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Sunday, July 26, 2020

from two acres to seventy

The high quality Somme Prairie is increasing from two acres to seventy acres. Hundreds of vulnerable species that have been hovering on the edge of oblivion, because of fragmentation, now may have a sustainable future.

If you had stood on the highpoint of Somme Prairie two hundred years ago (or 2,000 years ago), you would have seen rich treeless grassland rolling majestically to the horizon – looking south, or west, or north. To the east, you would have seen a mile of prairie backed up by savanna and woodland on the moraine. Today from that same spot, off to the south, west, and north, you see businesses, a post office, a dog park, roads, and homes for people. Some of those people are glad a prairie survives and can recover. 

Forty years ago at Somme, two acres of very high quality prairie remained, in scattered patches. Most plant and animal species are not sustainable in a two acre habitat. The prairie species, you can imagine, were shivering in fear. When we first started to rescue biodiversity here, the surrounding brush was gobbling up more prairie every year. In the absence of fire, brush kills every grass, flower, bird, butterfly, nematode, and fungus of the prairie. For forty years, volunteers cut shrubs and trees. Brush tried to grow back as fast as we could cut it. We concentrated on the biggest and best quality openings. We lost some, as brush obliterated them. But most of those remnant patches recovered bit by bit, year by year. Yet, we didn’t have as many troops (or as much fire and seed) as we needed. It was taking too long.  

When we first saw Somme Prairie, the best parts looked like this. I took this photo standing in the edge of one brush wall, looking past a few shrubs and out into a high quality prairie opening. Behind the prairie, you see a few trees and a wall of shrubs. Behind that wall is another opening (hidden behind the brush), and then further back, bigger, taller brush again. 

By 2010, Steward Laurel Ross and the volunteers of the North Branch Restoration Project had about thirty acres of prairie under restoration. But forty acres were still under shade. Volunteers are mighty, but we are spread over many sites. Thousands of generous friends and neighbors have contributed here, from a few hours to hundreds of hours each, but we have only been able to do so much. 

Increasingly in recent years, Forest Preserve staff and contractors have focused resources on Somme. In 2014, President Preckwinkle and the Forest Preserves board approved its “Next Century Plan.” By August 2020, according to the current plan, there will be no brush in Somme Prairie. This is huge.

On September 20, 2018, conservationists met to refine bird conservation elements of the plan. Shown here, from left, are Laurel Ross (volunteer steward), Dr. Doug Stotz (ornithologist, Field Museum), Becky Collings (Senior Resource Ecologist for the Forest Preserves), Debbie Antlitz (Forest Preserve ecologist for the northeast region), and Dr. Jim Herkert (ornithologist, Illinois Audubon Society).  (See Endnote 1.)

This work is a model of collaboration. Forest Preserve staff, volunteers, partners, and scientists work together. (See Endnote 2.) The following is a summary of the discussions the bird conservation planning group had that day. Bird conservation was just one part of the overall plan. (See Endnotes 3 and 4.)

The most important overall conservation goal for the 70-acre Somme Prairie is the restoration of its original prairie community – as large and fully diverse as possible. The birds are just one part of that community, but our main goal today is to focus on the birds part.

The basic bird-conservation objective is a large and unbroken grassland of good structure for breeding prairie birds, especially Henslow’s sparrow, dickcissel, sedge wren, savanna sparrow and possibly meadowlark.

Currently no prairie birds nest in Somme Prairie. But with increasing size and quality of habitat, breeding birds can be expected, in time. Currently, some prairie species breed at Air-Station Prairie (a few miles to the south) and Willow-Sanders preserve (a few miles to the southwest).
The rare Henslow’s sparrow, if you get a good look, has a greenish head and rufous wings. It’s considered a high priority for conservation, as its habitat is the eastern tallgrass prairie. Currently much of this species survives on agricultural lands – in temporary habitats. Populations in preserved grasslands may be crucial to this bird – and to the quality of the grassland.

Grassland areas the size of Somme may have significant contributions to make. There are potentially about 100 acres of quality prairie habitat here, if we remove the brush barrier that separates Somme Prairie from formerly contiguous habitat in Somme Prairie Grove to the east. Recent studies suggest that the value of smaller urban grasslands can be higher than previously thought. The proposed work at Somme could combine with, inform, and inspire similar work at scores of existing and potential grassland bird breeding sites in the Chicago Wilderness region.

Would we be wise also to save shrublands here? No. For a site of this size, a single focus on grassland bird habitat is far superior to a compromise that would attempt to restore both grassland and shrubland. Other sites (including the adjacent Somme Prairie Grove) are successful and superior for shrubland bird conservation. More importantly, shrubs are a main threat to grassland birds – and challenging to manage. The agreed-on best strategy here is for the entire site to be restored as prairie.  
In the photo above, the 7.5 acres of invading trees and brush were mostly removed in winter 2020. The last 4.8 acres will be cut as soon as dry or frozen ground permit - possibly August 2020. The brush and trees removed by contractors in 2019 have white hatched lines. The pale areas are original and recovering prairie. The darker areas are trees, brush, weeds, or other prairie-destroying invaders. Even after the brush has been cut, the “seeds and weeds” stewards have a lot of work to do. 

After trees and brush have been cleared, there’s still a lot of work to do to eliminate such malignant and habitat-destroying invasives as crown vetch, reed-canary grass, purple loosestrife, and teasel.

