Sheila Bourgoin Braves Bites and Thorns to Preserve Nature

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 12/31/2015 - 15:09

While many know her husband Lee through his civic involvement, fewer know about Sheila Bourgoin. She is one of many people in our community who are quietly working behind the scenes in ways that benefit the rest of us.

Bourgoin is one of two conservation stewards for a 20-acre preserve just west of Saline and is the new caretaker of the rain garden at Saline District Library. She has also worked for about five years in invasive species control for the DNR at Waterloo State Recreation Area west of Chelsea.

Being an environmental volunteer can mean exposure to mosquitoes, ticks, chiggers, nettles, thorns, poison ivy, poison sumac, and unpleasant weather. What motivates her to risk these threats week after week?

It is the love of the outdoors, the joy of finding new species of plants she has not seen before, the wonder of observing the artistry inherent in nature.

When she participates in conservation workdays, the teamwork and camaraderie excites her. She also loves learning new things from other lovers of nature.

“I grew up in Massachusetts and I was always outside in the woods and in the fields, climbing trees, rocks, looking under logs for salamanders, things like that,” Bourgoin said.

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She received a fine arts degree in college and established a career in graphic design. Between her job and raising two children, she had limited time for nature study.

She did some bird watching, but didn’t like needing to get up so early and sometimes the birds were hard to find. About five years ago when one child left for college and the other, in high school, was demonstrating more independence, she began taking time to study plants.

Unlike her experience with birding, she found that plants “reach into your soul and make you happy.” The volunteer stewardship she began at nature preserves allowed her to see many species of plants in various stages of development.

But why does nature need people to care for it? Wouldn’t nature be better served by just letting it be?

Bourgoin explained that this was how conservation was done several decades ago and it mostly worked then, but not now. There are many new threats to natural communities and the number one threat is invasive species.

Invasive plants are those species that, when imported from another part of the world, aggressively compete with the indigenous species. Typically they have no natural enemies to keep them in check

Some, like garlic mustard, release chemicals into the soil that make it harder for the native plants to grow. Others, like narrow-leafed cattail, alter the nutrient balance or, like buckthorn, change the soil wetness of a local environment. Still others, like phragmites in Michigan wetlands, grow so densely that other plants cannot survive alongside them.

As Bourgoin described, natural ecosystems are networks of plants and animals in a given “neighborhood” that interact to make a functioning whole. Various kinds of birds rely on specific insect species for food. The insects, in turn, rely on specific plant species. When invasives move in, these links are broken.

So now it is often necessary to actively combat invasive species to keep ecosystems healthy. This means finding them and eliminating them.

“One of the first times I did a garlic mustard pull was at the Hudson Mills Metropark, Bourgoin said. There was a blanket of garlic mustard and when we pulled the garlic mustard, underneath it were all these trilliums, jack-in-the-pulpits and other spring wildflowers. It was like lifting the veil, and that’s when I really saw what a difference it made.”

She had found the invaders just in time. Often natural areas lose their species diversity before anything is done about it.

Today, without very concentrated and costly efforts, many places are beyond remediation. This is why Bourgoin and others focus their efforts on finding ecosystems that are still healthy and trying to keep them intact.

Such efforts not only preserve the pristine places but also maintain the seed bank that would be needed to remediate more damaged areas. Such efforts also aid humanity by preserving beneficial species of plants and animals.

“When I see a place like that I think, ‘wow, there’s something still here.’ It hasn’t all been paved and farmed and grazed,” Bourgoin said. “There’s still little pockets, little remnants of prairies and bogs and oak barrens.”

Since she began working in nature preserves, Bourgoin studied to become a Conservation Steward through a program run by Michigan State University. This program is similar to the Master Gardner program albeit with a different focus.

Bourgoin would like to share her interest in observing and preserving natural communities with others in the Saline area. She has started a blog called Flowerwalks.

She is thinking of organizing nature walks for interested people.

Bob Conradi's picture
Bob Conradi Is a retired pharmaceutical scientist who has redefined himself as a photographer and journalist. He has lived in Michigan for 36 years and in the Saline area for 10. He enjoys researching and learning about new ideas. Reach him at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @RobertConradi.