When Oak Parker Dennis Nyberg began managing the south suburban Cranberry Slough Nature Preserve in 1985, he says the once-lively wetland was drained dry and free of frogs and toads. By 1999, newly hydrated wetlands were filled with the croaking choruses of mating amphibians.
And, in a wholly unexpected turn of events, sandhill cranes returned to the slough after a more than 100-year absence from the county.
Here's the kicker: "All of the work I've done at Cranberry Slough is on a volunteer basis," Nyberg said.
His often unpaid management efforts and volunteer coordination will soon receive recognition outside Cook County, as a national environmental organization has chosen Nyberg as America's volunteer of the year.
The success of Nyberg's efforts lend credence to a refrain sung regularly by exasperated environmental activists: that the budget deficit of the Forest Preserve District of Cook County--reported by independent auditors to be in the millions of dollars--would be much smaller were the district to better use volunteers to restore local wilderness areas.
Forest Preserve managers are quick to point out that volunteers can't do it all themselves, and Nyberg agrees. But then Nyberg is no ordinary volunteer. On the 4th of October, Nyberg and his family will be boarding an airplane to Ashville, North Carolina, where he will be awarded the 2002 Natural Areas Stewardship Award from the Natural Areas Association.
Now an associate professor of ecology in the University of Illinois at Chicago's biological sciences department, Nyberg has evolved over 25 years into his current role as a manager of area wilderness preserves (and a charter member of a decade-old volunteer effort to maintain River Forest's own Thatcher Woods).
"Evolve" is the right word. Having earned a PhD at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Nyberg was originally drawn to the forest preserves out of an academic interest in evolutionary theory.
"In 1973 I was member of the Chicago Audubon Society, and the Chicago chapter had a newsletter. They were soliciting for candidates to be stewards at Illinois nature preserves.
My interest at that time was in genetics."
By the late 1980s, he had become so fascinated with land management issues that he began gradually to change his academic area of specialization from evolution to ecological management.
Nyberg's career in land management sprung from a decision in 1983 to volunteer at the Cranberry Slough Nature Preserve, a rare cranberry-populated peat bog amid the forests of the county-owned Palos Preserve in the southern suburbs.
By 1985 he was managing the slough himself as volunteer steward.
Not one to be content merely trimming hedges, Nyberg set to devising ways to rehydrate areas of the bog that were drained over the decades as humans converted natural areas into grazing areas for animals.
"So many of these ephemeral pools are affected by drainage," said Nyberg. "The basic procedure there is to fill in ditches."
Nyberg found that imported clay could be used to patch up the leaking wetland areas.
With the help of teams of volunteers who logged almost 600 hours of work on 13 draining wilderness areas, he lined ditches with bags of clay, then re-contoured these once proud pools with soil pulled from around the wetlands.
Once this work was complete and the ditches were stabilized with vegetation, the wetlands were made to once more hold their liquor.