activities are present in diverse areas. For example, the Markham Prairie restoration project takes place in an economically mixed, predominantly African-American community. Yet the local desire to save the prairie is strong (Vernón, 1993). These interests are not cornered by any particular ethnic group or social class; they are human characteristics and needs shared by many.


Deep, strong ties to the natural world among the volunteers responding to the survey were very clear. A desire to bring nature closer, to act directly to improve the environment, and to support and restore natural areas to have places for rejuvenating mind and spirit, seems to motivate many volunteers. Similarly, an intense curiosity and desire to learn lead some of these people to become citizen scientists. Together, the volunteers work to restore ecosystems as they restore their own relationships with nature.


Ellis, Susan. 1993. USDA Forest Service State & Private Foresty Community Involvement Workshop, Philadelphia, PA. January 9 - 11, 1993.

Ross, Laurel. 1992. Personal Communication, cites Gerould Wilhelm, Plant Taxonomist of The Morton Arboretum, with creating the term "citizen scientist."

Vernón, Karla. 1993. "When Economics Competes with Volunteering, Truck Stops and Incinerators Versus National Natural Landmarks" Presented at the Midwest Oak Savanna Conference, February 20, 1993. Chicago, IL.


Begin Site Footer

EPA Home | Privacy and Security Notice | Contact Us