9:30AM – 11:30AM: Third Tour Rotation: The same four concurrent tours
12PM – 1PM: Lunch and driving to next site
1:30PM – 3:30PM: Fourth Tour Rotation: The same four concurrent tours
We have these four tours and guests will be able to participate in all tours on a rotating basis
The four tours:
Flint Creek Savanna – Citizens for Conservation – Restoring functioning sedge meadow using the 10 warrior sedges
Grassy Lake Forest Preserve – Lake County Forest Preserves – Volunteer-led effort to restore one of the largest remnant sedge meadows in Lake County
Spring Creek Forest Preserve – Forest Preserves of Cook County – Large-scale grassland restorations will be evaluated using the “Qualitative Rapid Assessment,” a tool designed for adaptive management and constructive feedback for stewards and land managers.
Poplar Creek Prairie – Forest Preserves of Cook County – a remnant gravel hill prairie surrounded by large grassland restorations accomplished over 30 years of community stewardship.
As described in Plants of the Chicago Region, “Phalaris arundinacea, reed canary grass, is introduced from Eurasia. This grass is planted by farmers for pasture and erosion control. It is very common in marshes and other moist ground, often forming nearly pure stands…”
A thriving copse of low juneberry is an attractive feature on several remnant knobs at Nachusa Grasslands. These dense clusters of identical plants offer a strong visual contrast to the lovely chaos of diverse prairie surrounding them.
In our sandy soils Amelanchior humilis, aka low juneberry or shadblow, grows about 18 inches tall in dense copses about 30 feet across. Prescribed fire tends to burn only part way into the cluster and fire only top-kills the perimeter plants.
Could we create a copse on the highly degraded, but recovering, Fame Flower Knob that we’ve been restoring since 2006? We had previously planted scattered low juneberry plugs and none survived, probably due to repeated prescribed fire.
Below photo #1: Shadblow on Doug’s Knob remnant; copyright Charles Larry.
The Flora of the Chicago Region by Wilhelm and Rericha says the species occurs in mesic to dry-mesic woodlands and savanna. At Nachusa, copses of low juneberry are found in upland sandy soils underlain with sandstone, arguably in both historic open prairie and historic savanna habitats. It is promising that our remnant seed source is thriving on the same soil types as our target plantings on both remnant and adjacent planted prairie areas.
Larry Creekmur of Creston, IL grew three trays of 38 plugs each and generously assisted with the plug planting on October 26, 2014. We targeted one site on the remnant with the same northeast exposure as the seed source and two sites immediately adjacent to the remnant in a 2012 planting. We tried three elevation levels on the knob. The moisture levels appear similar.
Photo #2: Larry Creekmur with planted plugs protected with plastic cylinders.
At each of the three planting sites we planted 38 plugs on 6-inch centers to mimic the dense growth of existing copses. To deter predation while the plants were establishing, we placed a translucent plastic tube around each plug, each supported by a metal stake. After the first winter, the survival rate was about 85%, although we did not do an actual census.
Photo #3: Finished installation.
Our management practice has been to burn the remnant and surrounding plantings almost annually during active restoration. We believed, however, that prescribed fire posed a considerable risk to the shrubs’ survival while the plugs were getting establish. We tried to protect the plugs from prescribed fire in different ways: by reducing adjacent plant matter within 5 feet; heavily wetting just before fire; and with fire retarding foam, also just before prescribed fire.
We were very frustrated when fire repeatedly burned through our defensive efforts. We finally had success in fall 2020 by erecting used corrugated steel panels, but we only had the resources to protect the remnant site which was about 6’ x 5’.
Photo #4: Corrugated protection.
After eight years only the remnant planting site shows the making of a copse. There are now about 150 stems of various sizes compared to the 38 stems planted. The perimeter of the cluster, however, is not noticeably larger than the original planting.
Photo #5 Remnant location after 8 years.
Observations about the process:
Planting plugs in close together seems like a sound strategy.
Fire will likely penetrate, but not kill the copse for years to come.
We might have planted all 114 plugs in one location creating a larger starting copse.
Only metal panels protected the new plugs from fire.
The other two planting sites were not protected from fire and are much less vigorous and less dense.
Effective protection from fire might have accelerated the plugs’ development.
We might have done simple soil cores to possibly find a planting site with “depth to sandstone” like the source site.
