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Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Palatine Prairie Needs Somebody

Rescued from bulldozers, a gem of nature is rapidly dying from something more insidious.

Palatine Prairie (an Illinois Nature Preserve) is just 2.5 acres of original prairie and marsh that was almost destroyed in 1979. Advocates saved it from bureaucrats and "progress." Stewards began managing it back to good health. (Some of it had suffered from invasives and brush.)

Palatine Prairie in 1979. Scraps of original prairie are precious beyond words.
The preserve featured a small area of high-quality wet-mesic prairie, hundreds of plants of the threatened prairie lady’s-slipper, and a drier slope that had long ago been over-grazed but was recovering with high populations of quality species.

Prairie Woods Audubon Society raised tens of thousands of dollars and bought some adjoining acreage to complete the preserve. They fended off a proposal to build a high-rise that would have damaged the prairie by shade. In 1995 the little gem was granted “the highest form of protection under Illinois law” by being dedicated as an Illinois Nature Preserve.

All seemed well except for one little deadly problem. Malignant crown vetch (Coronilla varia) was creeping down the railroad track toward the prairie. A number of us warned the stewards and the Park District and Nature Preserves staff that the threat was serious. Crown vetch can utterly destroy a prairie.

Years ago more than one of us reported: "Alarm! The invasive menace is not just close. One square yard of the prairie is gone." Many of us counseled quick action, and quite a few of us offered to help. We received assurances and promises, but the undertone kind of sounded like, “Leave us alone. We'll do this ourselves.”  

So I was stunned by what I saw on a visit in 2013. On about a fifth of the prairie, the natural vegetation was gone. I sent an urgent alert with the two photos below to everyone I thought might care and help. 

In April 2013, the western end of the prairie was choked by crown vetch, the plant here with little leaflets. 
A precious heritage and an Illinois Nature Preserve were being lost. The infested fifth of the original prairie was recoverable, but the longer we waited, the more difficult would be the needed stewardship - and the less complete the recovery.

Somehow the vetch kills most other plants. The only other plant in this photo
that still has enough energy to bloom is bastard toadflax.

The Wikipedia entry on crown vetch says this invasive is “very hard to eradicate.” Wikipedia needs to catch up. For years stewards have known that crown vetch is now fairly easy to kill. You spray it with Transline, and it folds. The good thing about Transline is that this newish herbicide won’t kill most plants. It doesn’t hurt monocots (grasses, lilies, orchids, etc.). And among the dicots, it principally kills legumes (like the vetch) and composites. But legumes (beans, clovers, etc.) are important to the natural diversity that makes prairie an original prairie precious. So are composites (asters, goldenrods, sunflowers, etc.). To control crown vetch, you have to temporarily sacrifice the prairie clovers, indigos, leadplants, blazing stars, and coneflowers. In 2013, one person could easily have sprayed all the vetch in an hour or two. 
Herbiciding many of the most beautiful wildflowers of the prairie is emotionally difficult for someone who loves the ecosystem. Many stewards initially hesitated. But crown vetch can destroy all the original plants - and all the rare butterflies, walking sticks, beetles and myriad other small animals that depend on them. The sooner the invasive is wiped out, the sooner the lost species will seed themselves back from the edges of the vetch-killed area. The recovered prairie would be indistinguishable from the original, if not too big an area has been lost for too long. Unfortunately the animals are especially vulnerable to a reduction in habitat.

I heard from others (who had also been speaking up) that the message had finally gotten through. The approvals had been completed; the contracts had been written; and the work had begun. So when I had a chance to drop by again last week, I was hopeful.

But effective work wasn’t done in 2013. Nor in 2014. And now seeds are set for 2015.

Some people argue that nature should be left alone, and then high quality nature will prevail. I had never before had the grim scientific opportunity to test the “no action” alternative on a good original prairie. Now I did. The pace of degradation was worse than I’d feared. More than half of the original prairie is gone.

August 2015: dense vetch is two to three feet high over most of the prairie. Those dark fingers are mature seed pods. 
Yellow outlines original prairie. Red outlines current extent of heavy crown vetch invasion. Red dots are outlier vetch populations of a few square yards each. Left unchecked, the invasive will soon have destroyed the entire original prairie.

Hundreds of people devoted 36 years to a gem of nature. Do we have to admit that all the dedication and resources have failed?

It’s a sad story. But looming defeats can be valuable catalysts that inspire new initiatives and approaches. The Palatine Prairie saga raises some existential questions.

1. Have we conservationists spread ourselves too thin? The few of us speaking up for Palatine Prairie at occasional intervals were not enough. Many of us are committed to many sites, and we have to prioritize how we invest our time.

2. Are we failing to recruit and empower an effective 2nd generation leaders? Does it sometimes turn out that people who make great stewards may not necessarily make great recruiters of stewards? Do we sometimes “pass the torch” to people who don't really want the whole job? How often can we count on inspiration just spreading naturally among the stewards?

How do we assure needed resources, as we make commitments to the future?
3. Do public agencies depend too much on stewards – especially too much on newer, less trained, and less expert stewards? Some inexperienced stewards, for example, have counseled (especially smaller, less-expertly-staffed) agencies not to burn or not to herbicide. In the case of Palatine Prairie, the "steward" is apparently a group. Dedicated individuals grow in experience and knowledge over the years in ways that don't apply to groups. Are there approaches that would work better?