But the major first-step threat here is shrubs and trees. When just a foot or two tall, shrubs are not in themselves a detriment to the grassland birds. But, in two or three years, between burns, woody plants with well-developed root systems tend to grow sufficiently to shade out the species of grasses and other conservative plant diversity that make for successful grassland bird nesting habitat. The plan is to treat shrubs, trees, invasive weeds, and seed planting in a step-by-step process. (See Endnote 3.)

Another principal threat is aggressive forbs such as tall goldenrod (Solidago altissima) and saw-tooth sunflower (Helianthus grosseseratus). These and other rank species can create a vegetation structure that blocks or retards the desirable establishment of natural prairie. Such “thug” vegetation is also not nesting habitat for most grassland birds. These areas frequently do not burn under the moderately flammable conditions of most controlled burns, as the fuel quality is low. The rank species are thought to obstruct better quality vegetation by shading it out and possibly by emitting chemicals from their roots that inhibit the growth of other species. One solution to this problem that has been effective in some cases is to seed diverse prairie vegetation and then mow the rank growth when it becomes too dense for the survival of desirable seedlings.
The new Forest Preserve plan (above) shows Somme Prairie outlined in red, Somme Prairie Grove in orange, Somme Woods in yellow and green, and Chipilly Woods in blue. 
9.    We next visited the 85-acre Somme Prairie Grove (adjacent to the east) and considered relationships between it and Somme Prairie. A coordinated plan for the two preserves now makes more sense. The prairie portions of these two preserves are divided from each other by the North Branch of the Chicago River (which flows unnaturally in a deep, straight ditch) as well as by the Metra railroad tracks. Neither the ditch nor the tracks would impede prairie birds from using both sides as one larger grassland. (More on the opportunities here will come in a later post.)

Most prairie birds have lost 90% or more of their numbers. This dickcissel could one day return to the Somme preserves. The five bird species likely to return here feed their young mostly on insects that few birds are now eating. The return of prairie birds may thus restore a component of the natural balance to the prairie here. 
A special feature of Somme is a continuum from quality prairie to quality savanna and shrubland to quality woodland (as we go east from Somme Prairie to Somme Prairie Grove and the adjacent 450 acres of Somme and Chipilly Woods. The restoration of such a rare continuum would benefit birds, plants, invertebrates, herptiles, and the ecosystem generally. (See Endnote 4.)

Relative conservation priority of shrubland, savanna, and prairie birds: They’re all important, but the prairie species are a higher priority, especially for Somme Prairie. Birds of shrubland and savanna are second priority.

We were entertained during our walk in Somme Prairie by a merlin (an uncommon mid-size falcon) which was being mobbed by blue jays in between bouts of the feisty merlin harassing a kestrel (a smaller falcon) and a sharp-shinned hawk. Perhaps this performance was a good omen for our bird conservation planning efforts here.
Then, one last thought:

Will Somme Prairie someday truly revel in 70 acres of very high quality prairie? No one knows. No one has ever seen very-high-quality prairie restored. But even “good” prairie would be a blessed improvement over the formerly advancing brush – and many plant and animal species are already thriving in some of the restored areas. How fast and how much the ecosystem can recover will be a fascination and inspiration to experience over the years ahead.  


Endnote 1

The planning session on bird conservation was assembled by Becky Collings and Laurel Ross. The full roster for that field meeting included: 

Forest Preserve staff: Becky Collings and Debbie Antlitz
Bird conservation and ecology: Jim Herkert (Illinois Audubon), Doug Stotz 
and Dave Willard (Field Museum)
Somme Prairie stewards: Laurel Ross and Lisa Culp Musgrave
Somme Prairie Grove steward: Stephen Packard

Endnote 2

In case "model of collaboration" sounds Pollyanna to anyone, let me hasten to assure you that "collaboration" does not mean an absence of problems. It means we all pitch in, respect each other, and work problems out, as best we can. Good work goes forward, and we all contribute. 

Endnote 3

Photos showing step by step: 

Most of what was rich prairie long ago had degenerated into solid brush, as seen behind the sign below. 

The transformation of Somme Prairie became visible from Dundee Road on December 13th, 2018 with step one. A large "mower" chopped up the understory brush, as shown below: 

Step one, as seen from Dundee Road, looking north, with the small brush clearing just completed. The existing prairie is that pale horizontal line behind the trees.
Photo by Forest Preserve resource project manager Troy Showerman.

This is the machine that did the work.
Photo by Troy Showerman.
Above, from the Post Office parking lot, you see the mowed area compared to a still untreated area on the right. One of the next big challenges will be to keep the brush from growing back by herbiciding brush re-sprouts and seedlings, done during the 2019 growing season. The rest of the invading trees shown here were cleared when the ground was frozen solid enough to support heavy equipment, in winter 2020. Starting in fall 2019 and continuing for some years, rare prairie seed is being broadcast where the brush was cleared. Staff and stewards will combat new infestations of invasives. The ecosystem is temporarily in an "intensive care" stage.

Some day, the goal is, the whole 100 acres will once again look like this: 

Endnote 4

Does this post make too much of a fuss over birds, compared to the rest of the ecosystem? Yes, but. Birds often rightly get extra attention because the data for them is especially clear and strong. We know better how big preserves need to be (and what vegetation structure needs to be) for bird conservation than we do for most other species. Part of the reason for that, is that people have done more research on birds, in part because they have more constituency and support. Birds bring more supporters to conservation efforts than do rare walking sticks or snakes.