It looks like it will take at least another decade or two before the planted copse is wide enough and dense enough to act as a barrier to prescribed fire, thereby protecting its core.
We think this effort will ultimately succeed. Check back in a decade, but don’t wait to try it yourself.
Tom Mitchell is famous. We all have fame within various sized communities in which we live. Tom is certainly known in Monroe Wisconsin as he was the captain of his high school basketball team when they won all 26 games and then won the state championship in 1965. This September Tom will be inducted into the Wisconsin Basketball Hall of Fame.
Tom is also famous at Nachusa Grasslands for being a really active and effective volunteer steward. With his wife, Jenny, they would volunteer a few days a week at Nachusa from about 1998 through about 2008, a decade of energy and fun. Tom and Jenny started off joining the Saturday morning workdays, and quickly ended up as unit stewards who created four really nice prairie plantings. They also cared for an important remnant prairie. Tom was on many prescribed fires, led many VIP tours, and mentored new volunteers.
Tom says he was mentored by Bill Kleiman and Jay Stacy. But below is a 2005 photo with fellow super stewards Hank Hartman and Chris Hauser, who also worked hard and loved to share ideas.
So Tom and Jenny retired from Nachusa to move back to their beloved Monroe Wisconsin where Tom immediately became the most active volunteer steward in the area, volunteering with The Prairie Enthusiasts. Tom and his cohorts care for the 135-acre Muralt Bluff Prairie, and several other sites nearby. Before Tom, the volunteer group had been meeting once in a while to do some work. Now with Tom doing stewardship 7 days a week the group is getting a ton done.
Tom is famous. All of us are famous in our various circles.
A Healthy Nature Handbook. Illustrated insights for Ecological Restoration from Volunteer Stewards of Chicago Wilderness. Edited by Justin Pepper and Don Parker. Available at Island Press https://islandpress.org/books/healthy-nature-handbook and here is a 20% coupon code HNH2021
Aldo Leopold once wrote that “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.”
Written nearly a century ago, Leopold’s words still ring true for many. In places like Chicago, where prairie was converted to farms and then homes, subdivisions, neighborhoods, and one of the largest metropolises in the United States over 100 years ago, we struggle to find the scars of past sins on the landscape. However, for nearly half a century, everyday people have taken up Leopold’s challenge and accepted that the consequences of science are their business, that there are marks of ecological decay all around us, that in fact communities can make a difference. These everyday people have congregated on weekends and weekdays, in the heat and mosquito-ridden humidity and in the piercing cold to begin putting small fragments of our ecological heritage back together. They’ve come from backgrounds as schoolteachers, pharmacists, lawyers, artists, and activists, learning from established professional experts but most importantly from each other. The result is a network of highly-motivated, generous individuals who are driven by the idea that to restore an ecological community, a human community must be formed around the cause.
For many, however, this network is inaccessible. Chicago, while highly manipulated and fragmented, does have an abundance of parks and preserves that set it apart from many large metro areas. In more rural areas, or areas lacking access to nature, finding like-minded individuals and progressive institutions that value the contributions volunteers can be exceedingly difficult.
That is why books like the A Healthy Nature Handbook: Illustrated Insights for Ecological Restoration from Volunteer Stewards of Chicago Wilderness, edited by Justin Pepper and Don Parker, are so needed. Breaking down the barriers for access to some of the most forward-thinking, hard-working volunteer stewards in the region, this volume will help connect isolated individuals with the thought processes, ingenuity, and innovation that are hallmarks of the volunteer stewardship community in the Chicago Wilderness region.
As a college graduate during the Great Recession of the late 2000s, I found myself in a difficult situation. Armed with a dual degree in Art History and Religion, I was unable to find work in galleries and museums, leading to a less-than-ideal job of bagging groceries at Whole Foods. I felt lost, stuck, and in need of a new direction. Someone turned me on to the idea of volunteering at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore (now National Park), and I fell in love with the idea of becoming a National Park Ranger. Having grown up never camping, hiking, or even visiting a National Park, I didn’t have a grasp on what exactly I could accomplish or what I could learn. After making the long weekly trek to the Dunes on the South Shore Line for almost a year, I was tipped off that there were actually opportunities to volunteer doing habitat restoration closer to home. I attended one workday at Somme Prairie Grove with Stephen Packard, one of the volunteer stewards highlighted in A Healthy Nature Handbook, and my life was never the same.
