I spent last Saturday afternoon at a natural-areas conference organized by the Illinois Chapter of the Nature Conservancy and jointly sponsored by the Conservancy and several other public and private conservation groups.

The conference drew more than 100 participants to Moraine Valley Community College in Palos Hills. The goal was to round up interested people to expand the Volunteer Stewardship Network, a group that works in the six counties of northeastern Illinois on the problem of how to keep our natural areas natural. The main focus was on the many natural areas in southern Cook County and in neighboring Will and Grundy counties.

Steve Packard, a field representative for the Nature Conservancy and the man who started the stewardship network, opened the afternoon with a look back at the glories of presettlement Illinois, a review of the grim recent history of nature in our state, and a look at the sort of work stewards do to protect the tiny fragments of natural Illinois that remain.

Two panel discussions followed, one featuring representatives of the public agencies that own most of the areas, and the other featuring experienced volunteer stewards, people who have signed up to devote their free time to maintaining, or improving, a natural area.

If you haven’t been involved in any of this kind of activity, it may seem odd that people have to work to keep natural areas natural. Shouldn’t nature keep on being nature as long as we don’t interfere? Won’t things remain as they always have if we just keep the bulldozers out?

Unfortunately, the answer is no. In case you haven’t noticed, the war between humanity and nature is over. The humans won. However, our victory celebration turned a bit sour when we realized that fighting a war with nature was like engaging in a duel to the death with your liver. Having achieved total victory, we can stave off total defeat only by reviving our old adversary, and thanks to our unremitting assaults, it is desperately in need of reviving.

You may remember being told back in grade school about something called the balance of nature. The idea is that all the triumphs and catastrophes enjoyed or suffered by individual bobolinks or sunflowers or monarch butterflies would balance each other, producing a grand harmony.

Keeping this harmony alive has been a major goal of American conservationists for as long as there have been any American conservationists. Go back to the beginning of the century and you see conservationists creating the National Forest system, the National Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service and its wildlife refuges, and, locally, the Cook County Forest Preserve System.

In 1964, we created the national wilderness system. And we have private organizations, the Nature Conservancy is the largest of them, with extensive systems of their own.

Until quite recently, most of the lands in these systems were indeed managed as if everything from bunny rabbits to grizzly bears would prosper as they always had if we just gave them the space. If any management was done, it was usually applied to a small number of species, a particularly valuable timber tree, or game animals–especially deer–that hunters wanted to catch.

Bitter experience has revealed that noninterference just won’t work much of the time. Rare species unaccountably disappear from preserves set up specifically to protect them. Land that has been prairie for thousands of years becomes, in a few decades, a young forest. Marshes where black terns or American bitterns had probably nested since the recession of the glaciers are suddenly devoid of these birds.

When biologists began to investigate the reasons for these disappearances, they discovered that our sanctuaries were really not places of safety. They were, in fact, under constant assault from an army of enemies. Some of these enemies were easy to see and understand, but others were so subtle that we could only learn of their existence by recording the harm they did.

So biologists and interested amateurs have been devoting increasing attention to what is called restoration biology or restoration ecology, and Chicago, for a number of reasons, is a major center for this kind of work.

Restoration biology treats an entire ecosystem, rather than a particular species, as the unit to be managed. Keep the ecosystem healthy and the individual species will do just fine.

The toughest problem, the one we can only ameliorate and not solve, is a direct result of Columbus’s discovery of America. People have been living in Illinois for thousands of years, but they used to be here in much smaller numbers and they used to depend on a technology that was much less obtrusive than our present high-energy, high-production methods. Humans used to live on islands in a sea of prairie, savanna, and woodland. Now we are the sea and nature is the island. The grand harmony will not continue to sound unless we can figure out how to keep it tuned up.

Chicago’s prominence in restoration biology is partly based on the unpleasant fact that the assault on nature had gone farther here than it had in most of the rest of the country. Nature in northern Illinois had vanished not just from the ground but from historic memory as well. Thirty years ago, even biologists didn’t know what prairies really were.

Since then we have seen a modest comeback. Many unprotected natural areas were destroyed, but a number of new areas were brought into one preserve system or other. Most important, our native prairies and savannas enjoyed a revival in the minds of the people, a revival sufficient to bring these 100 people out on a pleasant Saturday afternoon to hear what they might do to sustain and restore the native landscape.

The goals of their work would be very high indeed. Ecosystems are the most complex entities on earth, perhaps the most complex entities in the universe. Stewards are operating at the frontiers of human knowledge, just like high energy physicists with their accelerators and astronomers with their radio telescopes.

Of course, the nice irony here is that the stewards are not working with expensive supertech toys but with shovels and scythes and lopping shears and handsaws. Those are the kinds of machines that we use to carry on this probe into places that no human has gone before. This highly intellectual enterprise is advanced mainly by manual labor.

As the stewards panel made clear, volunteers spend a good deal of time checking to see if vandals have torn a hole in the fence or ripped down the signs identifying the preserve. Garbage collection is always a major priority. We may have lost our lead in electronics to the Japanese, the Germans may make better cars, but we still lead the world in the production of garbage.

And then there is brush cutting. Our weakened little islands are all vulnerable to invasion, particularly by the pestiferous alien shrub called European buckthorn. My guess would be that cutting buckthorn consumes more hours than all the rest of a steward’s tasks combined.

The rewards for all this stoop labor are slow in coming. You may have to wait three years or more for any visible change in the landscape of your preserve. But when it comes, it is wonderful. Steve showed us slides of Bluff Spring Fen near Elgin. Fens are very rare in this part of the world, and they support a distinctive flora, including plants that grow in no other kind of situation. Eight species of plants that live at Bluff Springs Fen are on the endangered or threatened list in Illinois.

A few years ago, Bluff Spring Fen was a dump. Dirt bikes and four-wheel-drive vehicles were gouging trenches where nothing grew. Abandoned cars littered the ground and brush was shading out the rare plants. Today, after thousands of hours of volunteer labor, it is a jewel, as it should be. And the people who did all that work have to feel that it was all worth it.

If you would like to get involved with the Volunteer Stewardship Network, you can call Steve Packard at the Nature Conservancy, 346-8166.