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Volunteers Share Their Experiences Restoring Natural Spaces

A man and woman use tools to remove invasive plants in a prairie setting
The Natural Areas Conservation Training (N-ACT) Program is an in-depth training and certification program in natural areas restoration.
October 1, 2018

Throughout The Morton Arboretum’s 1,700-acre grounds are trees and woody plants from around the world. Many are part of collections, which are arranged by geography, such as the China or Europe collections, or by scientific plant groups. The remaining 900 acres are considered natural areas and include the vast Schulenberg Prairie, woodlands, and wetlands. Visiting these natural areas any day of the week reveals volunteers hard at work—monitoring wildlife, taking inventories of plants, controlling invasive species, and collecting and sowing native seed.

Many of these volunteers are participants in the Natural Areas Conservation Training ( N-ACT) Program, formerly known as the Woodland Stewardship Program. As an in-depth training and certification program, the N-ACT Program empowers local volunteers and professionals to restore and manage the natural heritage of our woodlands, wetlands, and prairies. Plant identification, ecosystem-specific ecology, and topics such as invasive species management are all included in the program.

Here’s a look at the journeys of two participants, from first steps to leading others in our dynamic volunteer community.

A woman bends low to the ground in the woods, sawing a branch of a plant

Lynette Kleisner-Gilbert

N-ACT Program Graduate, 2016


Q: Why did you become interested in restoration work? What is your motivation?

A: I've always spent a lot of time in the woods, and when I realized Downers Grove had a beautiful forest preserve right near the downtown area, I started spending time there. Dismayed at the amount of garbage I found, I started collecting bags of it on every trip. I eventually started officially volunteering with the forest preserve, which is how I found out about woodland stewardship and restoration.

Q: What do you like best about the work? About leading volunteers?

A: What I like best is knowing that I'm making a difference. Restoration is part long-term work, and part instant gratification. I love walking into an area overgrown with buckthorn and honeysuckle, and walking out three hours later to see it cleared. Of course, it's not as simple as that, as natural areas require continuous management, but that initial clear is so satisfying. I especially enjoy working with first-time volunteers, because you get to watch them experience the "a-ha!" moment where they realize the positive impact they can have on the environment.

Q: How have the N-ACT Program courses helped you pursue your restoration goals?

A: The N-ACT Program courses gave me the training I needed to become a steward, not only teaching me the basics of natural restoration, but also how to be successful in my work and how to lead workdays. My instructors' enthusiasm was infectious, and I hope I now have that effect on the volunteers I manage. When I hold a workday, I'm confident in my knowledge and my abilities thanks to what I’ve learned in the N-ACT Program.

Q: How long have you been doing natural areas restoration work? What made you decide to join the program?

A: I have been doing restoration work for about three years now. When I first learned about the role of a natural areas steward, I immediately knew it was for me, and I jumped online to learn more. As soon as I found the Arboretum's program, I signed up. It was one of the best decisions I've made.

Q: Any favorite ecosystem processes? What do you marvel at in the natural world? Or plant/plant, plant/wildlife relationships you find fascinating?

A: I've recently started collecting seeds from my own native garden at home. Before I can plant them, I clean them and put them in the refrigerator for several months, a process called cold stratification— something I learned how to do through one of the N-ACT Program courses. Until I learned about stratification, I didn’t realize how lucky a seed is to ever become a plant! The fact that some seeds need extremely specific conditions to germinate illustrates just how amazing nature is.


A man holds a tool above his head and looks down at the prairie ground

Cliff Trahan

N-ACT Program participant, 2017

Q: Why did you become interested in restoration work? What is your motivation?

A: With local and global destruction of natural areas being a common experience, conservation is always on my mind. Restoration of ecosystems is my way of giving back to nature in a positive way.

Q: What do you like best about the work?

A: What I like best about restoration work is what nature teaches me. There is always some aspect of the work that makes me think of questions to investigate later on.

Q: You'll be taking on a leadership role in the near future. Would you mind sharing some lessons learned or milestones along your restoration journey that have helped you build confidence and prepare for the role?

A: The most important lesson I’ve taken away from my participation in the N-ACT Program is that leadership isn’t easy. I took incremental steps to gain the trust of the experienced volunteers. I also kept a watchful eye on the interactions of the group and came away with some leadership principles. These included how to be mindful of differences of opinion about restoration work while also supporting individual initiative. I always try to remember a big part of leadership is group and individual social skills and openness to the most effective restoration methods and ways to implement them.

Q: What have you found most helpful from the N-ACT Program courses?

A: The N-ACT Program courses have given me the insights and skills to understand the many important aspects of restoration, some obvious and others not. The courses made it clear that there is a lot to learn and master. I came to the program knowing the tools I’d need and the importance of well-thought-out management plans through my volunteer experience in Cook County. But the Natural Area Management and Wetland Ecology classes through N-ACT opened my restoration eyes. Alongside my classmates in the program, we would look at an unfamiliar site in the beginning stages of restoration and instructors would ask us about possible management goals. This was an opportunity for me to hear different as well as shared perspectives about restoration. I’ve looked at a site before and missed key factors that support healthy restoration, such as the role of keystone species. Reading about restoration backed up with actual practice or on-site activity added another dimension.

Q: How long have you been doing natural areas restoration work? What made you decide to get additional information through this program?

A: I’ve been doing this work for about 11 years. For me, restoration work raises questions about natural processes that are taking place in a prairie or woodland, and trying to find answers online isn’t always sufficient. So, out of curiosity I tried a few courses in the program. The course instructors in the N-ACT Program break down the important concepts into understandable terms.

Q: Any favorite ecosystem processes? What do you marvel at in the natural world? Or plant/plant, plant/wildlife relationships you find fascinating?

A: I marvel at the interplay between plants, soil, and insects. It is totally fascinating to consider the many challenges plants face with regard to nutrient flow between them and the soil; the competition with other plants and the dangers/rewards of herbivore activity on them.

If you are interested in learning more about the N-ACT Program, contact Trinity Pierce, Natural Areas Conservation Training Program Coordinator, at tpierce@mortonarb.org or check out these upcoming courses:

Basic Plant ID, October 7 or November 27
Intro to Ecological Restoration begins October 26
Tools for Management begins November 5