As conservationists, we care equally for now-rare ants, weasels, slime molds, etc. - but we have less complete data on their conservation needs. But there's data for many species in many habitat types that confirm the value of larger habitats. Thus, restoring size and quality for birds will likely help many other plants and animals for which we have less detailed knowledge.

Midwest invertebrate expert Dr. Ron Panzer, who studied Somme years ago, published data that strongly supported the value of large habitats and higher quality vegetation for invertebrate conservation. But he cautioned against relying on size and vegetation alone. Burn regimes and other features may be equally or more important. Conservation will be on increasingly solid footing as we learn more about the needs of more and more species.


Beyond those already mentioned in this post, as always, there are many more who deserve recognition. To mention a few, let’s acknowledge:

John McCarter, Wendy Paulson, Arthur Velasquez, and Eric Whitaker: co-chairs of the Next Century Conservation Plan Commission – along with the scores of people who contributed to the planning process. And forest preserve President Toni Preckwinkle who coordinated the adoption of the plan.

Dozens of Forest Preserve staff and contractors as supervised by John McCabe who has much upgraded the professionalism of the Forest Preserve’s Resource Management Division.

Volunteers by the hundreds, including Somme Prairie co-steward Lisa Musgrave and Eileen Sutter who, with many leaders and volunteers, has headed up the seed-gathering crews of the North Branch Restoration Project.

Jeanne Muellner who took the great photos of the Henslow’s sparrow and the dickcissel at the Orland Grassland, where they both thrive in restored habitat.

Thanks for proofing and edits of this post to Becky Collings, Troy Showerman, Lisa Musgrave, Eriko Kojima, and Kathy Garness.


For an introduction to Somme Prairie Nature Preserve, check out captions and photos of Somme Prairie from a walk in late May - and a set of very different photos and comments from July.

Summary of the Somme Prairie plan

Chicago Region “Bird Conservation Network” birds of concern

The birds of conservation concern of the Somme preserves:

Woodland birds regularly breeding in Somme Woods include red-headed woodpecker, American woodcock, and northern flicker.

Shrubland and savanna birds regularly breeding in Somme Prairie Grove include brown thrasher, willow flycatcher, field sparrow, American woodcock, northern flicker, and eastern kingbird. 

Prairie birds currently breeding in Somme Prairie include none at all, for decades. The pitiful fragments of surviving prairie are too small. Thanks to all who are helping the recovery of the plants and animals of Somme Prairie. 

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Don’t ask. Don’t tell.

There’s something corruptive about secrets. But also something tantalizing. 

A bit of hard-earned advice: Think twice about posting photos that show where vulnerable animals and plants are. Don’t ask experts where to find them, unless you have a true need. It’s a bit painful to say no to well-meaning enthusiasts.

I have been lucky enough to see the one spot in northern Illinois where the orange-fringed orchid grows. I needed to, to cut brush and protect it. Most people don’t need to know.

It’s a very beautiful plant. If we were to give out secret locations of such plants, some people would skulk out there and dig them up – then bring them home to die – until there were no more. Consider this last yellow lady’s-slipper:

“For a few weeks each spring, a lone guard monitors the moors of northern England. This warden pitches a tent in a remote field to watch over a prize so rare that collectors have been known to break laws, trek into deep jungles, and risk capture by guerillas in its pursuit. The object? A single lady’s slipper orchid, Cypripedium calceolus—the last wild plant of its kind left in the United Kingdom.”

I knew of two yellow lady-slipper plants in Northbrook forest preserves. Both are gone. In the case of the most recent one, a deer ate it, and it never came back.

But a tour guide with the McHenry County Conservation District some years back showed the hushed crowd a magical little stand of prairie lady-slippers. The next day there were holes in the ground where they’d been.

When Bluff Spring Fen, after decades of decline, got its first burns and brush control, we noticed, to our amazement, unexpectedly, rewardingly, a lone prairie lily in bloom next to a marl flat. To take a photo of this semi-magical recovery, I came back with my camera and found a hole where the lily had been. None has been seen there since. Too many people? No. Too few. I wish a conservationist had been standing there when selfish evil appeared with trowel in hand. 

And these concerns and ethics don't apply only to the very rare. The photo above shows a blue-gray gnatcatcher building a nest. Photographer Jerry Goldner did not reveal the nest's location while it was active. 

Once I showed some well-meaning people a pair of gnatcatchers building a nest. My friends were not as restrained as they needed to be, and the gnatcatchers left the site. In that case, bit-by-bit, they took all their nest material with them. Perhaps little harm done - but we can and want to be better than this. Yes? (More on bird photography ethics below.) 

Talk about rare? There’s nothing rarer and more important on a global basis than the few surviving acres of “Grade A” very-high-quality original tallgrass prairie. For a time I took selected people to see remnants, long ago, when the priority seemed to be to get sufficient people to care. (Decades ago, the Superintendent of Conservation of the Cook County Forest Preserves said to a colleague: “You want me to put resources into prairies? The number of Cook County voters who care about prairie I could count on the fingers of one hand.” To give him credit, as constituency for ecosystem conservation increased, he became a good leader.) 