Stephen and the Somme volunteers lit a fire under me. I had a radical awakening that challenged everything I thought I knew about nature, Chicago, and humans’ ability to restore what was lost. I immediately started spending my days off and time before or after work at Somme and other preserves, meeting stewards, asking questions, tagging along to mark areas for future workdays, collecting seeds of rare species, or hand-pollinating endangered orchids. It wasn’t easy or comfortable, and I was pushing myself outside of my comfort zone to spend time with unfamiliar people in unfamiliar places. However, before long I had established a strong network of teachers and mentors. This privilege afforded me the opportunity to eventually get an internship doing prairie restoration at the Chicago Botanic Garden, which developed into a temporary job with the Plants of Concern community science project, and eventually a career with Audubon Great Lakes, where I have worked for the past eight years.
What does my story have to do with A Healthy Nature Handbook? As I read through this impressive volume, I found myself with that familiar feeling I first felt at Somme. Hearing about innovations in restoration directly from the people that developed them, I felt that fire being lit under me again. And I know that others in the Chicago Wilderness region and beyond will feel the same.
The book focuses on particular restoration techniques, like the oft-duplicated Sedge Warrior process innovated by Tom Vanderpoel and Citizens for Conservation, or the backyard seed propagation efforts of Rob Sulski and the North Branch Restoration Project. Peppered throughout are nuggets of wisdom that are useful not only to those in the Chicago Wilderness region, but beyond. That’s because the conversational style of teaching that volunteer stewards excel at is faithfully reproduced throughout the book. Therefore, even if you’re restoring Longleaf Pine forests in Georgia, you can learn about the thought processes and can-do attitude that resulted in a regionally significant rare plant propagating effort and apply them to your own geography.
Similarly, one does not need to be able to identify Henslow’s Sparrows or Bobolinks to be able to understand Jenny Flexman’s ability to “see ecosystems in 3D” and thus change their observational skills to interpret restoration through the lens of savanna or woodland birds. The book provides specific information that some may benefit from, and general ways of viewing ecosystems and the challenges of restoration that everyone can apply to their local habitats. This, in turn, should spawn creativity and experimentation from a new generation of stewards, which are sorely needed in our age of rapidly-declining biodiversity.
The visual format of the book will appeal to everyone, especially younger stewards who are familiar with bite-sized pieces of information that are rich with graphics that mimic social media and blog posts. The authors imply that one of their goals was to build a Cook’s Illustrated for habitat restoration; the book acts not like a traditional recipe book that teaches you how to cook a specific dish, but rather teaches you how to build skills and techniques so that you can cook a great dish using the ingredients you happen to have on hand.
A Healthy Nature Handbook will surely influence a new generation of stewards. I know I’ll be sharing this volume with future Audubon interns and volunteer stewards – both in and outside of Chicago – for years to come. Tools like this help build more ecological literacy, which is essential if we are to combat the biodiversity and climate crisis at hand. One doesn’t become a steward overnight. It requires patience, curiosity, hard work, and access to innovative teaches and ideas. A Healthy Nature Handbook takes the onus off of the individual to make those connections and helps fast track the development of ecologically-literate communities that can help us reimagine a brighter future for nature and humans.
One of my goals that I wanted to achieve this year was to begin trials on the propagation of hemi-parasitic native plant species. The challenge with these is that they need a sufficient host plant for these plants to grow and develop. While some of the methods I have read about didn’t use a host plant, the overall vigor and development of hemiparasitic seedlings without a host greatly declined in their growth, which mostly lead to mortality of the young plants. With this in mind, I decided to first try one species that I thought would be a good introductory candidate for hemiparasitic plant propagation, and that species was Swamp Betony (Pedicularis lanceolata).
An uncommon species within the region, Swamp Betony is found in a variety of wetlands that include Sedge meadows, fens, wet prairies, and marshes. Like other Pedicularis species, it is a generalist when it comes to hosts, but generally gravitates towards using graminoids and composites. From my experience, Swamp Betony does fairly well from sowing seeds into restorations, and slowly increases in numbers over time. However, the number of plants is still few compared to what you may see in remnant habitats. The flowerheads of Swamp Betony are heavily browsed on by deer, and this makes it a challenge for seed collection in area where deer densities are high. This along with habitat degradation are some of the factors of why Swamp Betony is declining in the region. By propagating plants within a nursery setting, I wanted to see if I could successfully reintroduce Swamp Betony into the wild with plugs, and if there is the potential to plant plugs in protected nursery beds to increase seed production, or directly into the restoration.
