When somebody says a natural area, does everybody have the same thing in mind? Some might see a park with baseball fields or a golf course as a natural area. But natural area means what it looked like for hundreds or thousands of years before humans started changing the landscape. Sometimes, that natural landscape was changed so long ago, when it’s restored to the way it looked oringally, it’s not very familiar to the people who live there now. Shawn Allee talked with some people who disagree about the idea of restoring natural areas:
When somebody says a natural area, dose everybody have the same thing in mind? Some might see a park with baseball fields or a golf course as a natural area. But natural area means what it looked like for hundreds or thousands of years before humans started changing the landscape. Sometimes, that natural landscape was changed so long ago, when it’s restored to the way it looked oringally, it’s not very familiar to the people who live there now. Shawn Allee talked with some people who disagree about the idea of restoring natural areas:
If you go to the Bunker Hill Forest Preserve just outside Chicago, you find picnic spaces, bike trails, and woods – acres of woods.
If it’s the wrong day, though, a security guard will turn you back from the woods.
Guard: “Closed off for a while? It’s closed off for a while. They’re doing a controlled burn – they’re burning that field over there.”
Man: “What are you doing exactly? Burning?”
Guard: “Controlled burn.”
Forest preserve workers in sooty, yellow fire suits are burning brush and trees.
They say soil tests show this land was once savanna – a kind of grassland with a few trees mixed in.
They’re trying to restore it to that original landscape.
Volunteers help out with this restoration, but a small number of people want to stop it.
“Everything they burned today is area they’ve cleared over the past two years. We’re opposed to cutting our urban forests.”
Bathsheba Burmin shows me the site – after it’s cooled.
She wants me to see what it takes to turn woods into savanna.
Burmin: “It’s a little muddy, so…”
Allee: “It’s hard not to notice.”
(sounds of walking through mud)
Allee: “This place is being actively transformed.”
Allee: “You can see brush piles moved around, trees have obviously been cut because you can see the stumps, and obviously they burned just today.”
Burmin: “What it does is tell the story of what the restructuring of an ecosystem looks like.”
Burmin and a few of her neighbors have protested the transformation of these woods into savanna.
Some don’t believe this was ever grassy savanna in the first place.
Burmin says, even if it was savanna – it’s not now; it’s woodland – and she regrets losing the trees.
Burmin: “If you’re not familiar with the site and you hear there’s an increase in grassland species you must be doing something wonderful. Nobody talked about what happened to all the woodland species. The reason you have an increase in grassland species, but that’s because you took out all the forest.”
Habitat restoration can be violent.
It can involve poisoning or burning unwanted plants or maybe killing animals like deer that graze on more desirable plants.
Wildlife managers use restoration techniques all the time, but on occasion critics like Burmin ask tough questions about it.
When that happens, people like Stephen Packard rush to its defense.
“Now we’re standing in a place where all the brush was cut last year.”
Packard heads the Chicago chapter of the Audobon Society.
He’s offered to show me some restored savanna, about ten miles north of that Bunker Hill spot.
It looks kinda familiar.
Allee: “There’re stumps and sticks everywhere.”
Packard: “Is this ugly or is it not ugly? Here’s my perspective on it. To me it’s like a bunch of broken eggshells after someone made an omelet. I think this is a beautiful thing to see the first stage of recovery. It is stumps, it is bare ground, but from doing this, I know certain plants will start to come up and keep developing.”
Packard says no one restores savanna because they like chopping trees.
It’s just that some plants need open space and light – like in a savanna. Dense woods create too much shade for them.
He says if we let some natural areas literally run wild, a few aggressive species take over, and the rare ones lose out.
“You lose millions of years of evolution of these thousands of species that may be important to the planet, so why not have some places where we can take care of them?”
Packard says some natural areas are so unhealthy, that for now, we need to protect some parts of nature from others.
And if you don’t buy that – you don’t buy restoration.
For The Environment Report, I’m Shawn Allee.