It’s hard to see a rare prairie without standing on it, which damages. If everyone mildly interested in seeing the last best prairies went and stood on them, they’d be gone. We are restoring large acreages; it has to be enough for people to see the best of those. Or to see the advertised nature preserve prairies where paths are maintained, to keep feet off the rest. 

At one point in my role as Director of Public Information for the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission, I led a series of what we called “buffalo tours.” I took people across high-quality nature in obscure places. I hoped the education and community building was worth the damage. I would not feel right doing the same thing today. 

This smooth green snake (below) gave me that look, last week, at an undisclosed location. It’s sad but true that there are people who would go to the last habitats of rare reptiles and poach them. 
Case in point, about an amphibian: a post on-line revealed where blue-spotted salamanders could be found as they travelled to mating ponds. A nice family went there, captured one, brought it home, and posted their exploit on-line. We need to do better than that. Amphibians taken from their habitats and later re-released sometimes bring viruses that kill the whole population. Don’t post photos of sensitive species and give their locations while they’re vulnerable.

What happens when photos reveal the location of rare birds' nests? The nestlings may die indirectly from the "traffic jam of people" trying to find them. Predators are attracted, and parent birds can't protect while distracted. Birders have developed "rules" and "ethics" for photographing birds, birds' nests, and wildlife generally.

Case in point: wild leeks or ramps. These are not rare plants; they’re just declining in many areas through loss of habitat and, in some cases, poaching. In high quality oak woodlands, leeks can be common. But if people dig them up, an irreplaceable community of rare plants and animals can be damaged. 

In more rural areas, regulated hunting and gatherings may be sustainable. But in the Chicago metro area, there aren’t remotely enough of these slow-growing plants. News media have recently promoted the idea of “foraging” for them. People show up at the preserves, wanting to dig them. Stewards have to explain: "I'm sorry; you've been misled. It’s illegal." But stewards don’t want to spend our time as police. Long ago, ginseng and goldenseal were common; they’re gone, from foraging. As H.S. Pepoon reported, the fringed gentian mostly vanished the same way.  

We try, but we don’t catch everybody. For a little atrocity last week, see below: 
Before: a rare associations of trilliums, bellworts, trout lily, yellow violets, long-awned woodgrass, and the endangered awnless graceful sedge

After: ravaged flora and dirt. If you see poachers, they may be just uninformed and well-intentioned. Be friendly and explain, if that works. Or call 911.
Unlike with birders, plant photographers don’t have a well-developed consensus and culture about stewardship. If a rare plant is in bloom, twenty feet off the trail, in a very high-quality area, how much trampling (of rarer plants not yet in bloom) is that photo worth? Is perhaps a good photo available from the trail, fifty feet ahead? 

Does everyone truly need, regardless of the cost to biodiversity, their own personal photo of every rare animal and plant? Might we, in the end, feel better about low-impact photos? New pictures that hurt biodiversity are like blood diamonds. They’re unethical. Don’t traffic in them.

This blog tries to do its part. We’d be glad to hear from anyone who has ideas about how to improve our culture of stewardship. 


Thanks to all the ethical photographers who have done so much for the planet. It is challenging to balance how much good a photo can do against the damage that may result. 

Thanks to Jerry Goldner for links on ethical bird and wildlife photography. 

Orange-fringed orchid photo by Robin Street-Morris. Google has hundreds more by Robin and many, many others. How many more does conservation need? It's fun and rewarding to take a beautiful photo. But how much damage to the surrounding rare habitats is that photo worth? These questions should be considered and discussed. Off-trail hiking without a permit is (or used to be) against the law in Illinois Nature Preserves. But it's not possible to police everything. Most good behavior needs to come from culture and ethics. Let's get there!

Thanks for edits to Eriko Kojima and Christos Economou. 

Thursday, April 30, 2020

A Day in Unbroken America

by Christos Economou

Saturday, March 7, 2020.  6:30 a.m.

Any alarm clock ringing at 6:30 on a typical Saturday would find itself on the other side of the room, in pieces.  But today is different.  Today I'm on a mission to discover what renowned naturalist Ray Schulenberg once famously called “America" – a piece of ancient and unbroken nature.  
Goose Lake Prairie, photo by Dan Kirk
I'm headed to Goose Lake Prairie, an Illinois Nature Preserve 50 miles southwest of Chicago.  I speed towards it on I-294, and the America of my every day, strip malls and corporate parks, "lollipop trees and poodle shrubs", flies by. I get to pondering Schulenberg's definition of 'America'.  What do I know of his America?  How much of it have I ever seen?

I'd seen prairie in the occasional picture, coneflowers or silphiums reaching for the blue sky.  I'd seen it in museum dioramas, where motionless bison roam a perennial autumn landscape that ends on a painted wall.  

But how many real prairies?  

One. Despite growing up in the Prairie State, I had only ever seen real prairie on an elementary school trip to the James Woodworth Preserve. Fuzzy memories surrounded by a chain-link fence, next to a McDonald's. That's all I knew of prairie – until recently.  

I always loved nature, a feeling that had taken root in my mother's garden, in documentaries, classrooms, and picnics at local Forest Preserves.  But my experience of it increasingly came to feel superficial. True "wildness" was something that seemed far away, so I hadn’t bothered to seek it out.  However, in light of near-daily reports of the environment's degradation all over the globe, each passing year in our everyday America made me yearn for a deeper connection. Increasingly too, I felt the urge to help care for it.