Understanding the nature of Pedicularis species, I wanted to use the right host plants for this trial. Swamp Betony can drain a lot of energy from its host, so having a vigorous host in a plug would give enough energy for the developing Swamp Betony seedling. I chose to use Common Lake Sedge (Carex lacustris) and Hairy-leaved Lake Sedge (Carex atherodes) for the trial since they have an aggressive, rhizomatous nature to coup with the Betony. After their needed stratification period, I sowed the sedge seeds roughly a month before the sowing of the betony seeds. This would allow enough time for the sedge seeds to grow and develop into a sizeable seedling so that the betony will have enough root mass to attach to.
When the seeds of the sedges germinated, I transplanted them in small plugs (88 trays). I did this rather than directly into larger plugs with the idea that the root system of the sedge would be more condensed, allowing the seedling of the Swamp Betony to have a greater chance of attachment before being transplanted into a larger plug. Seeds of Pedicularis were sown with a host on April 8th, 2021, approximately 150 days after a cold, moist stratification period. Each plug received one seed to keep track of germination rates and to not overwhelm a sedge plug with more than one Swamp betony plant. First signs of germination began on April 20th, 2021, and continued sporadically for a couple weeks. Once the host sedge was large enough, and the Betony seedlings had a couple pairs of true leaves formed, I transplanted them into larger plugs, where they would continue to grow for the next two months. Growth and development was slow at first, but increased greatly once the summer months hit. In July, volunteers planted the plugs directly into the sedge meadow restoration.
Plugs of both the host and the betony progressed in growth once planted, but the host sedge was less vigorous than regular sedge plugs. Many of the Swamp Betony plants did flower and set seed this first growing season. I’m planning on trying this approach with Wood Betony (Pedicularis canadensis) with upland sedge hosts for the upcoming 2022 growing season.
The Nachusa Grasslands seasonal crew were led by Anna Scheidel and Matt Nugent.
The Nachusa crew harvested, processed and planted enough seed to plant two units, including this 25 acres at Franklin Creek Natural Area, FCNA, which is an Illinois DNR site next to Nachusa Grasslands.
They hand harvested seed of 192 species of plants with a total weight of all these seeds at 1,766 pounds, which is nine tenths of a ton. This weight includes chaff as we don’t clean our seed from the seed heads and bits of stems.
This seed was used to make various mix types from dry to wet, savanna to woodland. At this planting they used 300 pounds of the dry-mesic seed mix, 850 pounds of the mesic seed mix, 252 pounds of wet seed mix, and 125 pounds of Canada rye for the border edge.
The livestock trailer we use to haul the barrels of seed to the site.
We use antique seeders to drop the seed onto the ground. The seed was planted directly onto the corn stubble. The last several years we have not been burning off the corn stubble. We feel the stubble gives some benefit to keeping winter rains from washing seed away. Also during the summer drought of the first year the stubble may give some moisture benefit to the fragile emerging seedlings.
The crew makes at least two passes with the seeders to get good coverage.
To read the detailed report of this prairie planting is available with the others at Friends of Nachusa Grasslands:
The challenges facing our planet can feel overwhelming and paralyzing. Climate is changing, biodiversity is declining, people are struggling to be in community with one another. However, there are signs of hope. The United Nations declared 2021-2030 as the Decade on Restoration, upholding ecosystem restoration as a transformative approach to addressing environmental challenges. To understand, improve, and enact restoration practices, it is important to monitor restoration outcomes.
