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.”