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Tuesday, December 1, 2020

A Lively Cemetery Comes Roaring Back!

An early model of Friends of Illinois Nature Preserves stewardship.


The 1.3 acres of botanically glorious Short Pioneer Cemetery were dedicated as a Nature Preserve in 1988. (See Endnote 1.)  It survived then, inside the cemetery fence, as a miracle, while the vast prairie that had stretched from there to the horizon gradually vanished entirely. A little more than an acre bloomed annually above the honored dead. The quiet cemetery gradually became more and more exceptional and irreplaceable.


This prairie remnant grows on a low sand dune, from glacial times. Over the millennia it had become diverse with now-rare plants: clustered poppy mallow, cleft phlox, goat’s rue, starved panic grass, and an unusual species of prickly pear cactus. 


“Put a fence around it. And leave it alone!” was once the prescription for nature. But in 2010, botanists published a little study. The flora here was vanishing. Fifteen species had been lost since the last monitoring in 1977.  

The flora was being lost, but what was left called out silently for help. 

In 2019, a decade later, when a few of us began organizing Friends of Illinois Nature Preserves, we had never heard of Short Prairie. But we knew there were problems among the 596 Illinois Nature Preserves. Once a system celebrated as a creative model institution, constituency had diminished. A series of, shall we say, "focused elsewhere" Governors, reduced staff and budgets. As the Friends began, we put out a request for reports. Soon 31 Site Reports came in, including anonymous concerns about Short. 

We published these reports not to whine, complain, or place blame. We knew the staff had vastly more on their plates than anyone could accomplish. Our theory was that, if people knew, they’d care, and citizens would rise to the occasion.


We’d never heard of Michael Campbell either. He’d been active in the conservation of ospreys, led a team that put up nesting platforms that were aiding an Illinois comeback of this once rare raptor. Somehow he came across our notice about Short. He worked nearby and felt perhaps a neighborly responsibility. He volunteered, and that started the next little miracle. 


Two chainsaws go to work. The prairie was thick with invasive trees.

Mike and the Friends reached out to find other potential stewards. Soon a little “core of active generosity” began to form. Two adjacent landowners agreed to cooperate. With invading trees lethally shading more than half the prairie, volunteer stewards brought loppers, bow-saws, and chain-saws. Soon “Let There Be Light” was more than a metaphor. 


A fire that's inspiring and depressing, all at once. 

On March 7, Nature Preserves staffer Kim Roman made a bold decision. The crew burning at Goose Lake Prairie finished a bit early. Some of that team, including some trained Friends volunteers, jumped into vehicles and headed for the little cemetery. They burned it, for the first time in years. The fire was inspiring and depressing all at once. Inspiring because we knew the best parts of the prairie would thrive this year. Depressing because much of the preserve had no prairie vegetation to burn, just a few moldy leaves under the death-dealing invasives. 


In 2020, the prairie in bloom looked more like the miracle it is. During summer and fall, the stewards gathered seed from the center to broadcast in the dead zones where the trees, brush, and briars had been. Again this fall, more and more shade was cut back. For this preserve to recover quality and sustainability, such stewardship will be needed for at least a few years. (See Endnote 2.) 


The 2021 growing season will be yet again better (see Endnote 3). The high-quality core has the potential to triple in size. In time, the miracle may cover the whole preserve and some of the cooperating neighbors' conservation land outside. 


Now, in December 2020, in honor of human Dedication and ecosystem Potential, we ask you to consider making a year-end donation to the Friends. It’s tax exempt, celestially correct, and will help us expand this work to a lot more sites … building communities of caring for the long haul, as nature needs. To donate, click here.




Endnote 1

Most people were buried in this pioneer cemetery in the mid or late 1800s. Few descendants continue to visit. But the survival of the ecosystem they maintained in this resting place helps consecrate the loved ones' memories. 

We wondered whether to actually name Short Pioneer Cemetery Prairie Nature Preserve in this post - for life-or-death reasons. With cemeteries being some of the tallgrass region’s best surviving prairies, these delicate little gems could easily be trampled to death by lovers of nature. They need communities of local stewards, but they couldn’t withstand even two dozen people regularly applying their feet to the flora and fauna. No scientists nor police stand around to caution visitors. Perhaps good signage, an established path system, and hidden cameras to identify rule breakers would allow these sites to be more widely appreciated. But in the meantime, we encourage you to carefully visit your local cemetery prairie, respectfully, with the lowest impact possible. Please also support efforts to restore high-quality big prairies, where we people can act like buffalo all we want. 

Volunteers Claire Snyder and Matt Evans congratulate each other 
at the end of the little cemetery's first shade-clearing workday in February 2020. 

If you want to help with future stewardship of this prairie, please contact the Friends

For an introduction to cemetery prairies, check out this fine YouTube video by Chris Benda.


Endnote 2

The 2010 report already had most of the needed management recommendations: Remove invasive weeds and the shade of trees – necessary to maintain this dry-mesic sand prairie, which is slowly disappearing. Otherwise this remnant will become even smaller and its species more vulnerable to loss. Very little management has occurred on this site since 1984. To restore and maintain this prairie will require prescribed burns annually, perhaps of half the high-quality area and all the recovering areas, until it has re-stabilized. 

The important 2010 report was published as the "Vascular Flora of Short Pioneer Cemetery Prairie Nature Preserve, Grundy County, Illinois: Composition and Change Since 1977" by Loy R. Phillippe, Paul B. Marcum, Daniel T. Busemeyer, and John E. Ebinger.

