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Chicago Wilderness

he lands stretching south and west from the shores of Lake Michigan hold one of North America's great metropolises. More than nine million people live in northwestern Indiana, northeastern Illinois and southeastern Wisconsin. Living among them, on islands of green, are thousands of species of native plants and animals - species that make up some of the rarest natural communities on earth. We call these communities, and the lands and waters that are their homes, Chicago Wilderness.

Chicago Wilderness is some of the finest and most significant nature in the temperate world, with roughly 200,000 acres of protected natural lands harboring native plant and animal communities that are more rare and their survival more globally threatened than the tropical rain forests.

Chicago Wilderness: A Regional Nature Reserve is an unprecedented alliance of 178 public and private organizations working together to study and restore, protect and manage the precious natural resources of the Chicago region for the benefit of the public.

Stephen Packard, Chicago Wilderness

Steve Packard

Steve Packard helps restore health to Illinois prairies, woodlands, and wetlands.

hat I'm walking through here is a restored savanna. This is a kind of natural community that was thought to be extinct -- people brought it back by doing hard work. It surprises some people that nature is something people can restore through hard work, but these plants wouldn't be here without the work that's been done. The birds that are singing, they wouldn't be here, raising their babies, if the habitat hadn't been restored.

We started working on this site 25 years ago. Hundreds of people have put their hearts into this now-rich ecosystem. Over 100 species of rare plants now make up the majority of the vegetation, restored by people who worked hard on them.

This is Prairie Dropseed Grass, the "grass of grasses," very typical grass of the high quality savannas. This one is Indian Grass. All the grass was planted, some of the wild orchids, a number of endangered species; they're all thriving here, because people did the work to bring them back.

This ecosystem looks like nature -- and it is nature. But that's only because people have been taking care of it for 25 years.

These open groves of oaks were burned by the Native Americans for thousands of years. They're now dependant on us burning them, controlled burns, doing what the Native Americans used to do. This area was burned this spring just a few weeks back, and the ecosystem responds spectacularly, so the richness of nature is once again dependant on something that people do to help it.

n the Chicago metropolitan area we have a lot more nature than they do in the rural areas in the Midwest. The agricultural counties are mostly corn and soybeans. We have hundreds of thousands of acres of this beautiful nature.

This pond here, when we first started working on it was bare mud, it was covered with invasive trees. It now has two endangered plant species living in it and more than 50 plants typical of high quality ecosystems. It's one of the surprising things to people that nature is doing so well in the urban areas, but it's because people care for it.

Way back in the 70s, I started reading about these threatened ecosystems and went around to visit them, and the literature told how threatened these ecosystems were and how they were going to go away, and no one was doing anything about it. I thought, well what if I put out the word and ask people to help?

Bit by bit people helped, organizations started to help, after some time we started the coalition which is called Chicago Wilderness which is now over 170 organizations, all the federal agencies, the county agencies, the not for profits.

It was a bigger challenge than volunteers could handle. Initially this was all volunteers doing this, but there are 300,000 acres of beautiful nature that are very much appreciated by the people, worth tens of billions of dollars, and we realized it would take millions of dollars to do the work to keep it healthy.

So the Chicago Wilderness collaboration began looking for federal money, state money, local money, more importantly reaching out to more partners so that now there are so many, it's hard to keep track of all the educational groups, community groups, service groups, public agencies from all levels, not-for-profit agencies, that are working together to make this a model for nature as a part of the life of a developed culture.

hen people moved to the Midwest they talked of how beautiful it was, and the savannas are very much like the Eden of the human race, the area in Africa where our species developed. Our hearts go out to a beautiful ecosystem like this, especially since it was really on the edge. There was very little left of some of these ecosystems: there was not a single high-quality prairie left that was big enough for a single pair of prairie birds to breed in. Prairie birds were holding out in agricultural fields and not doing so well, so the surprising part is the discovery that it's possible to take care of nature, that we can bring nature back.

It's a challenging thing but a wonderful thing - the realization that nature is dependant on people. We used to have this concept that we should just leave nature alone and that's the only relationship we could have with it, as if we were aliens in nature.

In fact we very much belong. Ever since the glaciers pulled back 12,000 years ago people have been a part of this, and we're now learning to have a compatible role in the ecosystem again.

It seems important to the future of the planet that we can develop a quality of life in metropolitan areas. People want to be where there are jobs, they want to be where there's culture, where there's symphonies, where there's blues bars, and yet it hurts people to be out of touch with nature.

People are hungry to have the experience of being in a wild beautiful place -- it's a place to go for a wedding, or to think about a funeral. It's a place that people feel makes their life richer, so property values are higher closer to nature preserves, companies want to move to places where people can enjoy a quality of life that includes nature. It's pretty important to the future of cities that we know how nature can be a healthy place, in and around metropolitan areas.

eople ask how long this restoration will take. I compare restoration to building a cathedral, there are so many expertises involved, and it takes generations. This area is inspiring to all of us; it is so much richer and healthier than it was 20 years ago, and yet decade after decade it's going to be better. When we buy a car or when people buy things we're sort of very excited about them, and bit by bit they get worse and start to fall apart. But nature is different. This is the worst you'll ever see it; it's just going to get better and better, and it will be doing that for generations.

The pace of restoration of nature in a metropolitan area is picking up by orders of magnitude. We used to tackle areas that were an acre or two and it was a challenge to know how to do it/ Pretty soon we could get 10-acre or 100-acre pieces, now we're working on 1,000-acre and making plans for 10,000-acre pieces.

So it's been an inspiration in my lifetime to see something that was incomprehensible become something that people can take care of -- not because we can understand it at all. Restoration is kind of like medicine and taking care of people. There's a lot we don't understand about people, but there are things that we can do to restore health, and that's what we're doing with nature.

Next: Chicago Wilderness: An Oxymoron?

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