Translating the
Language of Nature

Illinois state park interpreters explain nature
in ways the average person can understand


Stacy Miller, the interpreter of Volo Bog State Natural Area, tells the story of the bog man to fifth graders from a nearby school.

Stacy Miller, the interpreter of Volo Bog State Natural Area, tells the story of the bog man to fifth 
graders from a nearby school.

"Gather around and I will tell you the story of the Boogey Man."

Stacy Miller, site interpreter at Volo Bog State Natural Area in Lake County, stands on a wooden deck overlooking one of Illinois' most unique wetlands, gathering a clutch of sixth-graders around her like a mother hen. Then, adopting the voice of a campfire storyteller, she recalls how European peat bogs were favored hideouts for Medieval thieves and murderers on the lam. Children who wandered into the bogs against the advice of their parents could become victims of the "bog men," who hid the bodies of their small victims beneath the floating mats of spaghum moss. Over the centuries the "bog man" evolved into the "Boogey Man," the archetypical monster under the bed.

Such stories are but a small part of the park interpreter's repertoire. Using household objects like a sponge and kitchen strainer. Miller explains the environmental significance of wetlands. She engages children in games such as "Bat and Moths" and "Hawk and Rabbits" to illustrate the complex relationship between predator and prey.

At the Illinois and Michigan Canal State Trail, interpreter Judy Schoenberger dons the costume of a young 19th-century woman named Maggie to explain how the canal affected local economics and lifestyle. Veteran interpreter Toby Miller at Starved Rock State Park leads nature hikes, teaches cross-country skiing and coaxes visitors to take a ride in a Montreal canoe similar to those used by French explorers to penetrate the Illinois wilderness. At Illinois Beach State Park, Sue Wright experiments with computers to electronically carry the message of environmental education to classrooms throughout the Chicago area. Indeed, the process of park interpretation is as diverse as the individuals who pursue the career.

"When I was a little girl, our family went on vacation every year, usually to Yellowstone National Park, "Wright recalled in her office at Illinois Beach. "I thought those park rangers were really neat and I knew that's what I wanted to be. My mother thought it was cute when I was little, but by the time I was a teenager she was beginning to think I should consider being a secretary."

Her mother's advice notwithstanding, Wright became the first woman graduated from Utah State University with a degree in forestry. Eventually she landed in Illinois as a park interpreter, first at Pere Marquette State Park in southern Illinois and for the past 15 years at Illinois Beach State Park on the shore of Lake Michigan. She was part of the first wave of park interpreters hired by the old Department of Conservation in the 1970s, only to be eliminated during the slash and burn budget cuts of the 1980s.

At its zenith, the park interpretive program employed

54/ Illinois Parks and Recreation


Sue Wright (left), interpreter at
Illinois Beach State Park, gives visitors a tour of the park's natural area.

Sue Wright (left), interpreter at Illinois Beach State Park, gives visitors a tour of the park's natural area.

Stacy Miller (below) discusses raptors and the differing ways they find food to a visiting class of sixth graders at Volo Bog Natural Area.

27 full-time interpreters located at parks throughout the state. But during the lean budget years of the 1980s, layoffs reduced the program to just four interpreters, all of whom were located at parks in northeastern Illinois where regional land managers fought hard to keep the program alive.

"They said interpretation was important and they fought for it," Wright recalled. She survived the layoffs by transferring from Pere Marquette to Illinois Beach.

Today, the interpretive program is on the rebound, enriching the outdoor experience for thousands of state park visitors. Spurred by the first Conservation Congress' recommendation for more emphasis on environmental education, the Department of Natural Resources has embarked on a effort to revitalize the interpretive program statewide. With about 65 full-time and part-time interpreters throughout the state, formal interpretive programs now are offered at 35 state parks, recreation areas and natural areas.

"We have a director who supports us and believes in the value of environmental education," Wright said.

The value of the interpretive program, according to Mitch Ingold, DNR interpretive program coordinator, is that it improves park visitors' understanding of nature in general and enhances their appreciation and enjoyment of the specific park they are visiting.

"When people go to a park, they're looking for things to do," Ingold said. Families using campgrounds are frequent participants in interpretive programs. "You can only do so much fishing and so much playing in the playground. Eventually the kids get to the point where they say, 'There's nothing to do.'"