Is it ever good to cut trees down? In this 1.3 acre prairie nature preserve, conservationists have slowly come to realize that the answer is, yes.

Clearing brush and invasive trees is a lot of work, physically. It also takes planning, sequencing, and, for that matter, community education. This photo shows Mike Campbell (in hardhat, right) and the crew that cleaned up (and burned) the mess. 

Endnote 3

For more detail on this photo, see below. 

Botanists thrill to this. The diversity and rarity of the post-burn flora indicate an ecosystem on the rebound. Some of the plants in this photo are semi-trampled and lying on their sides, but they're back! The magenta is poppy mallow, lavender is prairie petunia, white is flowering spurge, yellow is western sunflower, and the grasses are many, especially little bluestem, this prairie's commonest grass. The big leaves at the top are invading briars. Will the diverse prairie outcompete some of the large, dense patches of invading briars, or will stewards be needed to reduce them? Time will tell, and we'll be happy to watch the drama. Detailed, informed attention (and a certain amount of humility and patience) will be needed. 


Thanks for leadership, initiative, proofing and edits to Kim Roman, Mike Campbell, Eriko Kojima, Christos Economou, Emma Leavens, and Matt Evans. 

Thursday, November 19, 2020

My skin felt prickly with focus.

By Rebeccah Hartz

An experience along an old abandoned railroad changed me, I think.

Old railroad rights-of-way are a common refuge for rare remnant prairie. Slim patches along the tracks have escaped the plowing, commercial developments, and other disturbances that have driven much of the Chicago region’s once-abundant prairieland into oblivion. Old Plank Road Trail, stretching westward from Chicago Heights to Joliet, has many such sites. Originally a road across the marshy prairie, made by laying oak planks side by side, it saw wagonloads of settlers moving west and their harvest heading back east. The plank road later became a railroad, which in turn was abandoned in 1972. It now serves as a recreational bike path and pedway. The 33-foot trail is bordered on the north and south by 33-foot swaths of remnant tallgrass prairie, untouched since the trail’s conversion roughly one hundred and seventy years ago. On November 9th, we set out to burn three of these precious remnants, just west of I-57 in Matteson.  

The fire seemed to be slow getting started. But we were ready.

Our crew consisted of two Orland Grassland-based volunteers, two staff members from the Nature Conservancy’s Indian Boundary Prairies, who came equipped with pumper units and suppression tools, and six volunteers from along the North Branch Restoration sites, myself included. 

I was drawn to joining this burn crew through my growing interest in ecological restoration and natural history. As I learn more about the restoration process, I notice there are a seeming infinite number of variables to consider while making sense out of a situation and charting a course forward. Fire itself is hypnotic, arresting, but the behavior of the burn, as it relates to those infinite variables, is captivating in its own way. I am fascinated by how different elements of the burn interplay: temperature, winds, humidity, fuel types, topography, many more. You have to maintain a hyperawareness throughout the process, a full immersion to account for these multiple unfolding processes. 


Every burn starts with careful planning.
When the flames began to leap, I would understand why.

    In defiance of our times, an era that seems increasingly to promote multi-tasking, split concentration, quantity over quality, the burn is a fully immersive act of mental and physical engagement. Halfway through our second burn unit, I became conscious of how sharply attuned I was to the process. My skin felt prickly with focus.  

That second unit was a narrow strip of tall grass between the trail and a harvested field, thick with corn stubble. Rather than manually preparing a firebreak on both flanks, we raked and soaked only the east end. The west end of the burn unit transitioned from grassland to dense brush, which leader Bill Fath felt confident was a natural fire barrier. This gave me pause. I knew that historically woodlands and rivers had sometimes comprised natural firebreaks, but I did not feel ready to relinquish control into the hands of nature. My experienced crewmembers knew better. Bill crouched before a matted tuft of pale grasses and lit a match. In seconds, the flames were eating through feet of fuel, rising like pillars into the air. When asked, Christos calmly gathered some thatch onto his rake and held it to the fire, then dragged it along the perimeter. It seemed more in tune with the site than the drip-torch ignition we had been briefed on in training.

Christos spread fire by pulling it with a rake.

From years of building campfires, I’m accustomed to watching wood burn, where the drama of the fire develops in place. I was not prepared for the visual and emotional impact of a prairie burn. The head fire moved in a roaring tidal wave of heat and power. It’s otherworldly, the fire washing over, devouring and transforming all at once. Unexpectedly elating and more than slightly alarming, as the flames reached the brush, they subsided almost as rapidly as they had leapt up, leaving a black, balded earth, fizzling quietly. I was surprised by the peace of this natural conclusion. 

After the flames, there is black, and peace.

Maybe this peace was the most unexpected part of the burn. Despite the inherent perils of the process and the apocalyptic scene left to us at its conclusion, the overarching mood was one of calm, quiet joy, and anticipation. An essential part of the restoration process had been delivered, and a slender but dear stretch of earth was primed for renewed vigor. 

One of the most intriguing parts of the prescribed burn is its role in fulfilling an ancient legacy. Fire has shaped the region, changed the evolutionary course of now-fire-dependent plant communities, and given us a wonderfully unique mosaic of ecosystems: open oak woodlands, savannas, prairies. Watching our burn sweep across the land, I wondered what this process looked like hundreds of years ago, thousands of years ago. How did the Native Americans manage their burns, and how did they relate to them? What did they know and understand that we don’t? (Note: I’m using past tense here because my understanding is that today’s Chicago-region tribes no longer use prescribed burns.) This is a subject I’m excited to research more. 