Our new article Twenty years of tallgrass prairie restoration in northern Illinois, USA published in Ecological Solutions and Evidence, as part of the cross-society special feature on the UN Decade on Restoration, provides one example of long-term ecosystem restoration monitoring. This dataset follows plant communities in native prairies, savannas, and planted prairies at The Nature Conservancy’s Nachusa Grasslands preserve. Conservation and restoration efforts began at Nachusa in 1986. Volunteers and staff began right away to remove invasive species, restore historic fire regimes, and plant tallgrass prairie restorations into crop fields. As the vision grew, project manager Bill Kleiman knew measuring restoration outcomes would be vital to honing restoration approaches and building support for large-scale restoration. He established several permanent transects in the mid-1990s, recording plant communities on native prairies, planted prairies, and savanna habitat at the preserve. Amidst the many demands of the project, Bill ensured these transects were resampled several times across the years as the preserve expanded.
Our long-term results contrast previous studies that have observed declines in plant diversity over time within tallgrass prairie restorations. Few restorations have been monitored repeatedly over time, so previous work has relied on sampling prairies of various ages to infer changes over time. This approach has many advantages, including being able to perceive long-term trends in one or two seasons of field work. However, it can limit our ability to untangle plant community changes over time from changes in restoration practices over time. At Nachusa, as in many places, our most recent plantings included more diverse seeding mixes and denser seeding rates. These younger restorations do have greater plant diversity than older restorations. In this study, we synthesized long-term data from the exact same transect locations, exclusively focusing on plant community changes over time.
Generally, these data show that long-term restoration efforts at Nachusa Grasslands have successfully reached floristic goals. Active management is central to our approach to restoration. The tallgrass prairie ecosystem developed over millennia with Indigenous people actively dwelling with the system. Numerous Indigenous cultures cultivated fields, planted trees, set fires to select plant communities and attract large game like bison, and harvested food, fiber, and shelter from the landscape. Their actions have been essential to shaping and sustaining this ecosystem. It is hardly surprising the plant communities at Nachusa have responded neutrally or positively to regular prescribe fire, aggressive invasive species removal, and active planting into former crop fields and degraded areas.
Today, Nachusa Grasslands is 1600 ha, ten times the size of the original area. Volunteers, staff, and scientists work side by side actively restoring the landscape. Many animals are also rebounding. Restoration efforts are recreating a medium landscape-scale habitat, large enough to support organisms ranging from tiny insects to the iconic bison. We continue long-term monitoring of plant and animal communities to evaluate how our efforts succeed and how they fall-short. We look forward to continuing to learn from our work and the work of colleagues engaged in restoration around the world.
If you want a high diversity prairie restoration nothing beats picking by hand. You likely don’t need a combine, but perhaps you would find it interesting to see how ours works. Here is a half minute video of this machine harvesting a prairie planting at Nachusa Grasslands https://youtu.be/qH106Ort_JY
This head does not cut the plant, but rather strips the seed heads with those metal fingers which spin fast on the rotor. This helps the combine by not importing all the stems of a prairie into the machine which can cause a combine to bind up. Combines are made to move corn, soy, wheat and other monocrops.
The harvest looks like this when the prairie has a lot of forbs in it. If you harvest an area with invasive weeds you get those too. We avoid areas with lots of the tall grasses or weedy goldenrods. We tend to harvest from a handful of plantings annually. A combine produces lots of what you got. For our new plantings we use our precious hand harvested seed. We don’t use much of this product in our new plantings. The combine mix has several dozen species and it is good for certain situations, and we trade it with conservation partners.
You are looking down at the grain tank of the combine. There are two augers at the bottom with metal covers hovering over and therefore hiding the augers. If you take the auger covers off the augers will bind from the prairie material, belts will smoke, wrenches will be weilded. If you leave the auger covers on the mix won’t go into those augers unless you continuously poke at the mix. This we do and use the ten foot long two inch white PVC pipe you see. It takes about 30 minutes to fill the tank, and about the same time to get it out of the tank into the grain wagon.
We unload into one of several old grain wagons. We cut a hole in the wagons and installed a perforated drier tube with the red fan which allows the seed to dry in the wagon, saving us a step of unloading damp seed and reloading dry seed a few days later. I see retailer Dultmeier makes a drier fan and these red ones can be purchased at farm stores.
This is looking down in the grain wagon at the white perforated metal seed drier tube. I recently added the black 4 inch diameter perforated black tube because we had some very damp seed that was struggling to dry. This seems to work better.
Keeping it simple is always good. Scissors and buckets are our main harvesting tools. Above, Becky Flack Neal is pulling a Prairie Habitats seed stripper back in 2003. That machine still harvests annually for us.