In 1993, when Dave Borneman applied to start Ann Arbor’s Natural Area Preservation unit, he wasn’t even among the five finalists. But he got another shot when the city’s first choice for the job turned it down, and Borneman, carrying a paper about the retreat of glaciers in southeast Michigan, led his prospective employers on a hike as part of his interview.

An Illinois native who’d never been to Michigan, Borneman had arrived four days early to scope out Ann Arbor. U-M Dearborn prof Orin Gelderloos, whom he’d met several years before, had given him a cram course in local glaciology, summarized in that piece of paper. “That handy-dandy sheet helped me get the job,” Borneman says.

His first office, in an old warehouse on W. Washington, measured five feet by fourteen feet. It had no phone, no desk, no file cabinets, and no computer. “‘We’re not really sure what you’re supposed to do, but here’s where you do it,'” Borneman remembers being told.

Someone suggested that Borneman lead hikes. But others were already doing that, and he had bigger ambitions: to restore areas to what they looked like when the early settlers first came on the scene.

In his own early years, Borneman made a circuit of environmental groups–the Sierra Club, Audubon, Michigan Botanical Club–to round up volunteers. “These people were thirsty to do something, happy to meet me, and glad about NAP,” he says.

Borneman, now fifty-six, has a permanent staff of four and up to a dozen seasonal employees. Working out of a ranch house overlooking Gallup Park’s South Pond, they’re backed by thousands of volunteers. Last year alone, Borneman says, volunteers put in 18,000 hours in about 100 parks and natural areas, pruning, hauling brush, spreading wood chips, and even helping out on prescribed burns.

Furstenburg Park is one of their jewels. When NAP started, he says, it was “solid shrubs,” with the trees lost among a thicket of invasive species like buckthorn and honeysuckle.

Borneman, staff, and volunteers cut the shrubs, got rid of stumps, and did planned burns. Now you can see the river, and there’s enough sun for native wildflowers to grow. Furstenburg has begun to resemble Borneman’s ideal, Ann Arbor as it was in the early 1800s, “with trees spread thirty-to-forty feet apart.”

“When you’re in a thicket of dense buckthorn, it’s hard to imagine that at one time, you could have been riding a horse, two abreast, through here,” he muses. But places like Furstenberg “have the best chance of getting back to what Ann Arbor used to look like. We’ll just have to wait for the trees to get bigger.”

Borneman has seen his share of controversy. In the past year, NAP staff sprayed 2.5 gallons of concentrated glyphosate, marketed as Roundup, around the city. That’s its usual amount, but citizens already angry about the Washtenaw County Road Commission spraying Roundup turned their ire on the city. One even called for Borneman to be fired.

“If you had told me twenty-five years ago that I’d be pushing herbicide, I’d have said you were crazy,” Borneman admits. “But these invasives are hard to get rid of. You can waste a lot of volunteer time and staff resources” trying to uproot them all by hand. Homemade remedies such as concentrated vinegars and soaps have not been researched for effectiveness and safety, he says, and other herbicides can persist in the soil or carry high toxicity.

“Could we use goats?” he asks, referring to the grazers on the islands at Gallup Park this summer. “Sure, if you want to clear out a vacant lot.” But in a top-priority area such as Bird Hills, they’d eat everything.

Deer, another hungry animal, have also become part of a prickly issue: abundant deer eat abundant native trees, including oak saplings. Although they play a part in the ecosystem, “from our perspective, the natural areas are taking a beating from the deer,” Borneman says. “Until we get the deer population in check, we’ll never be able to get the oak forests again.”

Meanwhile, NAP relies on prescribed burns to clear land of invasives and allow fire-adapted native species to recover. Borneman recalls how former NAP botanist Bev Walters, while experienced in prairie burns, initially was dubious about their effectiveness in wooded areas. But weeks after a burn, he says, he’d get calls from her out in the field: “‘Oh, my god, Dave, you can’t believe the carpets of trout lilies that are here!'” she’d enthuse–or trilliums, or wild geraniums.

“It’s really fun to see how powerful fire can be when used in the right way,” Borneman says. After a burn at Cedar Bend Nature Area, upland boneset, a native plant with a flat-topped cluster of white flowers, reappeared. It hadn’t been recorded in any Washtenaw County park for sixty years.

At home, Borneman will strum his acoustic guitar while wife Kate Krause, COO of the nonprofit Fair Food Network, plays the Yamaha Clavinova digital piano he bought her. He has two daughters from a previous marriage.Molly, twenty-two, makes costumes for the theater, while Tess, seventeen, will be a senior at Skyline this fall.

Initially, NAP’s mission was to “protect and restore Ann Arbor’s natural areas.” Borneman thought he had things well in hand until his mentor and good friend Keith Blackmore from Highland Community College in Freeport, Illinois, challenged him about whether he was doing enough. Blackmore gave Borneman a quote from Aldo Leopold that said in part, “… any decent land use is worthwhile, not only for its effect on land, but for its effect on the owner. If the owner is an impersonal government, nobody is benefited except the government employee.”

With Blackmore’s prodding, Borneman added to NAP’s mission, “to foster an environmental ethic among its citizens.” In addition to protecting natural areas, he wants to help people develop their own connections to nature, as he did as a boy on the family farm.

“We’re restoring the ecosystems, but it’s just as important to get people outdoors and teach them to be good stewards,” he says. He stops and gazes out the window, where a great blue heron stands hip-deep in the water. “I would love to hear someone in the next generation talk about how they first connected to nature in an Ann Arbor park.”