You say "trees," I say "trails"

I did a volunteer stewardship walk with the Forest Preserves of Cook County yesterday at Swallow Cliff south, a little east and south of that fitness phenomenon, the toboggan hill steps. The Swallow Cliff site is over 800 acres, and yet is just a small part of the sprawling, big-enough-to-get-lost-in Palos preserves system. (Join us Columbus Day weekend to enjoy exploring a lot of it by foot & bike on GITy Up: Off-Road.)

We walked the gravel multi-use path that was fairly busy with runners, a few cyclists and some horse back riding, to learn about some of the conservation activities underway. The forest preserves use a mix of volunteer site stewards who organize work days that can include invasive removal, spraying and even bucking and felling (the preserves operates a robust chainsaw training program). For larger projects and burns, they are are transitioning more to contractors (which means more consistent burn schedules along with other benefits).

John O'Lear, who seems to be literally embracing his role as Swallow Cliff site steward in the photo above, actually spends his work week with Forest Preserve District of Will County; Swallow Cliff site steward is his volunteer gig. John told me the story that prompted this blog post; it's a story of two photos from the same spot on a trail.

John said look to your right:

...a sylvan scene of oaks and other large trees spaced almost purposely for a deep field of vision, relaxing sight lines, and the delightful anticipation of catching sight of a deer, an indigo bunting...or a faerie?

Now look to your left:

...a claustrophobic mass of scrub that crowds the trail, raises anxiety by blocking sight lines, deflects interest away from the natural space it has buried, and frankly looks like ass. 

The difference: burning. The site on the right side of the trail has been burned within the last couple of years. That's some intense work, perpetrated by humans, to create a view that's so naturally beautiful. The site on the left looks ignored and not highly valued. It looks like a waste.

John explained we're in a time and place where the most beautiful natural areas are where humans work most frequently and the hardest to actively and responsibly manage them...and to burn them. Yes it's irony, and go ahead and appreciate that.

But the point I want to make is that the great trail experiences available in Illinois (or anywhere) arise from the interaction between the trail and the landscape it reveals while passing through. Humans need to go to the woods and the water; it's a hard-wired component of our well-being. Conservation is as much about fulfilling that need as it is about species diversification. A trail is literally the way to the means of appreciating Illinois' natural landscapes.

Trail people and conservationists are really the same people. With humanistic aims, we take an active role in the creation and stewardship of the natural, outdoor experience. People and nature benefit most when we see our roles as one.

P.S. I can't say enough about the volunteer stewardship program the Forest Preserves runs. It's effective, the training is top-notch, and the company on walks and workdays is first rate. Read about it here.