By Ben Joravsky

In a million years the activists couldn’t have imagined their 20-year restoration endeavor would come down to this: rooms filled with accusatory residents angrily demanding explanations.

Leaders of the highly lauded movement to restore several thousand acres of Cook County forest preserves recently have been accused of needlessly cutting and poisoning trees. The restorationists insist they’ve been misunderstood, but in many ways they have no one to blame but themselves for the situation. Right or wrong on the merits of restoration, they’ve been abysmal at dealing with the public.

At the center of the dispute is the North Branch Prairie Restoration project, in which thousands of volunteers have picked up garbage, cleared away invasive foliage, and made hundreds of acres of forest preserves healthier and more beautiful. Much of the effort was overseen by the Nature Conservancy, a national not-for-profit organization, and its state science director, Steve Packard, and by volunteers like John Balaban, a high school science teacher from Skokie. Their mission has been to return the forest preserves to the way they were early in the 19th century before the region was settled. That means beating back invading species such as the European buckthorn that have overwhelmed those trees, plants, and flowers that once throve in the woods and fields around Chicago.

To the untrained, who can’t tell one plant from another, it’s a dubious cause. But to scientists and environmentalists it’s a noble effort, nothing less than an opportunity to guarantee that the “ecosystem stability can be maintained, evolutionary processes can continue, new species can eventually emerge, and biodiversity can continue to be maintained into the future,” as New York Times science reporter William Stevens once put it. Certainly, their diligence is beyond dispute. It’s been a massive undertaking involving a diverse and dedicated bunch of volunteers eager to spend their weekends toiling in the fields. At first they limited their efforts to weeding out invading species (destroying aliens, as they might say). Eventually they resorted to fires, tree cutting, and herbicides.

The fires burn away the brush that cuts off the sunlight that native plants and trees (particularly the oak) need to survive. “The Indians set fires all the time,” says Balaban. “They discovered the vegetation and ground was fresh, green, and young after a fire. And that animals flocked there. It’s not drastic–we take care to make sure the fire doesn’t get out of control.”

And tree cutting?

“I’d say we’ve cut less than 50 mature trees that are ten inches in diameter. You know, there are two ways to describe trees. We could describe one scientifically as something with a single trunk that grows into a canopy. But ask the average person what’s a tree, he’ll draw something much taller. If that’s what you mean by a tree, we don’t cut them.”

And herbicides?

“We went into this thinking we were not going to use chemicals. Then we cut a buckthorn without herbicides and the next year we came back and there were four buckthorn there. Restoration isn’t going to work if we have to cut the same acre every year. We use herbicides the safest way, applying them directly to the stump with a paintbrush. And the herbicides we use [Garlon, Rodeo, and Roundup] have been selected because of their low toxicity and low persistence in the soil. You know, Tylenol is more toxic than the Garlon we use.”

Their methods were hailed by environmentalists and approved by Forest Preserve District officials Joseph Nevius and Ralph Thornton. People outside the movement didn’t seem to be paying attention, although restorationists lectured, led forums, took children on hikes, and were even the subject of a highly praised book, William Stevens’s Miracle Under the Oaks. By 1995 they had over 3,000 volunteers working on 17,000 acres in the Chicago area, according to Stevens.

In fact, complaints erupted only after the restorationists made their way to the woods surrounding Edgebrook, on Chicago’s far northwest side. “They invited me to a meeting and told me a little about what they were doing,” says Mary Lou Quinn, a longtime Edgebrook resident. “I listened to them, but it didn’t make sense. Why would you want to turn back the clock to 19th-century Illinois? They were talking about making prairies out of woodlands. To me it sounded like cutting down trees. I asked about the fires and they said, ‘Don’t worry.’ I said, ‘But there’s houses around.’ They said, ‘We know what we’re doing.’ Then I read Miracle Under the Oaks. Since then my life has never been the same.”

In his book, Stevens mostly praises the restorationists, likening Packard to Thoreau, but he also describes some of their more deceptive techniques. The restorationists, he writes, “took pains not to attract the opposition of people whose sensibilities about nature, however uninformed, might be offended.” They “trod lightly, even sneakily,” clearing brush and planting “as discreetly as possible.” To screen their activities, they left “a wall of brush in place along the bicycle trail or roadside. Behind the screen, they would cut a little brush here, and little there, and make their plantings. Eventually the plantings would flower and everything would look stable and lovely, and only then would they cut away the roadside screens. After the vegetation had grown up, they removed unwanted invading trees (always called brush by the North Branchers, to deflect criticism) by girdling them below the vegetation line, where the killing cut could not be seen. Then the tree would slowly fade away and no one would notice. The whole idea was to keep people from becoming upset about destroying ‘nature’ so that nature could actually be restored.”

After Quinn read the book, it dawned on her why the woods looked thinner and why there were so many stumps in the woods. What was useless brush to the restorationists was important buffer to Quinn, blocking the woods from the noise and traffic of the industrial world outside.