The form interpretive programs take is a function of

Spurred by the first Conservation 
Congress' recommendation for more emphasis on environmental education, the Department of 
Natural Resources has embarked on an effort to revitalize the interpretive program statewide.

Spurred by the first Conservation
Congress' recommendation for
more emphasis on environmental
education, the Department of
Natural Resources has embarked
on an effort to revitalize the
interpretive program statewide.

September/October 1997/ 55


Beach erosion is one of the ongoing problems at Illinois Beach State Park. Interpreter Sue Wright talks about the causes and some of the solutions that might eventually solve the problem (Bottom Left).

Interpreter Stacy Miller talks about the depth of the water at Volo Bog and how the bog is continually closing in (bottom right).

Beach erosion is one of the
ongoing problems at Illinois Beach State Park.

Interpreter Stacy Miller talks
about the depth of the water at
Volo Bog and how the bog is
continually closing...

the individual interpreter and the park they serve, Ingold said. Volo Bog, for example, is a natural area rather than a recreational site, and the programs presented by Miller and her stable of 30 volunteers reflect that fact. Interpretive programs at I&M Canal and Fort Massac focus more on local history and less on nature. And some sites, such as Illinois Caverns, wouldn't even be open to the public without the presence of an interpreter.

Interpretive programs can range from brief programs in the campgrounds to guided tours of park features. But, as Wright points out, park interpreters are more than just tour guides.

"We've gone from being tour guides to using more interactive programs," she said. "Children aren't going to sit and listen to a lecture anymore. They have to have something that's more involving."

Often working with school groups and other groups of youngsters, Wright may have children collecting life forms from a pond to be examined under a microscope or gathering data to monitor the quality of water filtering through a backwater marsh.

"My biggest reward is when I see that light come into their eyes," Wright said. "Teachers can tell them things in the classroom, but when they come here they actually see what they've been talking about. You can see it in their eyes when they make the connection."

In a similar vein. Miller at Volo Bog relishes the moments when youngsters grasp the complexities of ecological relationships in Illinois wetlands. A few hours of dealing with a group of unruly six-graders can be trying, but the reward comes from realizing she has reached past the smart-alecky remarks and given them a unique appreciation for nature.

"Sometimes, with all the smart remarks and everything, you wonder if they are getting anything out of the program," she said. "But then you ask them a question and you find out that they did,"

Toby Miller at Starved Rock State Park provides interpretive service to nearly 100,000 park visitors annually. His programs reach out most often to groups that include adults and children.

"My job is to interpret the language of the woods in a way people can understand and enjoy," he said. To that end, Miller's interpretive hikes involve more than just plant identification. On a recent Wildflower Pilgrimage, Miller not only taught participants how to identify plants, he also explained the origins of some of the colorful plant names, as well as how pioneers and Native Americans used the plants medicinally and for food.

Recently, the DNR Interpretive Program took the next step to enter the computer age. There is an Interpretive Site on the DNR Homepage to keep Internet uses abreast of which sites have interpretive programs and what special events are coming up. Moreover, working with DNR computer specialists, the Interpretive Program recently released a Virtual Reality tour of the I&M Canal.

"The Internet is a great tool for getting information into the schools and into homes," Ingold explained, "and encouraging people to visit our sites in person."

is a staff writer lor Outdoorlllinois. a publication of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. This article was reprinted with permission from the June 1997 issue of OutdoorIllinois.

56 / Illinois Parks and Recreation


$3.9 Million Land Acquisition Will
Double Size of Sangchris

The state will purchase 1,186 acres of land est of Sangchris Lake near Springfield from Commonwealth Edison to nearly double the size of Sangchris Lake State Park, according to Governor Jim Edgar. The expansion will improve outdoor recreational opportunities and expand wildlife habitat in central Illinois.

"Sangchris Lake State Park represents an important recreational site to the half-million central Illinois residents who visit and enjoy the park each year, " the governor said.

"We have invested millions of dollars in the park, and we have an opportunity to nearly double the size of the park with ComEd's decision to sell more than 5,000 acres of land it owns.

"At the same time, we'll be protecting the integrity of the park from the possible encroachment of private development as ComEd's other acreage is sold."

