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Thursday, August 25, 2016

Prairie Yells For Help

Weston Cemetery Prairie near Chenoa was a focus of the recent North American Prairie Conference at Illinois State University. It’s famous as one of the finest remnants in Illinois. But some visitors noticed a scary problem.

If you already know the deal on cemetery prairies, you can skip this paragraph. If you don’t, you may be amazed to learn that some of the finest surviving true prairies are in old settler cemeteries that were laid out, fenced, and mostly left alone since the mid 1800s. Often this acre or half-an-acre is the only sanctuary in an entire county where the natural vegetation (and many small animals) survives.

Less than one one-hundreth of 1% of the tallgrass prairie survives.
In Illinois, many of the best remnants are in old cemeteries. 
For 44 years, the five acres of Weston Cemetery Prairie have been managed as an Illinois Nature Preserve by staff and local volunteers. Half is burned annually, and invasive species have been largely banished from the center.
Though tiny, cemetery prairie remnants have a richness that can't be found in millions of surrounding acres. 
The Challenge
But prairie lovers who stopped by to see it in July (during the nearby conference) were shocked to find that after 44-years this precious preserve had a massive infestation of white sweet clover (Melilotus alba) along its north edge. The invasive is a serious threat. None of the people responsible for the preserve had had time to check on invasives this year. Tom Lerczak (Illinois Nature Preserves Commission) and Eric Smith (Illinois DNR) were disappointed to hear of it but explained that they’re both spread so thin they couldn’t be much physical help. On the other hand, Tom was eager for volunteer help and referred potential workers to Jason Shoemaker of the ParkLands Foundation for coordination.  
An evil army of Melilotus (white spiky flowers massed on left) advances into the prairie. 
Don Gardner is one of the most respected prairie managers in central Illinois. He wrote:
Weston Cemetery as well as Prospect and Loda and the railroad near Kempton
have provided guides for me as to what dark soil tall grass prairie here in
east-central Illinois should look like. My goal has been to try to recapture
some semblance of that. Although I started [his own project] in 1974 I did not
attack Melilotus aggressively until 1998 ... Any plants that are bearing seed are pulled and removed from the field. Thus for many years little if any new seed has been added to the soil. However, every year more plants appear indicating the large seed bank that has developed in the soil. In recent years there have been fewer, and this year there were the least to date ... controlling Melilotus is necessarily a long-term continuing effort. This will likely be true for Weston as well.
Help! Help! Sweet clover blots out all else! It can badly degrade a prairie if not controlled. 
People Who Rise To The Occasion
On Aug 8 and 9, ten volunteers including Dr. Gardner and Jason Shoemaker of ParkLands battled the sweet clover:

Don and Espie Nelson (stewards of the Vermont Cemetery Prairie west of Joliet) reported on the 8th:
A good dent was made in the clover patch.  A total of 7 people worked.  Three DNR people came, looked, talked, and took pictures.

We attacked from two directions.  Upon arrival, the one group thought the west entry might be easier because of the tall vegetation in the cemetery.  They entered from the west side along the tracks.  The dead bodies [of the hated clover] were packed in plastic bags ...  our group cleaned north from the parking lot to the RR tracks.  Then we cleared along the north edge of the cemetery.  The clover was quite dense along this side and 7 - 9 feet tall.  Surprisingly, there was no clover in the interior.  Also, there were not many first year plants.  We stashed our trash in tarps and left a pile at the edge of the parking lot... Both [groups] worked until noon ...

A group will be coming tomorrow and they will take care of the clover bags and the clover pile. Plenty of bug spray is needed, as well as drinking water.  There was no breeze.
Among the valiant heroes on the 9th, Ed Wilhite and Teresa DeWill admire the grim corpses
 in one of many tarps of sweet clover.  Photo by Diane Wilhite.
Tom Lerczak wrote: “The folks I met at Weston Cemetery are highly skilled and knowledgeable. I determined that during the few moments that I was with them.”

On the 9th, members of the East Central Master Naturalists and Grand Prairie Friends came down from the Champaign area and “had fun with Jason.” How can doing such work on a hot, buggy day be fun? The answer must be in the results.
On the 11th, Jason was joined by Dr. Roger Anderson and two ParkLands interns to finish the job.

Was the work too late, as some feared? How many of the literally millions of sweet clover seeds already fell? Time will tell.

Jason is looking for “people who may be able to help or be possible stewards who can help monitor the site, letting us know of vandalism or threat from exotics.”

Will enough people keep an eye on Weston, and pitch in, as Jason requested? Most sweet clover is best pulled earlier in the year, before it gets so hot. But there can be more to do than people to do it – a fact that is paralleled in various ways at hundreds of nature preserves across the state. There are plenty of people who care, but how do they get engaged, trained, and empowered?

One person, reviewing this post, wrote:  

In fact, the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission is in a crippled state at this point.  For example, they've had two field staff retire since 2010, with neither position filled or on the horizon to be filled.  Last year, Director Randy Heidorn retired.  He was hoping to have two "deputy" positions filled before he left and a new director appointed soon thereafter.  But the state budget impasse prevented that from happening.  So Tom Lerczak has been filling in for large parts of the two program manager positions as well as portions of the director position, temporarily covering several counties in far eastern Illinois and his normal load of 21 counties. People need to know this and express their concerns.

Don Gardner wrote:
It has been my opinion that these small high quality remnants should receive the highest management priority. In recent years there is increasing interest in undertaking recovery or reconstruction on larger sites. This is fine, but along with other factors such as lack of funding may lead to diminished attention to the small quality sites, which I am sure you too have noticed even on certain dedicated nature preserves.

I asked Tom Lerczak if I should remove the comment on the staff people who stopped by briefly. Tom replied:
You might mention that I was with the group of IDNR staff ... that we were pressed for time, on our way elsewhere ...  We were not expecting volunteers, but we were pleased to see them ... I actually liked the “looked, talked, and took pictures” sentence.  I sounds a little snarky, but it's accurate.  I'm not offended.  (Note: See "COMMENT ON ILLINOIS STAFF, ABOVE.)

If you’re interested in volunteering to help Weston Cemetery Prairie, here are some contacts:

ParkLands Foundation:
PO Box 12
Normal, IL  61761-0012

Phone: 309.454.3169
Jason Shoemaker: (309)_531_7065

Illinois Nature Preserves Commission:
Tom Lerczak
17500 E. CR 1950 North
P.O. Box 590
Havana, IL 62644-0590

This isn’t much of a photo of Jason Shoemaker, but he’s a hard worker
and not easy to catch up with. Photo by Diane Wilhite.

Weston Cemetery Prairie Nature Preserve 
Honor Roll

The survival of rich biodiversity at Weston is credit 
to the wisdom and generosity of many, including: 

Staff and volunteers of the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission
and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources
Biologists from Illinois State University, who were the original stewards
Dave Jeffries, former volunteer steward
ParkLands Foundation, current steward
Countless other volunteers who've worked there over the years

Special Credit for leading the recent Sweet Clover Mission 
Roger Anderson and Jason Shoemaker
ParkLands Foundation
Grand Prairie Friends
East Central Illinois Master Naturalists
Don Gardner, Espie and Don Nelson, 
Sara Hostetter, Diane and Ed Wilhite