Finally, there is the question of our burn’s impact. I have yet to witness the “before and after” dynamic of a restoration-in-progress, so the extent of one burn’s effects and the variables that might interfere with its success are on my mind. In particular, all three burn units were either proximal to or had growing within them significant populations of invasive species. These had not been cleared prior to the burn, and had long since dropped seed. To what extent will the persistence of these invasives mute the benefits of our work? 

Postscript: Historic Photo

Compare our Plank Road burn crew from 2018.
Excellent spirit, but only two sets of fire-retardant clothing among us.
Level of leadership training? Perhaps equally primitive. Credit for improvements go to Friends of Illinois Nature Preserves (especially Christos Economou) - and to Orland steward Bill Fath (second from left, above) for his hard work and dedication to burn training.

Additional reading

In a comment (below), Ryan recommends a good article on burning from Missouri. See To Put Out Fire.

A fine old book on Native Americans use of fire can be found at: Forgotten Fires.

Another important article from Missouri is Doug Ladd's “Ecologically Appropriate Fire in the Missouri Landscape: A 35 Year Reflection”.
That article includes the words: "We need to change default conceptions across a broad segment of society. An unburned, fire-starved, overstocked woodland should not invoke notions of a sylvan paradise but instead be seen for what it is: a stressed, degraded, biotically depauperized system." 

It also includes the words: "Existing knowledge gaps are exacerbated by the realities of the contemporary environment. The fact that a certain pattern of fire prevailed in presettlement times does not guarantee that it will have the same effects in today’s fragmented landscape, subject to influences of allochthonous biota, altered hydrology, and changing climate patterns. We need a robust and ongoing culture of documentation and investigation, learning and adapting as we progress, enfranchising careful application of fire to nurture the healthy, diverse landscape upon which we as a society are ultimately dependent." 

Can anyone recommend good research on Native American use of fire in Illinois - or other especially important tallgrass region fire research?


Thanks to Shane Tripp for dramatic photos.
Thanks to Pat Hayes for the 2018 crew photo. 
Thanks to the Village of Matteson and Rich Township, the owners of the Old Plank Road Trail and these Illinois Nature Preserves, for years of good stewardship.
Thanks to Illinois Nature Preserves staffer Kim Roman for resources, trouble-shooting, leadership, and so much more. 
Thanks to Kathy Garness for proofing. 

Thursday, November 5, 2020

Langham Island Update and Plans - Nov. 5, 2020

November 5, 2020

Starting last August, the Friends "revived" volunteer community has sponsored brush cutting and seed gathering "workdays" every week. Yesterday, we and staff burned this once-neglected island, an especially important Illinois Nature Preserve. 

The collaborative burn represents in part the staff's appreciation of our hard work. 

"Long lost" plants are re-appearing. The ecosystem is happy. 

Grassy fuel is still thin. Our seed gathering will help change that. 

The fire will do some good. But we look forward to future years. The grasses we gathered from DesPlaines Dolomite Prairie (because hardly any of the warm-season grasses survived the shade on the island) and all the other species gathered on the island (that we will soon broadcast) will lead to more natural, bigger, and better fires.  

Those seeds will depend on sufficient light levels to establish and thrive. For now they depend mostly on our brush cutting to restore those light levels. So, look at the map below!

See the blotchy pink? That's the brush that the island next wants gone, soon! 
We look forward to the re-emergence of many more endemic, endangered mallows next summer and the increasingly revived community of species they flourish among. As the invading shade retreats in response to hard-working stewards, the mallows and so many other rare species will have more and more space and niches in which to proliferate. And we've learned our lesson. Since, as things stand, the deer killed all the mallows we didn't protect by our two exclusion cages, we'll protect more next year, one way or another. 

And there's another priority, thanks to the beavers. They've been cutting down the few young oaks that survived in the dark of invasive trees and brush. We cut Asian honeysuckle around them ... and the beavers cut the oaks. 
Eriko, Karen, Espie, and Don give doleful looks at a beaver-cut bur oak. 

So we're providing beaver-exclusion cages for some of the oaks; perhaps we should do many.

In other words, there's still a lot to do to restore natural biodiversity to this noble and worthy "island of rare plants." 

Join in, sometime soon? (See Facebook page for dates.)

If you would like to support this effort in other ways than the "workdays," just let us know. Langham Island needs a diversity of talents and interests to be what it once was - and can be again!

This post by Stephen Packard and Emma Leavens

Saturday, October 31, 2020

Decadeslong effort revives ancient oak woodland

 After 34 years of data gathering, three of us have finally published a study of the restoration of Vestal Grove.

Life Sciences editor Diana Yates of the U. of I. News beautifully summarized and illustrated it at:

The paper itself is at:

Thanks to lead author Karen Glennemeier for her masterful perseverance over many years, pulling together the elements of a scientifically sound paper. Thanks to the Illinois Natural History Survey's Greg Spyreas for crucial contributions during the last year and for recommending the open source journal PLOS ONE to publish it. 

Photo shows violet wood sorrel, wild strawberry, woodland sunflower, wild bergamot, nodding wild onion, and cow parsnip - just waiting to be counted for the Vestal Grove study. 

