Miracle Under the Oaks

In MIRACLE UNDER THE OAKS: THE REVIVAL OF NATURE IN AMERICA, William K. Stevens describes the ten-year volunteer effort to restore “Vestal Grove,” a badly degraded tract of land north of Chicago. Starting in 1977, a volunteer group led by Steve Packard began to restore what they thought was tallgrass prairie, but discovered that the land had originally been a savanna of oaks and grasses. Though their work, Packard’s group has shown the effectiveness of volunteer environmental activism and has stimulated widespread interest in the ecology of savannas.

The concept of restoration ecology raises questions about whether damaged or destroyed ecosystems can be restored through human intervention. Given the extent of human intervention, preservation of undisturbed sites may be unsuccessful if the sites are too small or scattered. The challenge of restoration involves understanding the dynamic balance of a particular site and the role of forces such as fire to discourage exotic or nonnative species. Restoration has also become an important research tool in ecology, as theory and practice are balanced to recreate stable ecosystems. Although it may be impossible to restore a damaged ecosystem to its original presettlement condition, careful restoration may help to reduce the threats of habitat loss and species extinction.

In his work with the Nature Conservancy, Steve Packard has created a new model for environmental activism—the “Volunteer Stewardship Network”—based on Edward O. Wilson’s concept of “biophilia,” or love of life. MIRACLE UNDER THE OAKS demonstrates the potential for volunteer efforts in restoring health to public and private lands in an era of reduced government resources.