When ComEd sold its Kincaid Station to Dominion Resources, Inc., earlier this year, the state began negotiations to acquire land on the west peninsula of Sangchris Lake. The state currently owns 1,417 acres on the north side of the lake, and has an easement for recreational use of the 2,586- acre fishing lake along with waterfowl, upland and habitat agreements with the utility.

"This acquisition will maintain the park's many quality recreation programs, including hiking and equestrian trails, birding, hunting, fishing and wildlife habitat development, " the governor said.

"The purchase agreement protects the integrity of all natural resource-based programs at the site. "

The $3.9 million purchase price will be funded with $2.7 million from the Department of Natural Resources' Targets of Opportunities for Land Acquisition Fund, along with a combined $1 million from the state pheasant, migratory waterfowl and habitat stamp funds, and $206,000 in other DNR funds.

"This purchase would not be happening without a strong commitment by ComEd to assist the state with its recreational goals, and the cooperation of many sportsmen's groups which agreed to contribute to this project, " said DNR director Brent Manning.

"It has been a team effort to expand, improve and protect this site. "

Much of the land currently being farmed will continue to be leased for farming. The remainder will be preserved for recreation and wildlife habitat. The agricultural leases will help maintain the property tax base for both Sangamon and Christian counties.

"This purchase represents another in a long line of projects my administration has

undertaken and supported to expand and improve recreational opportunities and wildlife habitat throughout the state, Edgar said.

"We are pleased to cooperate with Governor Edgar and the state to protect and enhance the recreational opportunities that Sangchris Lake State Park provides to outdoor enthusiasts throughout Illinois, " said Michael Norris, land management administrator for ComEd.

The purchase must be approved by the Illinois Commerce Commission and ComEd's board of directors.

The remainder of the utility's acreage in the area is expected to be sold at public auction this fall.

"The Illinois Association of Park Districts commends Governor Edgar and Brent Manning of the Department of Natural Resources for the excellent negotiations in acquiring this land, " said IAPD executive director Ted Flickinger.

"Lake Sangchris has a reputation for being one of the finest fishing lakes in the state of Illinois and offers great opportunities for camping, equestrian trails and many other recreational pursuits. Increasing Sangchris Lake State Park also serves as a buffer zone to protect the lake and surrounding wetlands.

"This is another example of Governor Edgar's commitment to natural resources and open spaces in Illinois. "

Wetland Restoration Guide Available

A new guide to help improve the quality and success of restored and created wetlands is now available from the Department of Natural Resources.

The Illinois Wetland Restoration and. Creation Guide includes chapters on planning, assessment, design, construction, monitoring and management. It was produced by DNR's Natural History and State Geological surveys and Office of Resource Conservation in cooperation with the Department of Transportations Division of Highways, which provided some financial support and assistance in drafting portions of the document.

Guides are available from the Illinois Natural History Survey for $15, including tax and shipping, and can be obtained by writing the INHS Publications Office, 607 E. Peabody Drive. Champaign, 111., 61820 or by calling 217.333.6880.

September/October 1997/ 57


Illinois Boasts Many "Tree Cities"

Illinois is second among the 50 states in the number of communities qualifying for Tree City USA designation. This year, 145 communitie of every size qualified by legally designating an individual or group to care for urban forests, enacting a community tree ordinance, expending a minimum of $2 per resident for urban forestry and conducting an Arbor Day tree planting ceremony.

From the summer issue of the Prairie Tree Companion, following are 19 Tree City USA communities whose urban forestry programs offer unique aspects other communities might like to borrow.

ANTIOCH gave away up to five free evergreen seedlings to anyone who agreed to plant and care for them. Last year, more than 1,000 seedlings were distributed to area residents.

BENSENVILLE planted 153 parkway trees that were grown in the village's perpetual nursery and signed a multi-year contract for yard waste grinding.

BLOOMINGTON set up a committee with Illinois Power to implement a written set of guidelines regarding tree trimming near utility lines.

COLLINSVILLE offers spring and fall clean-up projects for the community's elderly and disabled persons. The city and its volunteers prune trees, trim shrubs, rake leaves and perform general yard maintenance.

DECATUR learned the value of a good tree trimming program when it was hit by back-to-back tornadoes. Trees that had been trimmed suffered almost no damage, while those that hadn't were severely impacted.

FRANKFORT has a "Baby Tree" program, planting 33 trees in recognition of newborn residents.

GLENCOE educates its residents through a monthly "Tree-Mendous" column in them monthly village newsletter.