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Learn-and-Lead Groups Forming

A Will To Help the Planet


Not just in the rain forest, here in Illinois we are losing rare species – even from thought-to-be-safe nature preserves. The problem? Lack of educated stewards to care for them. Inspiring examples of stewardship have shown that local volunteers can learn fast and save the day (and the ecosystem).


Steward Seminar Groups or “Lead and Learn” groups are forming at many preserves – and are needed at hundreds. With help from Friends of Illinois Nature Preserves, these initiatives are saving primeval biodiversity by creating something new. Might you like to take part? Or even help design the program? If so, read on.


With common sense, a little observation, and expert guidance, 

most people can quickly learn what it takes.


Much of what nature needs is easy to learn by any person with the will to do so. For some preserves that have long been hemorrhaging quality and species, the simple action of cutting the smothering buckthorn would make a night-and-day difference. How much do stewards need to learn to recognize this invasive tree? About ten minutes for most people to be good at it. They also need to learn how to cut that tree down safely … about ten minutes more … if you don’t already know. And you’ve made a start.


There’s so much more to it, of course, in time, to be a full-fledged steward. See Endnote 1. But getting started doesn’t take much. And then we educate each other, as more and more people start to learn and take initiative.


A good example is Short Pioneer Cemetery Prairie Nature Preserve in Grundy County. An article in the December 2009 journal of the Illinois Native Plant Society revealed that this rare dry-mesic sand prairie was suffering from “a dramatic decrease” in quality – with fifteen plant species having been lost since 1977. For ten years following that article, no one took much notice.

But early in 2020, a report appeared on the Friends website. It warned that the preserve “… appears not to have been burned recently. Also needs cutting to remove shade …”

Somehow Mike Campbell saw that brief call for help. Prospective volunteer Mike didn’t know much about sand prairies, but he’d taken eco-initiative by installing osprey nesting platforms. He worked nearby and offered to help. Soon a dozen volunteers responded to outreach from Mike and Matt Evans from the Friends. Along with Nature Preserves staffer Kim Roman (like Mike and Matt, another get-things-done person), the new group burned the site, managed to cut more than half the brush, and gathered seed to restore the shaded-out, bare-ground areas – all the while maintaining safe Covid-19 protocols. Two owners of neighboring land have offered help, thanks to good outreach by Mike. People care. We just need to know where, when, and how.

Some wonderful people just come and work hard.
Others like to study and learn to lead as well. 

Interesting work on Langham Island - like this "rolling bonfire" - resulted from staff and volunteers puzzling out challenges together. 

These groups are forming in Kankakee, Grundy, and Cook at Langham IslandShort Pioneer Cemetery Prairie, and Somme Prairie. The best way to learn to start one is to join one. As Eriko Kojima puts it, the “special sauce” that makes these groups work is the way these people are learning to relate to each other – the “work and learn” approach – the quick empowerment of people who are ready to contribute. Check in on one of these groups for a while, and perhaps you’ll want to stay, or perhaps you’ll want to start a new group at one of the many preserves that need them. Experienced and apprentice leaders take time for small group seminars to study, discuss, and plan during “workdays.” Or we meet separately for longer and more detailed field seminars when we can.

 Illinois has 596 nature preserves and land and water reserves, with new sites getting legal protection all the time. But legal protection is just a start. Each of Illinois’ nine Nature Preserve field reps has an average of 66 preserves to watch over. Twelve DNR District Heritage Biologists also have responsibilities for these sites. Each of them has an average of 50 preserves to pay attention to. They need help at most preserves and have minimal time to spread around educating and authorizing volunteers, which is one mission that the Friends try to support. See Endnote 2. 


Every site is different. Some needed parts of the work are more technically demanding than others. Fine, see Endnote 3. But people are available to help solve all problems. What’s needed for most sites is a person or two with strong will and intention to do right by nature. Might you be such a person?


The “Learn and Lead” seminar process is under way at Langham Island and Somme Prairie. If you live nearby and would like to become a part of one of these groups, send us a note telling us a bit about yourself. If you would like to help organize a group at some other preserve, send us that note, and we'll try suggest options that might fit you. Many of us are doing our best, in all kinds of ways, to expand the pool of people who are trained and authorized to save the ecosystem at Illinois Nature Preserves.




Endnote 1

Initially, any new steward needs help. The stumps will just re-sprout without stump-killer. Many staff and volunteers have passed the test and are authorized to apply safe herbicides. These people are spread thin, so it’s best for local people to get authorized as soon as they can, which is not hard. But there are “spread-thin” people who may be willing to help a new group get started at a worthy site.

As participants in this “field seminar” at Somme Prairie, five potential new leaders studied ecosystem conditions, harvested seed, and broadcast that seed (above) in areas they had marked with red (mesic) and blue (wet-mesic) flags. Learning and doing. 


Endnote 2

The Illinois Nature Preserves System has many parts. It was designed with urgency and awareness that the threats and stresses are so great that nature needs all the help it can get. Many agencies own nature preserves, and some of them have biodiversity management staff. In addition to the nine Nature Preserve staffers, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources has fourteen regions, each with a Heritage Biologist who has primary responsibility for nature preserves owned by the state and can sometimes help with others. 


