Service: Into the woods for project ideas

Illustration by Dave Cutler

From the August 2016 issue of The Rotarian

We stood in a circle in a forest preserve on Chicago’s Northwest Side and got our marching, or chopping, orders: We were to chop down only those shrubs which were marked with orange, to make sure we didn’t take down vegetation being saved for birds. Then off we went, saws and loppers in hand, to spend the morning helping return a piece of woodland to its wildflower-carpeted glory.

Welcome to a habitat restoration workday.

How to explain the appeal of such an event, which is, after all, work? Think of it as a little like gardening. Then add in a field class on nature and a sociable morning around a bonfire.

You spend some time outdoors. You meet people; you make friends. “This has turned into my second family,” Heather Gustafson, a regular here, told the group before we began our morning’s labors.

Oh, and you help the planet.

This piece of the planet was LaBagh Woods, part of the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Ill. Beloved by birders, who have counted 186 species here, the spot is a uniquely positioned green space along the North Branch of the Chicago River where migrating birds can rest. It comprises six distinct ecosystems and has recorded 19 mammal species, four turtles, two snakes, more than 30 butterflies, and over 100 plant species.

But parts of the preserve have been overrun by invasive plant species like buckthorn, which forms dense thickets that block out the sun needed by wildflowers to bloom on the forest floor.

Under a Centennial Volunteers grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, a partnership encompassing the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Friends of the Forest Preserves, the Chicago Ornithological Society, and Friends of the Chicago River has joined longtime site stewards from the North Branch Restoration Project to bring the area back to ecological health.

“We’ve been doing brush removal, seed collecting, seed dispersal, and trail work,” says Josh Coles, field organizer for the Centennial Volunteers initiative along this stretch of river.

As we labored, we beheld the surrounding nature. Jeff Skrentny, a birder who is one of the project’s leaders, pointed out a red bat hanging from a tree as it slept, looking like a cross between a leaf and a mouse. Volunteer coordinator Cecil Hynds-Riddle held up a wriggling crawfish.

Still, this was urban nature. The air was filled with the roar of planes approaching O’Hare International Airport and the hum of highway traffic.

Aqsa Junagadhwala can’t get enough of this. A junior at Loyola University Chicago majoring in conservation and restoration ecology, she started volunteering here because it was near her house. She has become such a devoted regular that she led a tree-cutting-for-beginners session for us newbies.

“The people are so knowledgeable about the birds and the wildlife. I learn something new every day,” she says.

For Pete Leki, a longtime co-steward of a part of the preserve, the work has a near-mystical power. “It’s creative; it’s peaceful; it’s exhausting,” he says. “You get meditative.”

Studies have found that spending time in nature alleviates stress, reduces depression, improves focus, and may even boost the immune system. In children, playing outside has been found, along with increasing levels of fitness, to improve cognitive functioning, reduce stress, and improve distance vision.

Many Rotary clubs hold similar workdays. In Southern California, the Rotary Club of Solana Beach is partnering with other groups to remove invasive species and plant native flora around Lake Hodges, a reservoir in San Diego County. Besides helping restore the native ecology, the project is reducing the amount of eucalyptus that could fuel wildfires.

“It’s extremely satisfying,” says Bill Dean, the club’s service chair. “We’re an eco club. Our whole focus is to make a life that is more sustainable and do things that will make sure we’re going to be living on this planet a longer time.

“We gather together as a group every month and we go out, we work together, we laugh, we talk, so there’s that whole social element, framed in the fact that we’re doing something that is meaningful to us.”

The surroundings aren’t bad, either. “It’s a beautiful area to be working in,” he says.

The scenery also sounds decent at the workdays of the Rotary Club of Vero Beach Sunrise. The Florida club does its habitat restoration on the water.

Concerned that boat propellers were destroying ecologically crucial seagrass in the Indian River Lagoon, past President Paul Dritenbas led his club and the Rotary Club of Vero Beach in creating a team that designed and installed signs that float on buoys – conventional boating signs tethered to the bottom would have further damaged the seagrass – to alert boaters about the vulnerable grasses.

The clubs also work with the Coastal Conservation Association to take volunteers out onto the water to set in place oyster mats – assemblages of oyster  shells where free-floating oyster larvae can attach and grow. The clubs and local advocacy groups assemble the mats throughout the year and place them  in the lagoon in May and September, which are peak spawning periods for  the native oysters.

“We load the mats onto our boats, go out, and have a nice day on the lagoon,” says Dritenbas, a licensed fishing captain. “We involve science students, from elementary through high school, and local volunteers concerned about helping to improve the water quality in the lagoon. We all love going out to place the mats and get wet.

“It’s fun, and our volunteers get great satisfaction by helping out,” he says. “After we return to the docks, we have hot dogs and hamburgers under the pavilions.”

That’s nice, but hot dogs and hamburgers? At LaBagh, we dined on homemade bread and vegetarian chili, courtesy of Linda and Dennis Marton, who wheeled in their goodies on a wagon.

We snacked happily and talked. “It’s like a celebration every week,” Hynds-Riddle says. And the socializing is not merely an enjoyable byproduct of habitat restoration, but part of a workday’s central mission.

“To foster a stewardship community, you have to focus on community outreach – on how to reach people, make these workdays a social gathering, make them fun, make them a place where people meet friends and want to come back,” says Coles, whose role with Centennial Volunteers is to do just that.

“Of course the ecological goal is why we all go there. We all love nature and want to see it get healthier. But really, the human connection to nature is why it’s so important.”

The Rotarian