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In Illinois — the Prairie State — little prairie land remains. But work is being done to save what’s left in Cook County and restore more.

Thursday, February 06, 2020
Chicago Tribune
by Madeline Buckley

When walking in Cook County forest preserves back in the 1990s, John McMartin always thought the woods didn’t feel quite right. They were crowded and dark, unlike the open and airy woodlands near the farm he grew up on in Minnesota.

Years later, he learned why.
Most of the land in Cook County was once prairie, before it was farmed and later developed by European settlers who came to the area. In the 1940s, the Cook County Forest Preserve District reclaimed acres of land and planted trees, thinking it was the best use of the land. But most of the trees were not native to the area.

That resulted in a fast spread of invasive species, which blocked sunlight and stopped the prairie, which often contains thousands of types of plant life, from flourishing, according to ecologists and county officials.

 

“We do understand more now. You shouldn’t plant trees on prairies,” said Linda Masters, a restoration ecologist for Openlands, a nonprofit conservation organization. “They don’t belong there.”

 
Illinois is nicknamed the Prairie State, but less than 1% of its original prairie remains, experts say. In Cook County, only a fraction of a percent of original prairie is intact.

Now, the county is reversing course, more than 20 years after earlier attempts at restoration sparked controversy. Workers are removing some of the trees that were planted in the 1940s in an effort to restore prairie and save the remaining original prairie. The work has resulted in patches of land that have been returned close to their original state. In the 1990s, the DuPage and Cook County forest preserve districts put such restoration work on hold after residents complained about the removal of trees.

One of the larger projects underway is in Northbrook, where crews are working on land that surrounds 12 acres of pristine prairie, untouched in the centuries since settlers arrived in Illinois.

That patch of intact natural prairie is a rarity in the state. Funded in part by a grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Cook County and a group of volunteers from the North Branch Restoration Project, including McMartin, are preserving the natural prairie and restoring the land around it. The work will culminate in a 72-acre prairie in the northern suburb by about 2021.

It’s part of an ambitious Cook County plan to restore 30,000 acres of prairie, woodlands, savanna and other natural space to good ecological health in 25 years. The plan also calls for expanding the forest preserves to 90,000 acres from their current 69,000.

 

“What we have left is really precious,” Masters said. “We would be doing ourselves and future generations a disservice if we didn’t take care of them.”

A project decades in the works

On a recent cold afternoon, McMartin, of Northbrook, and three other volunteers gathered grocery bags filled with millions of plant seeds and trudged through a thin layer of snow to scatter them across the ground at Somme Prairie Nature Preserve.

“Everyone take a little,” Laurel Ross, a steward leading the group, told her fellow volunteers. “See how much ground you can cover.”

The area, located between Dundee Road and the Edens Expressway Spur, has gone through a noticeable transformation this winter as volunteers and crews with the Cook County Forest Preserve District have been

working to clear trees, bushes and other invasive brush, leaving acres of open land.

Somme Prairie Nature Preserve is part of the Somme complex, which includes Somme Prairie Grove, about 85 acres of mostly oak savanna, and Somme Woods, 255 acres of mostly oak woodland. The nature preserve is the only part of the complex protected by the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission for its high-quality natural area.

With most of the trees and brush gone, the volunteers are able to spread seeds they collected from other areas that will grow into prairie plants. It’s best to do this in cold weather, with the ground frozen, experts say. Ross said crews still have to remove about 4 to 5 acres of trees and brush from Somme Prairie. When the project is complete, most trees will be gone, except for some along the boundaries.

The 12 acres of intact natural prairie, left untouched over decades by happenstance, lay several yards beyond where the group was laying seeds. The volunteers have been slowly working in that area for decades, trying to save the original prairie and restore the area around it. They started the project before the county had much of a budget to help.

“This has been going on for 40 years,” said Ross, who has volunteered for about 30 years. “We’ve been removing the trees, doing it a little at a time.”

The work hit snags in the mid-1990s when anti-restoration backlash took hold, as some area residents grew upset that volunteers were removing trees. Though scientists and ecologists supported the prairie restorations, some people raised concerns.

“They are cutting down healthy trees to create savannas!” an opponent said in a 1996 Tribune article.

But in the last several years, the forest preserve district has worked with the volunteers to accelerate the project with grant funding, said Rebecca Collings, a senior resource ecologist for the district.

The county has been in touch with the village of Northbrook and has placed a sign on the property to keep residents informed about the project, said Carl Vogel, a spokesman for the forest preserve district. Officials have also fielded some calls and emails with questions from passersby who have seen the tree removal.

Vogel said the county has “no plans" to remove all the trees that were reforested decades ago across all forest preserves.

“Almost everyone has been good with it once they hear that it will remain a part of the forest preserves and that we have a plan to restore a prairie,” Vogel said. “And even for the few who would not want that change, it’s been a fair and civil conversation.”

Most of the 72 acres has been restored, with about 21 acres remaining. The project’s final push has an estimated cost of about $150,000, with about half paid for by the federal grant, said Troy Showerman, resource project manager for the forest preserve district. The county is funding the other half.

The project is scheduled for completion next year, though it may take years more to resemble a true prairie.

“It might look pretty rough,” Showerman said. “It’s going to take a couple years for the area we are working in to really recover."

‘Our natural heritage’

When the prairie becomes fully grown, it will be grassy with lots of species of sunflowers, asters and other flowers, ecologists say. It will be a natural habitat for butterflies, grasshoppers and other insects.

While seeding the ground at Somme Prairie, the volunteers dropped hundreds of seeds of rigid goldenrod, which will grow into a yellow flower.

“It’s perfect for this,” Ross told McMartin and the others.

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As a child, McMartin would venture out into the Minnesota woods with his mother every spring, enjoying the emerging plants and animals after a long winter.

“We would go out and try to identify the wildlife,” he said.

Now, he volunteers his time restoring the Cook County prairie to remain close to nature.

The goal of the restoration is to preserve the ecosystem, rather than provide a place for picnics and hiking. There is one informal trail that circles the nature preserve and is used by some locals as a walking path.

“It’s not closed to the public by any means,” Ross said. “But it’s not a park with a recreation mission.”

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The county estimates that hundreds of species of plants and insects live on the prairie, two of which are on the federal endangered species list.

“It’s kind of a window into what was here originally,” Collings said. “We call it our natural heritage.”

mabuckley@chicagotribune.com

 

 



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