When I moved back to Chicago a little over a year ago, I suddenly found myself with weekends off and lots of extra time. I resolved to use it to fulfill this yearning, and help preserve the wonders of nature if I could. I connected with the North Branch Restoration Project, a group of volunteers who have been working to steward the glorious wilderness of the Forest Preserves for over four decades. From my first “workday” with them, I knew that this is what I was after. It was hands-on and immersive, surrounded by passionate people with a story about every plant and animal. Around their efforts, nature blossomed.
Dr. Robert Betz publicizes a prairie burn. News has impact.
At one workday, I stepped into a remnant prairie again for the first time since my youth.  Witnessing this relic was an awakening: a new dimension. I feel now that we have to keep these last remaining wild places thriving, not just for the unique flora and fauna with as much right to exist as we do, but for the very health of our own souls and those of future generations.

Recently, stewards I met on the North Branch have joined an awe-inspiring roster of environmentalists to extend this mission to all of Illinois. The initiative, called Friends of Illinois Nature Preserves, seeks to foster a statewide network of volunteer stewardship groups and lend decades of accumulated expertise in wildland rehabilitation to any Illinoisan interested in working to preserve our natural heritage.  

The 596 Illinois Nature Preserves have long been considered a model of conservancy around the country. Goose Lake was one of the earliest preserves to be established. It’s only because of some farsighted, proactive civic leaders – people like George Fell, May Theilgaard Watts, Robert F. BetzFloyd Swink, and Bill Beecher – that Goose lake isn't currently an abandoned clay pit. But in the past few decades, hundreds of preserves are declining in quality, due to bureaucratic bottlenecks, decreased funding for upkeep, and lack of needed friends. The plants and animals that made these places special are increasingly threatened by invasive species, despite heroic efforts on the part of local conservation agency staff.  Unfortunately Goose Lake Prairie, after decades of neglect, is no exception.  

Learning about all this made me anxious, then sad, then angry, then finally excited. I decided this was how to get more involved. Friends of the Illinois Nature Preserves' kickoff workday is today, at Goose Lake. This is the reason for my early Saturday morning. I'm going to make America a little greener.  
Invasive autumn olive in one of the highest quality areas of Goose Lake. Without our intervention, this species and similar shrubs would proliferate and shade out the rare native plant community.
I finally arrive and spot a tall man in a hunting cap and glasses up ahead, waiting for a last volunteer – me. Stephen Packard, the longtime volunteer steward of Somme Prairie Grove, is one of the founders of this new Friends group. He guides me to the highest-quality prairie remnant where twenty other volunteers, mostly local, are already hard at work. He himself is a living encyclopedia. As we walk he gestures, and around him switchgrass and rattlesnake master, prairie dropseed and evening primrose, spring from his fingertips.

When I stumble on a boulder, there is even a story about that. The boulders here are glacial erratics, transported by the ice-sheets that flattened Illinois in their advance and retreat. These boulders, and the wetness of the site, perhaps explain why the prairie was never plowed. Under my breath, I bless the glacier that left them 18,000 years ago.  
Chaotic prairie beauty is visible here. I'm starting to be able to distinguish little bluestem (golden grass), prairie dropseed (beige grass), cream false indigo (brown seed pods), and wild quinine (grey leaves).
We approach, and notice the early-bird volunteers already cutting back woody invaders in transects, one painstaking step at a time, "making haste, slowly" to rescue the leadplant, wild quinine, and cream false indigo that grow in profusion here. Every one saved will in turn support an incredibly diverse array of animal life. A smile is irrepressible each time I come across one of their pale skeletons.  

Later, we sit for lunch in a patch of dropseed and mountain mint. I begin to take it all in. Early March, brisk and sunny, the prairie is still a sea of beige, yet even in its slumber, wonderous.  Matt Evans, researcher at the Chicago Botanic Garden, volunteer steward at South Brook Woods, and another founder of Friends, suggests we might be settling down in centuries-old bison dung. Given the beaming faces all around, no one seems to mind. Then partway through lunch, I notice half the crew disappear. An hour or so later, I glance at the blue skies downwind and learn why. Smoke.
Volunteers working (and snacking…) at Goose Lake; then Short Cemetery after the burn
Two of our crew, regional ecologists Kim Roman and Dan Kirk (with the Illinois Nature Preserve Commission and Department of Natural Resources, respectively) had planned to take advantage of a few extra, trained volunteers for a prescribed burn. Fires were frequent in the time before Illinois became the nation's breadbasket and were an integral part of the state's ecosystems. In the past, they were mostly set intentionally by Native Americans. Fire set back woody vegetation, keeping prairies as prairies, and oak woods as oak woods.  Today, lack of fire is one of the biggest challenges facing native species in Illinois. Without fire there is simply no preserving fire-dependent ecosystems.

