Cook County ecologist protects natural areas for every generation

Kristin Pink, an ecologist for the Cook County Forest Preserve, reaches for oak leaves on the ground in Spears Woods.
Kristin Pink, an ecologist with the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, reaches for oak leaves on the ground in Spears Woods. Oak leaves are dry and carry fire easily during controlled burns, which in turn helps the trees grow. (Carlyn Kranking/MEDILL)

By Carlyn Kranking
Medill Reports

Kristin Pink remembers coming to Spears Woods as a child, walking the paths with her sled in the winter. She knew what time of year the lily pads on the wetland bloomed and visited the woods to look at them.

Now, she walks the same paths with her red Cook County Forest Preserve lanyard around her neck. She knows what time of year is best to perform prescribed burns that help the landscape grow. As an ecologist for the forest preserves, Pink works to protect natural places for tomorrow’s children who will grow up with them.

“I was a little girl playing in these woods, and maybe the next generation of little girls playing in these woods can keep this work going,” Pink said.

In grade school, Pink learned about destruction of rain forests and realized that the natural places she loved were at risk. Her high school biology teacher taught her about restoration, and in college, she studied natural resources and environmental science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Now, she’s worked at Spears Woods, southwest of Chicago, since 2010.

Spears Woods is a remnant ecosystem, meaning that the natural area has remained largely undisturbed, surviving since the retreat of glaciers 13,000 years ago. Remnants take minimal attention to restore, but they’re a high priority for ecologists, who see so many get destroyed.

“Once these areas are lost — our precious, irreplaceable remnants — that’s it, they’re gone for good,” Pink said.

According to Pink, the way to protect a remnant ecosystem is to give it the conditions with which it evolved. Walking through the woods, she can see clues to what the land looked like in the past. A thorny plant called white snakeroot tells her the land used to be grazed. The soil type tells her if the land developed under trees or prairie.

Tree branch patterns tell her the land used to be more open, with less dense trees. Sometimes, restoration work might seem counterintuitive — the landscape must burn in order to grow, and some trees must be cut for new ones to sprout.

“We actually need to thin, or cut down some of these oaks in order to get baby oaks to reproduce,” Pink said. “If we don’t cut, this will be the last generation of oaks in these woods. That’s a really weird concept to say.”

Spears Woods before and after restoration work, 2018-2019

Restoration is a year-round process. In the summer, ecologists monitor vegetation and birds, and in the winter, they enter that data and remove brush and trees. Burn season is November; ecologists burn the dry oak leaves on the ground to help regenerate the landscape. They also consult on development projects in the preserves.

“We’re monitoring, we’re recommending actions, and then we’re looking at how that is affecting the forest preserves,” said Becky Collings, Cook County Forest Preserve senior resource ecologist. “So it’s kind of a dynamic role. We’re not just collecting information and writing reports.”

Collings, who is Pink’s direct supervisor, describes Pink as detail-oriented and motivated. She explained that Pink took it upon herself to become a burn boss, or someone who leads the prescribed burns, deciding where and when to use fire in the landscape.

“Having an additional burn boss allows the forest preserve to get more acres burned on any given burn day,” Collings said. “We don’t have many female burn bosses either, so that’s kind of cool.”

Fire is used in restoration to help native plants grow, but it’s difficult to prescribed burn in an urbanized landscape. There are roads that border Spears Woods, and Pink has to account for where the smoke from the burn will go to avoid creating unsafe driving conditions. Despite this difficulty, forest preserve ecologists are able to burn on a massive scale to help the ecosystems.

The walking path at Spears Woods, trees and plants on either side
The Cook County Forest Preserve has been restoring Spears Woods for decades, removing invasive species and creating the right conditions for native plants to flourish. “If you walked here three years ago, you would be walking through dense invasive brush,” Pink said. (Carlyn Kranking/MEDILL)

Pink hopes to see the children of today carry on this work. She said they should have experiences in nature, like she did when she was young. If she hadn’t grown up next to Spears Woods, she wouldn’t necessarily have such an affinity for natural places.

“I don’t come from a family of nature lovers,” Pink said. “Just the simple fact that I grew up next to it and grew up playing with it, now I really care about it.”

For those who don’t care about nature, Pink wants them to realize we must protect the environment not just for its sake, but for ours.

“We cannot live without nature,” Pink said. “So when we protect these places, we’re protecting ourselves — the future of us living on planet Earth. What could be more important than that?”

Carlyn Kranking is a Health, Environment and Science reporter at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @carlyn_kranking.