Chicago, another example of destructive “restorations”

We were first introduced to the native plant movement about 12 years ago when we began to notice that trees were being destroyed in our parks in San Francisco, but we couldn’t comprehend the scale of the project until we were finally successful in getting access to the first draft of the management plan for the Natural Areas Program in San Francisco.  Frankly, we were appalled by the planned destruction and restrictions on recreational access outlined in those plans. 

Hoping to understand the motivation for a project that didn’t make sense to us, we began to read about the native plant movement.  The first book we read was about “restoration” efforts in Chicago(1) which began in the late 1970s and apparently is one of the first projects in the country, influencing all others.  We were immediately struck by the similarities between our experiences in the Bay Area with those in Chicago.

  • The pre-settlement landscape was arbitrarily selected for replication in both places, despite an acknowledgement that the prairie and oak savannah were artificially maintained by frequent fires used by Native Americans.  Man had prevented the natural succession of grassland to shrubs and ultimately to forest.(2)
  • “Restorationists” in both places were essentially hobbyists, using trial-and-error strategies that rejected scientific methods of controlled experiments as too slow for their urgent mission.  The phrase “adaptive management” was adopted in San Francisco to describe these unscientific strategies.
  • Stealth methods were used in both places to hide controversial practices from the public.(3)  Trees (in Chicago, both native and non-native trees) were girdled to kill them and the scars hidden from view.  In Chicago, all activities (broadcast and brush pile burns, herbicide use, etc) were conducted behind visual screens.  In San Francisco, volunteers use herbicides they are not authorized to use.
Girdled tree, San Francisco
  • In both cases, “restorationists” developed a sense of ownership of the land that denied alternate views or even the authority of the theoretically official managers of the land.  As one of the local leaders said in a public hearing in San Francisco, “We know what to do and we want you to leave us alone to do what needs to be done.”

In Chicago and in the Bay Area, the criticisms of these “restorations” are also similar:

  • We do not want to destroy healthy trees whether native or non-native
  • We do not want to use toxic herbicides
  • We do not want to pollute our air or take the unnecessary risks associated with prescribed burns
  • We do not want to kill animals whether they are native or non-native
  • We value the landscape that exists and we do not consider a landscape that is exclusively native superior to it.  We have an inclusive view of nature, based on an acknowledgement of its dynamic quality.  We reject the arbitrary division of nature into “good” and “bad.” 
  • We believe that our public lands are owned by everyone, not just those who choose to volunteer in them

Ten years ago, we were encouraged to learn that the critics of the Chicago “restorations” were successful in getting a moratorium in 1996 on destruction in the areas being contested.  The moratorium was theoretically for the purpose of negotiating a compromise between “restorationists” and their critics. 

When we were recently contacted by restoration critics in Chicago, we weren’t at all surprised to learn that the effort to reach agreement had failed. The moratorium was lifted in most places in 1999 with the exception of a small, contested area where the moratorium was lifted in 2006.  We weren’t surprised because although we have participated in many efforts to negotiate with “restorationists” we have found that they are unwilling to compromise. 

Every scrap of park land originally claimed as a “natural area” in San Francisco is still under the jurisdiction of the so-called “Natural Areas Program.”  Nearly 15 years after the inception of the Natural Areas Program, there is still no environmental impact review, yet herbicide use continues unabated and trees are destroyed when funds are found to pay for their removal.   And in the East Bay, grant funding of restoration projects has been delayed for over 5 years because project managers will not budge from their demand to clear-cut all non-native trees.

Here are photos of the consequences of the “restoration” effort in Chicago:

Photos courtesy Natural Forest Advocates, Chicago

And here is a photo of one of the efforts to bring shame onto the destruction:

Since this photo was taken, the managers of public land have quit announcing prescribed burns and  work days in advance, hoping to prevent crowds such as this from gathering in protest.  Keeping their eyes and ears open, the critics gather as quickly as they can when they learn of a burn or a work day. 

We hope you will visit their website and sign their petition to encourage them in their challenging task. 

We are dedicated to preserving our public lands for the benefit of the animals that live in them and the humans who enjoy them.  We will use every means available to us to prevent as much destruction as we can.  We impatiently wait for science to catch up with our effort to bring this destructive movement to a halt by educating the public about the futility of trying to destroy deeply entrenched non-native species, the damage that is done in that futile effort, the value of a diverse ecology composed of both native and non-native plants and animals, and the changes in the environment that inevitably result in a changed landscape. 


(1) Restoring Nature, editors P. Gobster and B. Hull, Island Press, 2000

(2) Miracle Under the Oaks:  the revival of nature in America, William K. Stevens, Pocket Books, 1995

(3) Ibid.