The weather today is perfect for a burn: brisk, dry, and sunny, with a slight wind blowing toward a natural firebreak, Heidecke Lake.  We watch the smoke grow in patches here and there in the distance – the back-fire – then billow furiously all at once as the head fire is lit. We wrap up our brush cutting and rush over to see if we can catch the fire's last moments, but disappointingly arrive in time only to see its aftermath: smoke, ash, and charred hummocks. Suddenly, the burn crew bursts forth from behind the rising plumes of smoke, riding towards us like conquering soldiers on ATVs, flappers aloft. Their enthusiasm is palpable and infectious.  We congratulate them on the battle they've won. 
Matt poses in apparent desolation at Goose Lake…
A spark then kindles in Kim's eyes. Short Cemetery Prairie, another nearby Nature Preserve adopted by the Friends, hasn't been burned in years. The weather is perfect, the forces are deployed, there is light still in the day. Are any of us in for another burn? Quick looks communicate the obvious. We leave our morning’s destruction behind, certain that verdure will rise again soon at Goose Lake.
Dan lighting the head-fire at Short Cemetery Prairie.
At the cemetery, rakes and flappers are passed around. After a pre-burn huddle, we furiously rake grass and leaves to make a firebreak around the perimeter.  Before I know it, fire is on the ground, and armed with my flapper, I tail Somme steward Eriko Kojima like a baby duckling after she graciously agrees to coach me.  

The Short Pioneer Cemetery Nature Preserve is only about one acre, and though the whole was originally prairie, today it is hemmed in by shady trees and brush.  Since a lot of the fuel here is leaf litter, which doesn't burn as well as dry thatch, this wouldn't be considered a large fire – nothing compared to the one at Goose Lake. But the take-away today is how hot even 'small' fires are. Really damn hot, is how hot. As I flap out spot fires that have jumped the firebreak, I feel about to burst into flames myself, and at times the smoke is so unbearable I need to step away just to breathe.  

After about ten minutes, the back-fire is burned in and the head-fire is lit. Flames race forward with the wind, but our work now consists mostly of watching and taking pictures. The flames advance unevenly, in some places six inches high while in others six feet. In 15 glorious minutes, the head-fire has reached the back-fire, and it’s all over.  

As the sun sets, we assess the burn. The smoke disperses quickly, revealing blackened brambles with denuded stalks sprawled about like spiders' legs, and small patches of grass that have not burned at all – welcome refuge for the dormant insects that will provide the prairie's soundtrack in the summer. Katie Kucera, master's student in plant biology at Northwestern, then points out some flattened, leathery growths amongst the singed grass. Prickly pear! Once just a word in my vocabulary, now given shape and substance by this day and this fire. Elsewhere, segmented shoots poke out of the sandy soil: horsetails, dinosaur-age survivors in the story of evolution, surviving this fire as well. Just as I head toward the exit, I notice a bluebird – my first ever – eyeing us curiously.
Prickly pear cactus observed after the burn. Another first in a day of firsts.
Back on the road, for a few triumphant minutes Schulenberg's America recedes in my rearview mirror. Soon another emerges, unreal and dreamlike, concrete and headlights. The soot and smoke clinging to my clothes – and the broad smile on my face – remind me which one I spent my day in.

Many thanks to Stephen Packard, Kathleen Garness, and Eriko Kojima for guidance and proofreading.

Monday, April 27, 2020

Discovering America

A Founding Story of the Midwest Conservation Community

Never doubt that thoughtful people can make a difference. Their actions may bend the future, fortunately. 

Our community has some inspiring “founding stories.” There’s Aldo Leopold's “green fire” in the eyes of a dying wolf. There’s Dot Wade founding the first prairie nursery – and with it the rural community that would spawn Nachusa Grasslands. Urban areas have forest preserves today because some “nobodies” sat in a living room in Evanston and thought up the idea. At the time, few had heard of Dwight Perkins, Jane Addams, Frank Lloyd Wright, Jens Jensen and others in their crowd. They were young professionals, just starting out. They said: Chicago is new and raw; this will be a major metropolis someday; it needs a culture.
The leafy prairie clover (Dalea foliosa) was thought to be extinct in Illinois for decades.
It would be re-discovered, through an unlikely chain of blessings. 
They started a group, “Friends of Our Native Landscape” – advised by influential early ecologist Henry Chandler Cowles, a man who published little, but taught and inspired much. One of his students, May Theilgaard Watts, then spent her life spreading that sense of wonder and stewardship. In a letter to the Tribune recommending preservation of a threatened remnant, she warned, "Many bulldozers are drooling." The woman could write.

A community was growing around these ideas. The Morton Arboretum hired her along with conservationists Ray Schulenberg and Floyd Swink and together they became the epicenter of a new culture of nature. And, because of them, it came to pass that an unlikely epiphany occurred – one that resonates and inspires to this day.

In 1971, recent biology graduate Jerry Wilhelm was drafted into the Army and expected soon to find himself in the treacherous jungles of Viet Nam. Instead, miraculously, the Army Corps of Engineers sent him to conduct an Environmental Impact Assessment for a canal project in Lockport, Illinois. His task was to evaluate fifty designated "spoil sites" to determine whether dredged material from the project could be dumped there without doing irreversible harm to wildlife.
A young Wilhelm
There was one problem though. Wilhelm’s area of expertise was the fishes, algae, and mollusks of northwest Florida, not the prairie vegetation of Illinois. To help him identify plants at the potential spoil sites, he was put in touch with Morton Arboretum botanists Swink and Schulenberg. Wilhelm later wrote, “They changed my life as they changed the lives of many.”

On a cold, autumn day in the field, the Army scientist was awed by Swink’s uncanny ability to identify vast numbers of plant species from wisps of dried leaves and stems. Soon Swink, “a lithe, living encyclopedia of natural history,” was burying the bewildered note-taker under long lists of difficult Latin names. But even with these long lists, Wilhelm was unclear on what could be "spoiled" and what couldn't.

