Open Spaces

The CFC Conservation Classroom

CFC inspires and informs a larger world of conservation to
benefit the Bobolink Foundation

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Story by April Anderson | Photo: Patsy Mortimer

Known for their bold black and white plumage, distinct yellow head patch, and rambling, metallic melodies, male bobolinks are icons of the expansive prairies which once covered our state. Flying over 12,000 miles each year from local prairies to South American marshes and grasslands, both males and females summer from here to as far north as Canada. According to the North American Bird Survey, the bobolink population in North America declined by 74 percent between 1966 and 2014. With habitat loss along their migratory route including threats of fragmentation to expansive prairies essential to their survival, something had to be done.

For birder Wendy Paulson, a passion to improve the natural world took wing through volunteer work with a then-fledgling local group called Citizens for Conservation (CFC) when she was asked to develop programs for children and adults, and community groups. Reconnecting elementary school children from Barrington 220 with local nature, making educational presentations in the community, establishing a newsletter to keep volunteers informed, and working in the field to restore native ecosystems, Paulson became a driving force behind a conservation organization that would eventually inspire her to nurture other grassroots efforts.

A Triumphant Comeback

With the support of her husband, grown children, and two full-time staff people, Paulson has worked to extrapolate the conservation successes she has cultivated in Barrington to benefit the Bobolink Foundation. A philanthropic foundation named for a bird that has made a triumphant come back thanks to the convergence of hemispheric conservation efforts, the Bobolink Foundation’s mission is to “advance conservation and stewardship of biodiversity through the protection of natural areas, education, and building local constituencies for nature.”

“Citizens for Conservation has been my learning ground when it comes to philanthropy,” says Paulson. “In terms of personal contribution as a volunteer educator, restorationist, mailing stuffer, etc., I’ve learned that if conservation permeates the culture of a community it will be more lasting.”

Leading bird programs, gathering seed, and assisting with restoration, Paulson has volunteered with CFC for more than 30 years and been instrumental to its fruitage.

To date, Citizens for Conservation has protected 3,100 acres of public land and 11 of its own preserves encompassing an additional 431 acres. This grassroots organization continues to grow, and she continues to volunteer. “Philanthropy is not just about money,” emphasizes Paulson. “It’s about volunteering.”

In 2015, CFC celebrated a new milestone, as volunteers provided over 14,000 hours of service of which 3,800 hours were dedicated to restoring local natural areas. “There isn’t enough money, staff, or resources to do the work that’s necessary,” says CFC restoration director Tom Vanderpoel. “When the contractor is done, it’s never permanent. There’s always some invasive species left. The only way you can get it done is by volunteers, and we’re showing that with volunteers you can manage your preserves and keep them healthy.”

“Bird walks are part of my philanthropy,” says Paulson. In New York City and Chicago, she helped start “For the Birds!” in cooperation with Audubon New York and “Birds in my Neighborhood” with Openlands, sharing programs that worked in Barrington with volunteers in both cities to help more children engage with local nature.

“Some of us saw the problem decades ago,” acknowledges Tom Vanderpoel, “but it wasn’t until scientists from The Nature Conservancy started doing research and monitoring that they realized we needed to manage lands.” With local restoration volunteers expanding grassland habitats, the bobolink rebounded in Spring Creek and continues to maintain a stable population. Habitat preservation efforts in other parts of the U.S. and the world have made this success possible.

Paulson took her inspiration from Barrington to St. Simon’s Island in Southeast Georgia where she was instrumental in working to preserve Cannon’s Point. An undeveloped 608-acre tract of maritime forest, marsh, and uplands, Cannon’s Point Preserve is linked to the biologically rich lower Altamaha River delta which is considered by The Nature Conservancy to be one of the highest priority ecosystems in the world.

For five years Paulson served as chairman of Rare, a group that engages underserved communities in ecologically rich areas of Mexico, the Philippines, Colombia, Brazil, Indonesia, China, and the Pacific in local conservation. It was her experience in Barrington that convinced Paulson that Rare's approach to engaging the local community in conservation initiatives was the most effective route to lasting results.

Wherever she travels, Paulson strives to learn about each natural area from a community-based perspective and support projects demonstrating intelligence, expansiveness, effectiveness, creativity, and strategy. “Local people care about their community no matter where they live,” says Paulson, whose focus includes restoring grasslands in the Western Hemisphere and coastal wetlands of China. “There are volunteers just as caring, committed, and knowledgeable in these communities as in Barrington,” she adds. “We speak the same conservation language, including restoration and invasive species.”

“Our role can vary from place to place based on existing relationships and knowledge of the context,” says the Bobolink Foundation’s Chief Conservation Officer Justin Pepper. In South America, the Bobolink Foundation works to keep functioning ecosystems intact by connecting with other funders and foundations through co-investment opportunities.

In Brazil, the Bobolink Foundation partnered with World Wildlife Foundation (WWF), governmental, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and other foundations, to permanently protect 150 million acres of Amazon rainforest. Keeping native ecosystems intact and functioning through large-scale, multi-partner land protection deals, the foundation shares a commitment to conservation intended to complement and support the work of others.

As other NGOs and foundations work on more ways to protect critical habitats in the Amazon, the Bobolink Foundation is exploring opportunities to increase land preservation in Los Llanos, a 220,000 square mile tropical Colombian/Venezuelan grassland.

“It’s not hard to find connections between all of the places [we serve] from a bird’s perspective,” says Pepper, who has seen grassland birds spend their summers in the prairies of Spring Creek, migrate through the coastal grasslands of Georgia, and complete their annual migratory adventure in Argentina. “We’re not trying to get headlines,” states Pepper. “We’re trying to do conservation that lasts.”

April Anderson is a naturalist and freelance writer who can be contacted at team.nature.ed@gmail.com.