BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
Editor’s Note: Linda Masters’s leadership in the O’Hare Wetlands Mitigation Project is the focus of our second article on Openlands. The first of the series, published August 14, featured Jerry Adelmann and the Re-Wilding of the Museum Campus.
Restoration Specialist Linda Masters had been at her job at Openlands for five years when the $26 million O’Hare Wetlands Mitigation Project (OMMA) was signed in 2005. The project required mitigation credits of over 280 acres to replace the wetlands taken away when new runways were added at O’Hare Airport. A project team was formed to review proposed projects and included the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Chicago District as well as federal and local conservation experts.
As the project nears completion and conservation experts around the world are recognizing their efforts, Masters, who has led the team for Openlands, told us that there remains just $1,750,000 left to spend, with a variety of restoration efforts planned to complete the prodigious efforts.
“We have five projects in Cook and Will counties encompassing a total of 1211.6 acres, which includes both uplands and wetlands. The mitigation credit requirement for this project states that for every acre of wetland impacted, two acres must be restored,” she explains. “These projects are on permanently protected land, and they are required to be maintained by the landowner.”
One of the projects was Messenger Woods in Will County: “It was one of the first nature preserve in the county and one of the most popular nature preserves in our whole system. It has received a permanent conservation easement and funding of almost $2 million. On a portion of the site we are re-creating natural savannas by planting hundreds of bushes and trees.”
The 200-acre Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, located on the Drummond flood plane, offered the opportunity for a large landscaping plan to restore a dolomite prairie, habitat to some of the rarest species in the world offered another massive opportunity for OMMA. It is the home to the federally endangered species the leafy prairie clover and to three state-listed endangered species, as well as rare birds. To date, thousands of bags of seeds and plugs have been planted at Midewin.
Masters, who will soon retire, says that she feels about leaving the wetlands projects much like a parent does when sending their children out into the world.
We asked her to tell us more about her work at Openlands and how we can all get involved in restoration efforts in our communities.
What does your work at Openlands as a Restoration Specialist entail?
I am responsible for landscape-scale restoration projects. This means that I am involved with these projects from beginning to end, writing specifications for bid requests, hiring contractors, planning the project, and overseeing the restoration process. I am also the go-to person for answering general questions about natural areas, especially plant species.
Tell us about other aspects of your work.
I am also involved with Openlands work in the US Fish & Wildlife Service’s Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge. We purchase land and hold it until they, as a government agency, can purchase it from us. Eventually, the Refuge will include 11,000 acres of improved or restored habitat. Openlands has purchased over 1,000 acres to date. While we hold the land, we begin the process of restoring it to a more natural state. That is where I come in.
How does restoration fit in with the larger vision of Openlands?
Openlands is about connecting people to nature, but there is so little left of original Illinois landscapes. I like to think that by improving or restoring land, we can once again feel the connection to what made Illinois so diverse, and we can feel good about preserving it for the future.
Have you always been interested in nature? What did you like to do as a little girl in terms of relating to the outdoors?
I am the middle of five siblings. My mother once told me that I was the last one she would dress because I would instantly get dirty. I loved playing outdoors, climbing trees, and discovering interesting things. I grew up in the western suburbs. We didn’t have a television, so we had lots of opportunities to read and explore.
What are the greatest challenges facing the Midwest in terms of what needs to be restored?
Our natural areas are so small and disjointed that the natural process that formed them no longer functions the way it did in the past. So much of the land has been transformed either by agriculture or development that we now need to be the implementers (stewards) of these processes.
Where water once flowed freely across the landscape, we have drained or channelized, fires that burned for days are now stopped, and introduced species without their natural predators spread quickly, out-competing Illinois’s plants and animals. Our challenge is to understand how we can reintroduce these natural processes into our fragmented landscape and teach people how important it is to care for the last remaining bits.
How does your work relate to people in their own communities?
Our best restorations always include the involvement of the local community. Without an involved constituency, we would lose much of what is left. Openlands, Forest Preserve Districts, and other public landowners simply do not have the money or the staff to take care of the land to the extent it needs it. The community provides the eyes and the ears—boots on the ground—and the love of place to help manage these areas in the long term.
How can each of us get involved?
Find a place that you feel connected to—forest preserve, nature preserve, your yard, etc.—and look for like-minded people. Spend some time at the site and get to know it. Ask questions, then look for a way to find the answers: reading, conferences, writing politicians, identifying plants and animals, pulling some weeds, cutting some brush, collecting some seeds. It all helps!
What is most encouraging about your work, and what is the most challenging?
The most encouraging is that I have seen real transformation take place. I was just at a Grassland Restoration Network workshop that was mostly attended by many young people, and that really encourages me.
A challenge is always time and money. The most challenging also is that these small natural areas are under constant threat of being overrun by invasive species, development, and misunderstanding by the public of the tools we use to take care of them. When I tell people we cut trees, start fires, poison invasive species, and cull deer all in the name of healthy nature, I get some funny looks!
On a beautiful day—or even a bleak day—when you are outside, what do you like to look for in your surrounding environment?
I love weather, so most any day is good. I am always looking for what is in bloom, what seeds are ripe, and what new animals are using the site because they now have a habitat in which they can thrive. Of course, I am also on the lookout for new populations of invasive species or other encroachments to pull or remove.
What are the roles of plants and animals in your restoration projects? Are there particular birds, animals, and plants that you particularly enjoy?
That is what it is all about. Providing places for plants and animals to thrive, to reproduce. There are too many plants and animals to list. It depends on whether I am in a prairie, woodland, or wetland and the hundreds of variations on those themes.
On October 21, Openlands will host its annual luncheon when Marshall Johnson, Chief Conservation Officer of the National Audubon Society, will speak on the importance of grasslands.
Adele Simons, an early and consistent champion of the environment and the importance of working globally to fight climate change, will receive their award that day. The second president of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Simmons chaired the 2010 Chicago Climate Action Plan and the Global Philanthropy Project, and served as vice-chairman of Chicago Metropolis 2020, among many other leadership roles.
For more about Openlands and its projects, go to openlands.org.