The following day Swink was unavailable, so Wilhelm visited sites with Ray Schulenberg. As with Swink, Schulenberg would take a cursory glance at the area and start rattling off Latin names, with Wilhelm writing furiously. As they progressed, he noticed it got easier, as the species were the same at all sites: tall goldenrod, box elder, black mustard, bluegrass. As for determining what was "spoilable," after each visit, Schulenberg would conveniently give Wilhelm the same short assessment: “'You can spoil here, Jerry. You cannot hurt it. It could grow back.'”

Things were much the same the next day. "Tall goldenrod, box elder, black mustard…You can spoil here." Wilhelm was perplexed. Influenced by the anti-industrial attitudes of the 1960's, the young biologist’s default principle was: all "nature" is good nature. Scientists at that time generally considered plants growing without human interference to be “a value-neutral point" in a succession from pond scum to mature forest. Yet here was someone who obviously loved nature and loved plants, enough to identify hundreds of them by their dried-up leaves, telling him it was OK to destroy the wildlife growing at every single one of the sites they had visited. What gives?

Finally, at a site just south of Division Street, all that changed. Approaching "Spoil Site L2", as it was marked on the aerial map, Schulenberg stopped in his tracks. He held his arm out to stop Wilhelm from proceeding, and began reverently pronouncing Latin names the Army scientist had never heard: "Andropogon scoparius [little bluestem], Bouteloua curtipendula [side-oats grama], Muhlenbergia cuspidata [prairie satin grass]…" Schulenberg turned to put his hand on Wilhelm's shoulder and said gently: "Don't spoil here Jerry. This is America, and it will not grow back." As Wilhelm tells it in Joel Greenburg’s A Natural History of the Chicago Region:

“I got weak in the knees. Oh lord, I looked at the place and saw America. I knew that this guy was able to identify America by its plants. I collapsed emotionally and decided right then and there that I didn’t want to live another day without knowing whether I was in America.”

The stunned scientist realized that, for all his training, he’d been blind. Patriotic in many ways, in this other he fundamentally couldn’t recognize the country he loved. After so many sites covered with common weeds, the ecological community now before him was a relic, tucked away in quiet vigil since the time of Black Hawk.

Presently he reported to his superior, a “square jawed” civil engineer named Major Emge. Unsurprisingly, this straight-laced officer was not receptive to new ideas about what constituted America. His currency was lists and numbers. Luckily for posterity, the canal project was abandoned, and "Spoil Site L2" eventually became part of the Lockport Prairie Nature Preserve.

When his stint in the Army ended, Wilhelm found his way back to Illinois to work at the Arboretum with Floyd Swink and Ray Schulenberg. He did indeed learn a lot of plants. He learned them so well that he and Swink co-authored the influential 1994 edition of Plants of the Chicago Region. The introduction to this book introduced the “Floristic Quality Assessment” – a revolution in deciding, among other questions, how to convey to the Major Emges of the world what’s ecologically important and what’s not. It’s now used widely from coast to coast by scientists, conservationists, and government, including, fittingly, by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Two influential and powerfully useful books

Wilhelm records lists of plants, to this day.

In the process of becoming one of the region's most expert botanists, Wilhelm discovered a large population of the highly-endangered leafy prairie clover, then preserved at Lockport Prairie.  Schulenberg's interdiction was also lucky for the endangered Hine's emerald dragonfly. As it turns out, "Spoil Site L2" is one of its last known habitats.Wilhelm has ever since shared his passion for the beautiful, "mind-numbing diversity" of native plants and biological communities. His epiphany inspired others, a link in a chain that goes back through Schulenberg and May Theilgaard Watts, and forward to the tallgrass region conservation community that is appreciated as a model for the planet today.

Never doubt that people make a difference.


Greenburg, Joel. The Natural History of the Chicago Region. 2002. University of Chicago Press.

Swink, Floyd, and Gerould Wilhelm. Plants of the Chicago Region. 1994. Indiana Academy of Science.

Wilhelm, Gerould and Laura Rericha. Flora of the Chicago Region. 2017. Indiana Academy of Science.

Wilhem's talk on consilience


This version of the “Discovering America” story was assembled by Christos Economou and Stephen Packard. Principal sources: The Natural History of the Chicago Region and Flora of the Chicago Region.

Thanks for proofing and edits to Cathy Garness and Eriko Kojima.

Photo credits
Early Wilhelm: Morton Arboretum
Late Wilhelm: DuPage County Wild Ones
Dalea foliosa: Bill Glass through U.S.Forest Service
Hine's emerald dragonfly: P. Burton through U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Wilhelm's own telling of this great story is now available on line at the Conservation Research Institute website.

Hine's emerald dragonfly
(Somatochlora hineana)
Many rare plants and animals depend on rare high-quality habitats, and each other.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Now in Nature, Being Distant, and Doing Good

A nearby Nature Preserve needs you. Preserves are among the easiest places to be “socially distant.” They typically have few amenities and few people. That’s on purpose. They’re for nature, rather than for you and me. We can enjoy learning their ecology and secrets all our lives – and yet they’re still beyond our control and comprehension. That’s why we love and need them, and, of course central to the Nature Preserves vision, in the modern world: They Need Us!
Revis Hill Prairie Nature Preserve 
The center of the prairie is pristine! But around the edges, more than half of it 
has been lost to shade of invasive trees and shrubs.
For the next generation, it needs help.
Photo by Susan Hargrove
These "virus-impacted" days are made for some special people:

Ethical photographers to help the wider public see and care about the preserves (“taking only photos” and leaving behind as little damage as possible).