These people are all over-busy and only have time for actions and people who will contribute more than what they cost (in resources or time). Yes, of course, our system needs more staff and resources of many kinds. We get them in part from informed and active constituency, who are voters and advocates. Everyone who helps deserves appreciation. 


Endnote 3

Conservation education takes many forms. If you commit yourself to the pleasures and challenges of biodiversity stewardship, you can take courses or learn as you work. Whether you pursue this mission as a (lifelong?) volunteer or become a professional, many unschooled volunteers over time develop high-level expertise. See other blog posts in Strategies for Stewards for many examples and reports.


This post was written by Eriko Kojima, Emma Leavens, and Stephen Packard

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

September 12th: Langham Island Update

Brief notes on: 

1. Our goals for Saturday, Sept. 12. (Might you volunteer too?)

2. How the island's rare mallows are faring.

3. A new "core group" is forming. 

1. Saturday, September 12. 10:00 AM. Join in?

We'll row or paddle you out to the island. Or if you're good with boats, perhaps you can row us! If you want to come, please sign up on our Facebook page

Many of us will cut brush and burn brush piles. If you have tools and gloves, please bring them. But we'll have extras. Some of us will gather seeds for ecosystem restoration (see below). All you need for that is eyes and hands. Perhaps the most important and demanding work, if you have the patience and skill, is cutting small invasives away from rare plants so that people with herbicide authorization can carefully dab the stems so they won't resprout. If you want to break for lunch at noon, bring your lunch.  

We work from 10 AM to 2 PM. Many wonderful people are needed and valued. Meet at Kankakee River State Park "Island View" parking lot (at the south end of the park).

2. How are the rare mallows doing?

When we started, in 2014, our most endangered plant, the Kankakee mallow (Iliamna remota), had not been seen here, its only natural habitat, for ten years. 

Ecologists who'd worked to restore it previously said it seemed to germinate only near hot wood fires. That fall we developed the technique of "rolling bonfires" (also unique to this island?) and were thrilled to find baby mallows in the charcoaly tracks of those fires in Spring 2015. We watched the little plants grow, and then we watched them shrink. White-tailed deer were eating them voraciously. Don Nelson and Trevor Edmonson installed two large deer exclusion fences and soon, within those fences we saw about a thousand of the rare six-foot-tall, pink-flowered plants. 

Last fall we tried alternate approaches. We built some fires larger and some smaller; we tried to make the impact more gentle by burning lighter fuels (branches instead of logs) and raking the coals away so that the heat would have impact for shorter time. We were eager to see the results when we visited the island on August 1st. The results were disappointing. The lightest fires seemed to have produced no mallows. We found three mallows in one track and one in another. Inside the cages, where the hotter fires had burned years ago, we counted nearly a thousand mallows. 

Katie Kucera and Eriko Kojima harvest mallow seeds to broadcast into the mallow's former habitats.
Outside the deer exclusion fences, we couldn't find a single mallow. 

When we returned for more reconnaissance and planning on August 8th, we decided to check again. Perhaps we'd looked too hastily. But this time we found no mallows at all. We could not find those four we saw a week earlier. That casts the whole experiment into doubt. Did we have a lot more new mallows, but the deer ate them all? Was the problem that we didn't monitor earlier and cage the seedlings? After considerable looking around the islands, we found no mallows surviving outside those two cages. 

Another solution of course is predation. Bow hunting is legal in this nature preserve. Perhaps we need more volunteer hunters. (Our "hunter-gathering" so far has been all for plants.)

Click here for a video about the island's mallows by the Field Museum's irrepressible Robb Telfer and Emily Graslie.

What else did we find? A large population of the rare marbleseed (Onosmodium hispidulum). We look forward to identifying two types of orchids (not yet identified to the species level); the orchids surprised us, as the intensive 1985 plant inventory by state botanist John Schwegman found no orchids of any kind. 

Now that we're burning again, are the rare plants coming back? We'll look again for the rare Pitcher's leather flower (Clematis pitcheri), which we photographed in front of someone's hand in 2015 and haven't seen since. 

We found wild stonecrop (Sedum ternatum), just one plant of it, growing on a limestone ledge. 

We looked for the prairie grasses that apparently were common on the "grassy banks" of the island's south slopes. We found one plant of big bluestem and one plant of switchgrass. Well, that was at least two plants. This Illinois Nature Preserve deserves more volunteer botanists to help complete a new inventory. 

No one has seen the rare buffalo clover (Trifolium  reflexum) since 1884. But it too responds to fires, in this case grass fires. Its habitat here hasn't yet been burned with grass fires. Stay tuned for more strategic thinking about how to restore them. 

3. New "core group" forming. 

This precious nature preserve deserves "a congregation" of stewards and citizen scientists who will assure its continued recovery and future. So far, the new core group consists of:

Christos Economou

Matt Evans

Karen Horn

Peter Kim

Eriko Kojima

Katie Kucera

Emma Leavens 

Stephen Packard

John Sullivan

These are the folks working with (DNR and INPC) staffers Kim Roman and Dan Kirk to make the plans, spread the word, schedule the dates, lug the tools, and study the results. Many hands make light work, and many different talents are needed. There's room for many ore hands. Comment on this post, or on the Facebook page, or let any of us know at any Langham "workday" if you'd be interested in being on the team. 

Click here to check out last month's Langham update.

Langham Island is owned by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources as a little part of Kankakee River State Park. Park Superintendent Stacy Johnson, ecologist Dan Kirk, and Illinois Nature Preserves field rep Kim Roman are all super-supportive and crucial to this work. Thanks to them, to every volunteer, and to nature for bequeathing this treasure to us. 