The restorationists’ work didn’t look so “stable and lovely” to her. She walked through nearby Miami Woods, part of the forest preserve east of Caldwell in Morton Grove, and was aghast to discover that she could see a road, a parking lot, and the back of a warehouse. “You could never see that before–they knocked down our buffer,” she says. “No wonder they were sneaky. They wanted to avoid an open debate because they knew there would be opposition. Outside those woods are roads, factories, and malls. These trees, even the buckthorn, are our buffer. Who are they to destroy that? Who made them gods of the forest preserve?”

Within a few weeks she had recruited politicians, Edgebrook residents, and Sun-Times columnist Ray Coffey to her cause. In September, after several columns by Coffey, Alderman Margaret Laurino held a City Council hearing on the matter. It was there that residents saw comprehensive master plans and learned that the restorationists were using herbicides.

“I was shocked,” says Petra Blix, who lives near Quinn. “I thought they were only going to restore an acre here or there. But their plans talked about restoring thousands of acres. I’m for restoration of appropriate areas, but I’m against cutting down forests to make them something else. We don’t have that much forest left and I think we should protect what we have. And the herbicides? My God, how could they use the herbicides and not tell anybody? My children play in those woods.”

The Forest Preserve District sent a spokesman to meet with residents in September and assure them that one of the restorationists’ primary goals was to preserve and protect oak trees. But the residents were not reassured. To them it seemed the restorationists were maddeningly evasive. They said they only planned to work on 5,000 acres, but their master plans mentioned many more. They said they would leave picnic areas and recreational fields alone, yet Quinn has pictures of a picnic grove and baseball diamond converted into a prairie. It was clear that the restorationists didn’t know how many trees they had destroyed, since they weren’t keeping count. “We’d talk to them about trees and they talked to us about biodiversity,” says Quinn. “We showed them pictures of stumps, and they said those are buckthorn, not trees. They said some trees had died on their own. Only later did I find out that they had died because they had girdled them.”

To Quinn and her neighbors, the restorationists sounded eerily like U.S. officials who said they had to burn the villages of Vietnam in order to save them. “Only they say they’re going to cut down the forests to save the oaks,” says Blix. “They can be so condescending. They kept saying the herbicides are safe, and I kept asking, ‘But where are your scientific studies?’ There’s nothing dogmatic about science–ideas are continually changing and being revised. How do they know the herbicides they use won’t turn out to be much more dangerous than feared? What if those herbicides don’t do the job? What if the buckthorn comes back? Will they resort to something even more toxic? At one point Ralph Thornton said, ‘The people have to be educated.’ I said, ‘With all due respect, Mr. Thornton, I have a PhD in molecular biology from the University of Chicago. I don’t need to be educated.'”

The controversy caught the commissioners of the Cook County Board by surprise. Few of them had been paying attention to what the restorationists were up to. “I thought they were, you know, weeding–you know, like you do in your garden,” says one commissioner. “When I saw pictures of the stumps, I said, ‘Hey, what’s going on here?'”

Now the commissioners had to do something, anything, to show they weren’t as out of touch as they appeared. So board president John Stroger slapped a moratorium on all restoration activities, even field trips by grade-schoolers, and organized three hearings, including an October 30 hearing in Skokie that drew an overflow crowd of almost 300. It was a testy affair. The residents sat on one side of the room, restorationists on the other. At one point Commissioner Maria Pappas asked for those in favor of restoration to raise their hands.

“I’m for restoration, but I’m against cutting down trees,” a man exclaimed.

“That’s an oxymoron,” responded a restorationist.

The next day, Balaban and Blix, at my suggestion, met in Bunker Hill Woods northwest of Edgebrook. Balaban is the steward of restoration there. They tried to be cordial, though they agreed on almost nothing.

“Have you seen Miami Woods?” she asked.

“Not recently,” he said.

“It’s horrible.”

“I’m not the steward there. I know Commonwealth Edison did some cutting.”

As they walked on, Balaban assured Blix that there were no plans to cut the trees south of Devon in Edgebrook. “But that’s not what your plan says,” Blix replied.

Balaban looked perplexed. “What plan?”

“The master plan; it has your name on it.”

“I don’t know.”

He talked about biodiversity and she asked about trees.

“How many ash have you taken out?”

“You know, I don’t know.”

“If you’re going to do radical change to the forest preserve you should at least document how you do it.”

They walked beneath an oak tree, and stood next to the stump of a tree. He agreed that signs should be posted when herbicides have been used. She said herbicides shouldn’t be used at all.

“There’s no other way to guarantee the buckthorn doesn’t return,” he said.

“Maybe you’ll just have to cut them every year.”

He looked at the ground and the only sound was branches rustling in the wind. Then they headed back to the parking lot.

Stroger says he won’t decide whether to lift the moratorium until he’s studied transcripts of the hearings. Most observers figure Stroger will do something (maybe even ban herbicides) to appease the Edgebrook residents. One way or another, the fight will continue. “There should be written restoration guidelines and regular monitoring,” says Blix. “The days without oversight are over. From now on we’ll be watching.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo by Jon Randolph.