Preserve monitors to visit the preserves and send your reports on conditions to the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission and the Friends. 

Volunteer stewards, as owner agencies permit, solve those problems that monitors record, if staff and contract funding can’t – which is the case for many needs in most preserves - and why reports and stewards are needed. 

Do you know how to monitor nature preserves? If so, please do, and send in your reports. They can be simple or detailed. Check out some examples here.   
Misumenoides formosipes (white-banded crab spider)
on pale purple coneflower at Revis, the featured preserve of this post.
In the last 100 years, this precious prairie has lost 60% of its acreage to invasives.
As acreage decreases, animal and plant populations lose sustainability. For species that haven’t yet been lost entirely, restoring quality acreage increases sustainability.
This prairie needs more help.

Photo by Angella Moorehouse. 
Reporting on preserve status is something you can do now (see below). If you would like to sharpen your ability to evaluate needs, we’re planning “field seminars” (for later, when groups can go out to learn together).

For the immediate now, check out guides to invasives here or here. In most parts of Illinois, there are mentors who can coach and advise.  
Frankly, some problems are easy to understand and report on: garbage dumping, vehicle trespass, and other human abuse (in some cases by well-meaning people who just need better signage). 

Many important problems are tougher. Do you know how to identify your region’s most dangerous invasive plants? Can you recognize when the ecosystem is suffering from lack of fire? Do you know how to make useful sketch maps, or electronic GPS maps?

A serious threat to many preserves is common buckthorn. It's easy to identify at any season by twigs alone (see photo). Most small branches end in a fork, and in the center of that fork is a little thorn. No other tree has that feature.

Dear experienced stewards, please let us know if you could help train people (in the field?) (via email or Skype initially?) in key questions of preserve needs in your region.

Dear everyone else, please let us know if you'd like to be trained to work on this.

See Endnote on Reports for more details.

As the Friends of Illinois Nature Preserves initiative moves forward, we’d like to:
  • celebrate and learn from the many preserves that already have volunteer stewards. 
  • identify individuals who’d like to begin stewardship for orphan preserves. 
  • build larger “stewards communities” as demonstration projects at key preserves. 
We may be distant, but why not "Do what we can, where we are, with what we have!"
Zed and Angella Moorehouse at Revis Hill Prairie.
Angella is Illinois Nature Preserves Commission staff for Region 4. But Revis in in region 5, where she's a volunteer, just like you and I could be. Volunteer stewards, public support, and funding are needed. It's fun and rewarding to help these dedicated people. Otherwise, what will be left for Zed's generation and beyond. Let's do it!
Photo by Dan Moorehouse. 
The 596 Illinois Nature Preserves are the responsibility of nine regional staff. That averages 62 preserves each, to seek adequate care for. Existing resources are not remotely sufficient to provide what's needed in most cases. Some preserves also have landowner agency staff (see Endnote), typically also spread very thin. Agency staff and Friends of Illinois Nature Preserves would try to find time and resources to work with you, if you'd like to contribute as a volunteer, advocate, or by helping to find funding. On the other hand, they are spread so thin ... and thus have little time to invest in potentials. The Friends will work to publish more details about more specific volunteer opportunities soon.

We hope to see you out there some day. Thanks for your interest. 

To find preserves near you, go to maps and descriptions at the Illinois Nature Preserves Directory.

Endnote on Landowning Agencies

If this is new to you, sorry to add one more wrinkle. All Illinois Nature Preserves are owned by some organization or agency (or even a family) other than the supervising Illinois Nature Preserves Commission. This visionary approach brought a lot more potential resources to bear, and that approach has worked well at permanently protecting those 596 prairies, woods, and wetlands from development.  

Check the Illinois Nature Preserve Directory for owners and other details. 

Preserves owned by Forest Preserve Districts and conservation organizations seem mostly to be open to socially distant visitation, in part because people's minds and spirits benefit, especially at a time like this. As of April 23, preserves managed by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources are still closed, although Governor Pritzker suggested that state parks may re-open soon. All preserves continue to be open to wildlife. 

Endnote on Reports

The reports, made by people like you and submitted to the Friends, have multiple purposes. In some cases, reporters have found problems that had been unknown. In most cases, Nature Preserve staff are aware of the major problems, but with 62 preserves each, they have limited time to do the needed work (or facilitate others in doing it). Reports raise the visibility of the needs. With more visibility, more people understand and care, and more resources often emerge. Some people who have first made reports have later become stewards; and, indeed, one purpose of asking for reports is to fish for potential stewards. In other cases, people reading the reports have volunteered to help (as stewards - and even to help find grants to hire eco-stewardship professionals). The more people know and care, the more opportunities for help emerge. Credit goes to all staff, volunteers, and those who help spread the word! 

Thanks to Angella Moorehouse for many helpful contributions to this post.
No blame should accrue to her for any weaknesses.
Thanks for photos to Susan Hargrove and Angella and Dan Moorehouse.