Learn-and-Lead Groups Forming

Not just in the rain forest, here in Illinois we are losing rare species – even from thought-to-be-safe nature preserves. What is the problem? Lack of educated stewards to care for them. Inspiring examples have shown that local volunteers can learn fast and save the day.

Steward Seminar Groups or “Lead and Learn” groups are forming at many preserves – and are needed at hundreds. With help from Friends of Illinois Nature Preserves, these initiatives are creating something new. Might you like to take part? Or even help design the program? If so, read on.

With common sense and expert guidance, most people can quickly learn what it takes.

Much of what nature needs is easy to learn by any person with the will to do so. For some preserves, that have long been hemorrhaging quality and species, the simple action of cutting the smothering buckthorn would make a night-and-day difference. How much does a steward need to learn to recognize this invasive tree? About ten minutes for most people to be good at it. She or he also needs to learn how to cut that tree down safely … about ten minutes more … if you don’t already know. And you’ve made a start.

There’s so much more to it, of course, in time, to be a full-fledged steward. See Endnote 1. But getting started doesn’t take much. And then we educate each other, as more and more people start to learn and take initiative.

A good example is Short Pioneer Cemetery Prairie Nature Preserve in Grundy County. A 2010 article in the journal of the Illinois Native Plant Society revealed that this rare dry-mesic sand prairie was suffering from “a dramatic decrease” – with fifteen species having been lost since 1977. For ten years following that article, no one took much notice.

But early in 2020, a report appeared on the Friends website. It warned that the preserve “… appears not to have been burned recently. Also needs cutting to remove shade …”

Somehow Mike Campbell saw that brief call for help. Prospective volunteer Mike didn’t know much about sand prairies, but he’d taken eco-initiative by installing osprey nesting platforms. He worked nearby and offered to help. Soon a dozen volunteers responded to outreach from Mike and Matt Evans from the Friends. Along with Nature Preserves staffer Kim Roman (like Mike and Matt, another get-things-done person), they burned the site, cut more than half the brush, despite Covid-19, and gathered seed to restore the shaded-out, bare-ground areas. Two owners of neighboring land have offered help, thanks to good outreach by Mike. People care. We just need to know where, when, and how.

These groups are forming in Kankakee, Grundy, Cook and Lake Counties. The best way to learn to start one is to join one. As Eriko Kojima puts it, the “special sauce” that makes these groups work is the way these people are learning to relate to each other – the “work and learn” approach – the quick empowerment of people who are ready to contribute. Check in on one of these groups for a while, and perhaps you’ll want to stay, or perhaps you’ll want to start a new group at one of the many preserves that need them. Experienced and apprentice leaders take time for small group seminars to study, discuss, and plan during “workdays.” Or we meet separately for longer and more detailed field seminars when we can.

Illinois has 596 nature preserves and land and water reserves, with new sites getting legal protection all the time. But that’s just a start. Each of Illinois’ nine Nature Preserve field reps has an average of 66 preserves to watch over.

Unfilled needs at the preserves are substantial. How much can one person do for each? See Endnote 2.

Every site is different. Some needed parts of the work are more technically demanding than others. Fine, see Endnote 3. But people are available to help solve all problems. What’s needed for most sites is a person or two with strong will and intention to do right by nature. Might you be such a person?


Endnote 1

Initially, any new steward needs help. The stumps will just re-sprout without stump-killer. Many staff and volunteers have passed the test and are authorized to apply safe herbicides. These people are spread thin, so it’s best for local people to get authorized as soon as they can, which is not hard. But there are “spread-thin” people who’ll help a new group get started.

Endnote 2

The Illinois Nature Preserves System has many parts. It was designed with urgency and awareness that the threats and stresses are so great that nature needs all the help it can get. Many agencies own nature preserves, and some of them have biodiversity management staff. In addition to the nine Nature Preserve staffers, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources has fourteen regions, each with a Heritage Biologist who has primary responsibility for nature preserves owned by the state and can sometimes help with others.

These people are all over-busy and only have time for actions and people who will contribute more than what they cost (in resources or time). Yes, of course, the system needs more staff and resources of many kinds. We get them in part from informed and active constituency. Everyone who helps deserves appreciation.

Endnote 3

Conservation education takes many forms. If you commit yourself to the pleasures and challenges of biodiversity stewardship, you can take courses or learn as you do. Either approach may suit you, whether you do it as a lifelong volunteer or become a professional. Many volunteers over time develop high-level expertise. See other blog posts in Strategies for Stewards for many examples.

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