This spring Bartel Grassland steward Dick Riner hung up his steward hat after 12 years guiding countless volunteers and serving as chief ambassador of this expansive, inspiring landscape. A teacher in Midlothian for 36 years, most of that time teaching junior high science and photography, Dick decided to move to Colorado last year.
As Bartel’s site steward—the volunteer who provides leadership in carrying out ecological goals of the site, leading workdays, inspiring and coaching leaders, and much more—Dick’s creativity, positive attitude and nuanced understanding of complex systems enabled him to become a star volunteer in the Forest Preserves of Cook County and in the local community.
Along with other dedicated volunteers, Dick founded Bartel Grassland Volunteers to protect and restore native prairie and other grassland ecosystems at Bartel Grassland. The site’s 585 acres provide rare habitat for grassland birds—less than 1 percent of original tall grass prairie and .02 percent of original oak savanna remain in Illinois.
The Forest Preserves and partner agencies performed the large-scale restoration work to transform the old farm fields and degraded landscape to native ecosystems. But after this transformational work, the grassland needed a dedicated person to continue to heal the land and gain community support. That person was Dick. Dick leads numerous volunteers to do the restoration, monitoring and maintenance of the site. These once degraded areas are now thriving, teeming with biodiversity, grassland birds and prairie flowers, thanks to the efforts of Dick and his fellow volunteers.
Over his decade of volunteer leadership, Dick has also worked to connect the human community to the natural world. He has exposed countless volunteers, students, and civilians to the beauty and harmony of Bartel’s grasslands. Dick’s innovative approach and charisma have captivated partners from all over—from high schools, to religious and civic organizations, to non-profits. Whether someone was a lifelong volunteer or holding a pair of loppers for the first time, Dick went out of his way to make every person feel included and appreciated. He has touched many people who otherwise would not be interested in nature and motivated them to join him on his quest of healing Bartel.
It certainly didn’t hurt that Dick’s wife, Peggy, dubbed “the Mad Baker of Bartel,” baked countless batches of cookies to keep volunteers well nourished.
Dick’s volunteer commitment to ecological restoration and connecting people to nature has been vitally important. Not only did he care for his fellow volunteers, he encouraged them to learn as much as they can about grassland restoration. Dick organized monthly meetings with environmental professionals—botanists, birders, ecologists—who come to share their knowledge. Volunteers have benefitted so greatly from these gatherings that many have taken leadership roles such as becoming bird monitors and workday leaders.
It is plain to see that Dick has made many meaningful and important contributions to the sustainability and continuity of the Volunteer Stewardship program in the Forest Preserves of Cook County. What’s even more incredible are the meaningful contributions he has made in the lives of other volunteers. As a steward at Bartel Grassland, Dick has taken young, aspiring stewards under his wing and instilled in them an environmental ethic, a concern for the land and a love of the natural communities. He has helped build a community for the next 100 years.
Chuck Scannell, who has worked closely with Dick over the past few years as an apprentice steward, now has the tough job of filling Dick’s shoes as the new site steward at Bartel.