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Eight Forty-Eight

Wilderness Headlines at Chicago Conference

For most people in Chicago in the middle of February, a tropical vacation probably sounds pretty nice. In this economy, it's also pretty unlikely. But what if you knew that the tropics aren't really so far away as they seem? WBEZ's Kristin Moo recently had just such a revelation.

Just west of the Edens Expressway, an unassuming treasure of nature lies bound by busy suburban traffic. It's the Somme Prairie Grove in Northbrook, and right now it's covered with snow. But what Stephen Packard tells me as he guides me through the preserve warms me as much—figuratively speaking, anyway—as the car heater blasting for the hour's drive home.

PACKARD: I was down in Costa Rica and the guide showed us the scarlet tanager, and said “this is one of the most beautiful birds in the rainforest.” And I said, yes, it is very beautiful. It nests down the street from my house” (laughs)

Packard is the volunteer steward here, and director of Audubon for the Chicago Region. He jokes that he's in a common-law marriage with Somme—so when he says this tropical bird nests down the street from his house, he means here.

PACKARD: This is the same ecosystem that the scarlet tanager and the orchard oriole from the rainforest… this is their home in the summertime.

And that's not all that Chicago-area wilderness has in common with the rainforest—both are threatened by development, and both are rich with flora and fauna at risk of extinction. But while exotic equatorial habitats get a lot of attention, Packard points out that tropical rainforests are about half gone, whereas landscapes like this one are exponentially more rare.

PACKARD: Do we have half the prairie left? No. Do we have 10 percent left? No. Do we have 1 percent left? No. Do we have one tenth of one percent left? No. There's about one one-hundredth of one percent of the Illinois prairie left.

The good news here is that what's left in the Chicago area is well-preserved. And even though the state of the economy right now means donations to organizations like the Audubon Society are down; the troubles in the housing market have slowed development, and “staycations” are keeping folks closer to home. If you live in the city and suburbs of Chicago, you're in luck. Packard says we've got some of the best wilderness in the state.

PACKARD: In most of the rural areas, there are whole counties without a single acre of prairie left or single 20-acre forest tract. In Cook County, we have 68,000 acres of forest preserves. Much of it is ecologically challenged, you might say. But thousands of acres are coming back, thanks to the hard work of forest preserve staff and volunteers.

And those efforts just might get a boost from the economic stimulus package up for debate now in the United States Senate. The House version of the bill includes some funds that could advance ecological restoration under the heading of science research, or through federal agencies like the U.S. Forest Service.

The National Audubon Society recently identified shovel-ready areas like the Louisiana coast, and the prairies and marshes of the Florida Everglades. Claudia Emken is with The Nature Conservancy in Illinois. She says there are jobs to be had here, too.

EMKEN: There are a number of small companies that do restoration work, that it could provide a lot of jobs for small construction/restoration businesses.

Whether or not money comes to Chicago-area ecosystems, there's always more to do. And maybe, in some ways, it makes more sense than what we've come to think of as “economic stimulus.”

PACKARD: Dr. Robert Betts, who was the great prophet of the prairie, he said, you know how good you feel when you get something new—you get a new car, or a new appliance for your house? It works, and it's really great, and it starts to fall apart a little bit, and it gets a scratch. Let me tell you, this place is the worst you'll ever see it. And every time you see it, it's going to be a little better. And a little better. And that's the joy of taking care of nature.

You can find out more about exploring and helping to preserve Chicago wilderness by visiting our website. Or spend this coming Saturday at a wilderness conference at the University of Illinois at Chicago. It's called “Wild Things.”

PACKARD: Wild Things. They make our heart sing.

Related:
Wild Things 2009
Somme Prairie Grove
Volunteering in Cook County Forest Preserves

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