From a single patch of large prairie to a rare type of wetland, the remnants of Illinois’ rich ecological past still stubbornly survive in the cracks between farmland and urban sprawl.
They are alive, but not doing so well. An organization is looking to change that.
Founded in 2020 to rally support for the state’s protected natural areas, Friends of Illinois Nature Preserves is now launching a major recruiting effort to grow its ranks and assemble a corps of volunteers to manage the sites.
The state’s nature reserve system is remarkable for its scope – over 600 sites, totaling over 100,000 acres – but that scope is also its greatest challenge. Many reserves have gone decades or more unmanaged and are in danger of losing the very features that deserved their protection in the first place.
âIt’s bigger than any group can handle,â said Christos Economou, a Friends of Illinois Nature Preserves volunteer who is often found in the Old Plank Road Prairie Nature Preserve. âSome sites need a lot of intensive and corrective care. “
To generate interest, the group hosts on-reserve volunteer launch events throughout October in partnership with conservation and community organizations. The idea is to use the two hour sessions to introduce people to these raw gems that need polishing, and also to give people a taste of what ecological restoration entails.
âIt’s a no-obligation chance to see what it’s all about and if it’s something you might want to devote your time to,â Economou said.
Potential stewards will learn about the site’s history as well as its flora and fauna, and participate in typical restoration activities such as collecting seeds from native plants or hacking invasive brush.
It’s not exactly a walk in the park, but the work is rewarding, said Friends volunteer Rebeccah Hartz.
âIt’s an exciting and empowering feeling to know that you have a role in nature. You can make a huge difference by being an active participant, âsaid Hartz. “In a way, it’s an honor to be needed and to be a keeper.”
Economou said an added bonus to volunteering with Friends has been discovering a group of like-minded nature lovers he never knew existed.
âMy nature friends are people I probably wouldn’t have met or spent time with otherwise: current and former hippies, teachers, CTA mechanics, professors, doctors, retirees, students, employees of the government ; people of all faiths and all colors, âhe said.
No experience is necessary, it suffices to bring a willingness to learn, according to Economou and Hartz, none of whom have training in ecology.
âAsk questions, watch,â Hartz said. âIt’s a volunteer catering community, but it’s also a learning community.
On Saturday, the group hosted an inaugural event at Shaw Woods and Prairie in Lake Forest, which is part of the Skokie River Nature Reserve.
âThe participation of caring people was impressive. It was historic, âEconomou said of the event. “Many are eager to hear how the community that started in Shaw Woods and Prairie on October 2 will develop and what great things it will accomplish.”
Ultimately, the goal is for stewards to reach the point where they maintain the landscape of a reserve, rather than doing the heavy lifting of restoring a degraded site. âWe haven’t achieved that with any of the locations,â Economou said.
It feels like time is running out, which is one of the reasons for the push for more volunteers.
âOne of the analogies that helped me understand the emergency was ‘the ecosystem is a patient in critical care,’â Hartz said. âYou have to constantly review your priorities. What will make the biggest difference to help him hold on?
But the race is no longer just between helping native plants and wildlife gain a foothold and eradicating invasive species. Climate change is the threat hanging over any conservation project. Heat waves, drought, or other extreme weather could possibly wipe out years of restoration efforts in one fell swoop.
This is all the more reason to speed up the pace of Friends’ work and expand its network of support, according to Economou. âThe best insurance (against climate change) is to restore the health of an ecosystem and make it as diverse as possible,â he said.
DO YOU WANT TO GET INVOLVED?
Upcoming events are scheduled for October 17 at Kishwaukee Fen and October 23 at Old Plank Road.
Get details on these events below, and find out what makes these reservations so special, according to Economou and Hartz.
Area: 35.5 acres
Location: McHenry County, located roughly halfway between Barrington and Woodstock
Description: Fens are a unique type of wetland, created in places where the water table is so close to the surface that it keeps the soil saturated.
Features: A fen’s soil tends to be alkaline – Kishwaukee has high levels of calcium carbonate in its groundwater – creating a specialized environment where only certain plants can survive, giving the natives a sort of built-in defense against species invasive, according to Hartz.
Among his favorite natives: bog arrowgrass (listed as endangered in Illinois) and Kalm’s lobelia, which Hartz described as “the most delicate of the delicate lobelia.”
âKishwaukee is really impressive. The pieces hold together really valiantly, âshe said. âThere are rare and valuable swamp species that cling to. “
But there are also aggressive and persistent invasive species like reed canarygrass and purple loosestrife, which can crowd out natives and create a monoculture that provides little or no benefit to wildlife.
âThe remaining (native) species are there, but there are these other layers that need to be removed,â Hartz said, adding that this is where volunteer stewards can help.
Another natural wonder found at Kishwaukee Fen is tuff, an otherworldly rock formation that occurs when limestone meets alkaline water. Tuff “mega formations” are tourist attractions in California and Nevada.
Volunteer kickoff details: 10 a.m. to noon on October 17. Parking at RedTail Golf Club Barn, 8211 Lakewood Road, Crystal Lake (map). RSVP to [emailÂ protected]. Partner organizations include the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission, the Village of Lakewood, and the McHenry County Land Conservancy.
Old Plank Road Prairies
Area: 13.39 acres
Description: Old Plank Road is a black-ground prairie, also known as Tall Grass Prairie or Great Prairie. Once the most abundant type of prairie in Illinois, it is now the rarest, as much of its fertile soil has been converted to agricultural use. The remainder of Old Plank Road exists because it bordered a railway line and this right-of-way was fenced for both farming and grazing. âWe have this waste that covered millions and millions of acres,â Economou said.
Features: Native plants found at Old Plank Road include the prairie gentian, which is only seen at a handful of sites in the region, Economou said. The mere presence of this plant is an indicator of a high-quality original meadow, according to experts.
The Braids of the Ladies of the Great Plains are an unusual orchid, with tiny white flowers that bloom at the end of the plant in a twisted spiral. Its powerful scent reminiscent of vanilla is one of the reasons why the plant is Economou’s favorite.
After a 20-year absence of stewardship, Orland Grassland volunteers stepped in to save the Old Plank Preserve from invasive invasive species, taking time for the group’s conservation efforts. Friends of Illinois Nature Preserves hope to build on this work with a new team of dedicated stewards.
Volunteer kickoff details: 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on October 23. Parking lot at the corner of Miller Circle Drive and Central Avenue, Matteson. (Menu). RSVP to [emailÂ protected]. Partner organizations include the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission, Orland Grassland Volunteers, Village of Matteson, and Rich Township.
Contact Patty Wetli: @pattywetli | (773) 509-5623 | [emailÂ protected]