Matt Evans' 2020 photo of one of the nearly one thousand mallows blooming this year.

For edits to this post, thanks to Eriko Kojima and Kathy Garness

Friday, August 28, 2020

Brush Puzzles in Somme Prairie Nature Preserve

Draft - August 2020

Accentuate the Positive

The concerns raised in this report should not detract from appreciation for the good and valuable work done by the contractors, who reduced the dominance of brush over large areas without damaging the prairie intermixed with the brush in any observable way in most areas. 

Eliminate the Negative

But where apparent problems emerge, especially in regard to high-quality, remnant natural areas, we stewards strive to understand the causes and develop improved techniques and safeguards as best we can.  



Trees and brush in Somme Prairie have been fought mostly by volunteers for four decades. In recent years, Forest Preserve staff has hired contractors to speed up the process; the last of the large brush and trees should all be removed before the end of September. 

But the small high-quality areas have had their edges nipped at by short, dense brush, mostly gray dogwood, still, after all these years. The dogwood spreads in clones, with stems connected by roots.  

Foreground (above) shows dogwood with prairie species, stunted but surviving.

Top of photo is Grade A prairie.

For decades the dogwood areas have languished. They have not, as hoped, responded to management by recovering the health and diversity that's found in those very-high-quality areas nearby. Instead, portions of them burn, recover somewhat, degrade again as the brush increases, on and on. Yet these repeatedly injured areas have the best potential in the short run to increase the size of the adjacent small high-quality prairie that represents the heart of the biodiversity of this site. The Grade A diverse populations of plants, 
 animals, and soil biota need room to spread. 

In 2019, the Somme Seminar group was offered special grant funding by three foundations, initially to support our work in Somme Woods. But Somme Prairie Nature Preserve seemed to be a very high priority. The Seminar group approached the Forest Preserve staff and stewards Laurel Ross and Lisa Musgrave, offering to use some of that funding to hire contractors to do jobs that professionals could perhaps do better than we volunteers. Friends of the Forest Preserves served as fiscal agent. We contracted with two restoration companies, both of which came highly recommended for their willingness to use great care in and around high-quality areas. They each proposed a different strategy. That seemed good to us, as we could compare them.

For Area A – contractor #1 chose to apply 20% Garlon 4 to stems (“basal barking”) in winter. 

For Area B – contractor #2 chose to cut stems and apply 20% Garlon 4 to the cut stumps in winter.  

Observations on the work in summer 2020:

1. Work seemed most successfully done in the highest quality areas where dogwood was small and sparse, indicated this summer by occasional dead woody stems. This work seemed to have been effective without damage to nearby vegetation. That seemed also true in lesser quality areas nearby, wherever brush was sparse. Most of the work falls in this "successful" category.

2. Other work was done where brush was denser. In some of these areas, the brush had already shaded out the prairie vegetation, so now in early summer, dead woody stems stood over mostly bare ground and moss. Some of these areas were substantial; one was six feet wide and forty feet long. 

3. Typically in dense dogwood, the treatment was effective at killing most of the taller stems, but in every square meter one or a few stems survived, some large and some small. New shoots emerged in June. Red dye was visible on some of the surviving stems, indicating that the problem was not that they’d been missed. 

4. In other areas, quality vegetation had survived under the relatively dense brush up until the herbicide treatment. But here, in many cases, the herb-layer species seemed to be dead or much reduced. Similar untreated areas nearby showed considerable undergrowth of sedges, grasses, and forbs. Small areas that had been missed (no red dye on stems) also have a surviving understory despite dogwood stems as tall and dense as in the deadzone areas.  In sum, this evidence points to translocated herbicide (rather than shade) killing off the prairie herbs in these areas. 

5. Some quality species survived in most of the treated areas, including those now looking rather bare. These included Baptisia leucophaea, Platanthera leucophaea, and Lithospermum canescens. Other species surviving there (and now likely to act aggressively in this weakened community) included Helianthus grosseserratus, Rosa sp., Rubus sp., and Solidago altissima.


In the photo above, most dogwood stems are dead. Bare ground and moss suggest that the prairie vegetation had been shaded out here. Most vegetation appearing in June this year consists of young weedy species. A few mature dogwood stems survive along with small new dogwood shoots. 

In other nearby areas (below) the presence of last year’s thatch suggests that the prairie survived the dogwood, but not  the herbicide. Parts of Area A now consist of dead dogwood stems standing over dead herb vegetation. 

For another example, the photo below shows such an area on June 8. Most dogwood stems are standing and dead. Stems that survived the cutting along with new shoots that emerged this spring have been cut and their stems treated with glyphosate. More than half of the herb vegetation in this areas appears dead.  

It would have been good if the approach taken in Area B (by contractor #2) was better, but unfortunately it was not. In many of the areas where the dogwood was cut and the stumps painted, there were also areas of mostly dead vegetation around the stumps (see below). 


Original prairie is precious beyond measure. Rhizomatous prairie species may reinvade the dead areas, and other prairie species seeded in fall 2020 may help recovery starting in 2021. But the adjacent untreated dogwood stems may also reinvade - or re-invigorate weakened roots.

We do not want to kill prairie plants while killing the dogwood. But dense brush also kills prairie, so leaving it is also not an option.  