LIBERTYVILLE purchased a computer software package that allows it to keep track of each tree. Residents who request it are provided with specific information about their trees, including value estimates.

MOLINE held its Arbor Day ceremony at the historic Willard School, built in 1895. Students from each grade level planted trees along 17th Ave., which borders the school. The Tree City USA banner was then raised on the school's flagpole, where it remained for the rest of the year.

MT. VERNON has a slide presentation, "The Right Tree in the Right Place," which it presents to local civic organizations.

NORTHFIELD invited a landscape architect to its Arbor Day celebration to give a presentation on proper pruning techniques as well as designing a landscape plan.

OSWEGO worked with a developer to utilize trees from a tree farm which is being turned into a new subdivision. Rather than destroy the trees, they were given to the village for its parkway plantings program.

PALATINE achieved its goal of planting two trees for every tree removed.

PALOS HILLS cleared an overgrown 10-acre site by thinning out less desirable trees and trimming remaining trees, leaving a park that has proved very popular.

ROSELLE celebrated Arbor Day by planting oak trees along a new bike path.

SCHAUMBURG used a grant from the Department of Natural Resources to conduct a mailing to residents about gypsy moths.

SKOKIE worked with Commonwealth Edison to replace 79 inappropriate trees under power lines.

VERNON HILLS is working to reforest a degraded oak woodland.

WARRENVILLE operates a city-wide plant exchange for residents to swap garden plants.

Reprinted from the Summer 1997 issue of Prairie Tree Companion, a publication of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

58/ Illinois Parks and Recreation


Trees Offer Many Benefits Other
than Shade and Beauty

When it was published five years ago, the book Growing Greener Cities told us that a mature city tree provides the following benefits:

$73 worth of air conditioning; $75 worth of wildlife benefits; $75 worth or erosion control; and $50 worth of pollution control, for a total benefit value of $273 per year. When this value is compounded at a rate of five percent annually for 50 years, the tree is worth $57,151.

However, new information on the benefits of trees is on the horizon from a project titled "Benefits of Large Trees Relative to Maintenance Costs to Private Tree Owners." This project is funded by the National Urban and Community Forestry Advisory Council's grant program in partnership with the National Arborist Foundation, USDA Forest Service and the International Society of Arboriculture Research Trust Fund.

The project's purpose was to create a model where the maintenance cost of a mature shade tree was compared to the environmental benefits.

In this study, the researchers looked at a range of environmental values provided by a tree over a 15-year period. A red maple in Cook County, Ill., that was 30 inches in diameter and 70 feet tall with a 55-foot crown was studied. Opposite is a quick synopsis of the tree's benefits.


Energy savings $1,133

Water transpired 452,580 gallons

Storm water intercepted 25,260 gallons $281

Oxygen released 8,870 Ibs.

Air pollution 100 Ibs. $41

Carbon dioxide captured 17,040 Ibs. $21

Tree value increase $1,527

TOTAL ............................................................ $3,003


Pruning $521
Fertilization $162
Integrated Pest Management $130
TOTAL............................................................... $813

In this situation, the mature red maple tree had a net present value of benefits produced equal to $2,188. The benefit to cost ration produced by this large tree is 4:1.

Reprinted from the Summer 1997 issue of Prairie Tree Companion, a publication of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

DNR's Urban and Community Forestry Program
Benefits Illinois Communities

Illinois' Urban and Community Forestry Program provides technical and financial assistance to communities and local units of government to establish and maintain effective urban and community forests. Here's a progress report.

Since 1990, more than $800,000 in grants have been provided to 105 communities, generating a local match of $880,000.

In 1996 alone, 29 communities received $187,275 in assistance.

Projects include 50 street tree inventories, 21 management plans,

28 public education programs, 22 tree planting projects and development of 26 tree care ordinances.

Illinois leads the nation in the Tree City USA Growth Award program and is second in the nation for the number of communities achieving Tree City USA status.

Eight Regional Urban and Community Forestry Councils have been established. They provide educational materials to libraries, develop public service announcements, promote environmental education and conduct regional workshops.

Last year, 182,153 trees were planted, bringing the total over the last four years to more than 835,000.

The program has assisted more than 1,200 communities and 1,265 community action groups.

Information about the program is available by calling 217.782.2361.

September/October 1997/ 59

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