Next steps recommended by the two contractors
When asked for recommendations, the contractors did not initially offer insights on the dead zones, but they did propose the following:
Contractor for Area A: Stay out of these sensitive areas during the growing season. Repeat basal bark treatments on living stems next winter. 
Contractor for Area B:  Follow up in August, cut living stems and herbicide before the plants have time to translocate most resources to the roots. 
Both of these proposals seemed worth considering. 

Next steps taken in July 2020

The stewards decided to ignore the surviving brush in the high-quality areas until late fall or winter, as growing-season trampling in these areas seemed not worth it. 
For dead zones (where there was less concern about trampling, as the ground was now mostly bare), there was concern about the dogwood root systems recovering, if untreated stems and this year’s re-sprouting stems (as in photos above) were left to photosynthesize over the summer. We decided to treat the re-sprouts and missed stems in and near the dead zones. That is, we cut stems in the dead zones and others near enough that they could be cut while we stood in the dead zones, leaving the buckthorn, ash, and other species until next fall or winter. The dogwood recovery threat seemed to be especially serious as few other plants would be competing for water or nutrients. 

When we cut the live stems, we treated them with 55% AquaNeat, applied with absorbent-cloth-tipped wands. AquaNeat (glyphosate) is said to have little or no impact through soil spread. As some aggressive species seemed poised to “take over” these empty areas, we also cut and painted some of them (Solidago altissima, Helianthus grosseseratus, and Rubus flagellaris). The plan is to seed these areas with locally gathered seed in fall 2020.
Belatedly, as we continued to search for answers, we decided to compare our problem areas with an area nearby cut by the volunteers last winter. To our surprise, it looked similar, with dead vegetation from the previous year often surrounding the cut stumps (see photo, below).  When cutting brush among high-quality prairie, is this a more widespread problem, and we just hadn’t been watching closely enough? 

Suggestions to consider in winter 2021

We are reaching out for comments and suggestions. For a start, some experienced prairie stewards and managers offer suggestions below. They agreed that one important principle is to treat the whole dogwood clone at once if possible (rather than treating scattered parts of it).

Dave Bart of Stantec studied the results and was puzzled. In his experience, it should have been possible to control the dogwood without substantial harm to the nearby vegetation. He initially suggested that basal barking with 20% Garlon would be the best approach. But he was concerned about the very large numbers of very small stems in some areas and later suggested that to cut and paint, meticulously, might be best in those areas. He judged that three years of dormant season treatment would be sufficient to reduce the dogwood to the point that fire alone would control it adequately.

After additional research, Dave made a summary recommendation:

First of all, thanks again for reaching out to me on this. Not only was it important that this was noticed, but that you are working with others to try to figure out why. From what you said, it sounds like both contractors approached the work with sensitivity and applied the herbicide in a careful manner. You raised a good question, is this happening elsewhere, have we not paid close enough attention? What is most alarming to me is that these effects were noticed in the middle of summer several months after a dormant season application. I suspect that the conditions observed at the site are more related to residual herbicide rather than application technique. A lot of factors here but a few things to consider:

Herbicides - some (likely including yourself) are using Glyphosate or Triclopyr amine (3A) mixed with water to conduct cut stump treatment - above freezing - these products are known to break down quickly in soil. Triclopyr ester (4E) products are not all created equal. Petroleum based vs. plant based carriers, etc. - but it's difficult to figure out what the inert ingredients are because companies in the US do not have to disclose it. 

In this case, it appears that the herbicide has not broken down, but why? Could concentrations be high enough in the roots, and when adjacent plants with fibrous roots mature and grow through these root channels, could they be impacted? - Sounds like a long shot?
Are particular soils and favorable drainage conditions required to break down the herbicide? We know that substances can remain in root pores longer in particular soils, like clay.

Again, I believe this is somehow related to herbicide in soil/roots and the lack of breakdown before the growing season. I would propose the following:

Brushcut plants to a height of 2" in late fall (late October - November) when most natives are dormant, utilize a sponge applicator to carefully apply Glyphosate at 50% mixed with water.
Complete work with the following conditions:
Temperatures above 35F, soil temperatures above 40F, no snow cover, no precipitation in forecast following application
To be clear I believe there will be a decrease in the percentage of Grey Dogwood mortality using Glyphosate compared to Triclopyr 4. This methodology was chosen to reduce the impact to high quality native vegetation in grade A and B prairie. The timing and frequency of fire following brush clearing will also be important to achieve long-term control.  

This screams out for an experiment, I'm sure you are already planning to gather data and watch this closely. Let me know if you have any questions or would like to discuss further. 

Jenny Flexman of Poplar Creek Prairie Stewards wrote: I'd be interested in knowing how they applied the herbicide.  We apply with paint brushes.  Some people apply with squirt bottles or sprayers, which is not as exact and perhaps not a good idea in high quality areas, especially sprayers.

We found in Shoe Factory Nature Preserve that repeated cutting, cut-stump herbiciding (even though we often cut without herbiciding,or missed a lot while herbiciding because we had more cutters than herbiciders) and burning eventually got us to the tipping point where burning alone controls the dogwood: no more clones. We did not see herbicide damage to remnant species. Outside the preserve we did the same thing on a slope that was massively covered by dogwood, but we also seeded, and there was so much dogwood that we often cut far more than we herbicided.  I guess what that all means is that if herbiciding is causing damage to remant plants, cutting and burning alone might eventually be successful, since the cutting gets sun to the ground layer for better growth, and thus better burns, which further knock back the dogwood.  (One word of caution: our effort was accomplished by burning more frequently than once every three years.) 

Rob Sulski of Footstone also recommended repeated dormant season treatment for gray dogwood, although he suggested careful cut-and-paint for all stems. Cut the stems 2 inches high, flat so the cut area will hold maximum Garlon 4 (20%) without running off, but also paint the top half-inch of the bark. He reported treating dogwood at varied times during the winter and found March to be the most effective time. Regular burning is critical; but burn no sooner than a month after herbicide treatment to give the herbicide enough time to act. Do this in three consecutive winters to reduce dogwood sufficiently that fire will control it from then on. Interestingly, Rob is both a volunteer steward and a contractor, and he said that for the level of care needed in the highest quality areas, he thought few contractors be as painstaking as required, but that volunteers could. 

Jim Vanderpoel, Citizens for Conservation, board: Gray dogwood is easily managed by prescribed burns in the open prairie reconstructions of Grigsby and Flint Creek Savannah. Both preserves went right from row crop, hay meadow and overgrazed pasture to restoration--they skipped that old field stage that is so favorable to gray dogwood.

A much closer example to Somme Prairie Grove is Barrington's Baker's Lake preserve. It had a large population of gray dogwood that we have cut down time and again and it keeps coming back. In one area east of the trail the dogwood is kept at bay by frequent burns. That is where the richest forb, sedge and grass community is. That rich community must burn hot enough to kill the gray dogwood--the vicious circle is that other parts of the preserve are too brushy to support the hot grass fires that can kill the brush!

I guess I can just repeat the recommendation that the team persevere at Somme Prairie.

Debbie Antlitz, ecologist, Cook County Forest Preserves wrote:

One factor of a true remnant prairie community is that many of the mychorhizal networks, soil biota, structural aggregates, capillary action, cation exchange capacity etc are still intact, and more intricate and extensive compared to restoration sites. The myco networks in particular can connect and transport nutrients across species, and through this method selective application of herbicide to one species of plant could eventually impact another species, as appears to have happened in your photos. This may also apply to elemental components of the overall herbicide as they are metabolized by the fungi, such as ammonia, ethyl groups, nitrogen, etc, which depending on concentration could work as a fertilizer or a poison. 

I have from time to time seen this phenomenon on localized scales, in remnant prairies of varying quality. Usually within a year or two the patch will have recovered to the point where the dead zone is no longer evident. 

My recommendation for remnant areas with this phenomenon would be to consider treatment with herbicides with gentler base components, shorter half-life, and perhaps less systemic (depending on effectiveness if the invasive species being treated is not well established with deep roots).  

Kevin Scheiwiller, Citizens for Conservation, staff: We do not have much dogwood in our prairie reconstructions, so the following may not be comparing apples to apples.

At Baker's Lake savanna, in March 2019, we took on a couple of large dogwood clones in an attempt to free up room for some teenage bur oaks. We decided to cut and treat stumps with 20% Garlon 4 immediately after the workday, very meticulously. I would say only about 65-70% of the clone was killed. The first picture shows shows what about 30% of the clone looks like, a dead stump with new sprouts growing immediately adjacent. Similar to your experience, you can still see the oil on the stump from a year and a half ago, and there are no new lateral shoots, which leads me to believe this stump was not missed with herbicide, and yet there is new dogwood growth.

Dave Bart's comments make a lot of sense to me, as it probably takes multiple years of attacking these clones to finally defeat them. Fire obviously has helped keep some areas relatively clean, but the second photo shows the results after we got a nice hot fire in Baker's Lake this March. The dogwood was top killed but has already grown back to 70% of its original size in just 5 months!

Your fears that aggressive natives will take over these areas are well founded as tall goldenrod and woodland sunflower are quickly moving into the areas we cleared. Might be a good place to sow some dodder and seed with our savanna mix.

The collateral damage to the prairie plants is a bit of head scratcher. Garlon 4 in the dormant season never seems to have much lasting effect. I use 50% Glyphosate in any wet areas where we cut brush in the winter and have noticed some bizarre residual effects on Glossy Buckthorn, but not on any herbaceous veg. Might be worth trying Glyphosate out in an area to see if that keeps the off-target kill down.
CFC would be happy to run parallel or complementary experiments on tackling dogwood (i.e. basal barking vs. cut stump vs. glyphosate treatments). Let me know if I can provide anything else for this project!

(For additional good contributions, see "Comments" - below.)




Stewards have prepared this report to reach out to others for additional possible insights and suggestions. 

When all the evidence and analysis are in, we'll do a new post on lessons and next steps. 


Somme Prairie Site Stewards: Laurel Ross and Lisa Musgrave


Somme Prairie Seminar Group stewards: Matt Evans, Katie Kucera, Christos Economou, Emma Leavens, Eriko Kojima, Sai Ramakrishna, and Stephen Packard. 


A note on the Seminars: Starting in 2017, the "learning community" at Somme Woods began a process where stewards would draft plans for a part of the preserve, share them in writing, graphically, and orally during a field seminar. All stewards would contribute ideas, and the plans and work would benefit. Since that time, a variety of different seminar steward sub-groups have expanded this work-and-learning approach to other sites, as in this case at Somme Prairie. This draft post is part of that process.