4. Do we fail to recognize the need for (and fail to demand) agency responsibility? Public agencies don’t work well without strong constituency. When depending on government - from the local park district to the feds - we need to celebrate that we live in at least a partial democracy and that issues just don’t get funding or competent work unless people care – and convey to officials and decision-makers that we know what’s happening and we do care. We need to advocate effectively for good science and effective implementation.

5. Why is it that no one is being the needed champion for so many deserving preserves? This one is not alone. Did no knowledgeable person visit Langham Island or Palatine Prairie regularly, or if they did, were they just not speaking up? Could it be that our generation has lost the “culture of advocacy” that the conservation community was building from the time of John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt through to the days of Aldo Leopold and George Fell? Pollution has its Erin Brockoviches. But natural areas mostly don’t. Sometimes one advocate is all it takes. In this case, if one person reminded and facilitated weekly or monthly, that could have made the difference.

In this 2015 photo, the leaves of prairie dock, gayfeather, rough blazing star, and prairie sunflower can be seen surviving, for now. Sadly, all those species are composites that will be killed by the herbicide that controls the malignant vetch.
But herbiciding the invasive is the only way to save the prairie, and the sooner it's done, the less is lost. 

It's not too late for Palatine Prairie.

This post is still a draft, good recommendations have helped improve it. More suggestions (and comments) would be appreciated.


  1. It is difficult, but useful and inspiring, to appreciate the efforts that went into saving natural places like Palatine Prairie. Joel Greenberg's Natural History of the Chicago Region details some of the struggles, including the successes (Goose Lake Prairie), failures (Buffalo Grove Prairie), and instances that were a mix of failure and success (Indiana Dunes). In these days of budget cuts and unending development, when society seems determined to sink under the weight of its own materialism, it is vital that we collectively find the will and insight to address Steven's five questions. In fact these questions strike me as a sound platform for a mini-summit of stewards and land managers who own Nature Preserves. Like Langham Island, Palatine Prairie can still be saved.

    One final thought: It is a cruel ironic twist that the railroad which likely sustained the prairie for years through accidental burns would become the corridor for the invasives that now threaten it.

  2. Emerald Crown Vetch is so very difficult but can be controlled. However this is based on the understanding that the various agencies should be knowledgeable as to the science behind the work desired.

    Saw this post earlier today in a different venue and it it very disturbing. Any natural area near a road or rail is in danger.

    As a further comment I have to say that after the sign finally goes up your organization
    will be in the limelight. Before taking responsibility of an area keep in mind that you will find it hard to let go of it.

    Please keep in mind that roadways and communities may make it difficult to manage an area according to the original installation instructions (in such cases as per installation of beautification or rain garden projects). Even Master Naturalists find it very difficult to take on a perpetual management project.

    Jim Hoyt

  3. Super thoughtful post and an important conversation to keep having as long as it keeps leading to action.

    There’s a clear parallel with Langham Island that you draw at the end there - and how volunteers needed to mobilize in order to save it (here's the blog post i wrote about that).

    The first thing i thought is that there could be some kind of 911 system for reporting natural areas in threat of attack or further degradation. The system would post the concern in a public place and a team of first responders or advocates could volunteer for an emergency workday -or possibly just send polite (if not persistent) reminders to the various stewards and land owners who need to take action. The post could remain public and open until it was proven to be resolved or in-process. Volunteer Restoration EMTs!

    1. This kind of transparency and accountability is much needed. Back when the dedicated George Fell headed up the Nature Preserves Commission staff, the Commission issued a report every two years on the state of the preserves. It was frank about the problems each preserve faced. Some agency owners resented having such needs "aired in public." But the straightforwardness of the reports helped educate the public and inspire helpful action. Robb, thanks for the reminder.

  4. Each year the Illinois Landmarks organization releases a list of the state's most endangered structures. Is there anything like this document for high-quality natural areas -- both protected and unprotected areas? This type of list might help the community of volunteers and concerned citizens ration their energy/resources to quickly nip invasive plants like CV in the bud.

    1. Good thinking, J.Schlesinger. Thanks. For a while the Illinois Natural Areas Inventory was such a list – and it inspired a lot of good work. But it only told us which sites to buy or protect from development. We could use something that highlighted management challenges and priorities. Buying land is no longer conservation's most important challenge. To conserve biodiversity and natural heritage, good stewardship for the lands already protected is very much more important.

  5. A very sad story. Perhaps one of the essential questions should be: When stewards, agencies, landowners, or NGOs do preservation or restoration, do they understand the need for continual intensive "search and destroy" efforts against the invasives they currently have and the ones that are on the way? They need to know that the work will never end, and dedicated people need to be on the ground to find and control invasives.

    Last weekend we took a field trip to Kankakee Sands. They actually have one field of perhaps 100 acres (out of a 7600 mostly prairie restoration) that they put back into agriculture (crops) because they had lost the battle against Bird's foot trefoil! I don't think that most landowners have any idea that this can happen.

  6. The ironic thing is there are other unprotected prairie remnants along that same railroad in Palatine that are being managed and may even be getting better management. These prairies are being managed by people who want to preserve these areas as a seed source for nearby restorations. I must wonder if better management would be occurring at Palatine Prairie if those working on local restoration projects were permitted to harvest some seed.

  7. I think you do not really want to experiment with broadcast spraying herbicide, even a selective one, on such a high quality remnant. I have done some control of crown vetch by digging it up by the root. When we find the odd off one while walking restoration areas looking for sweet clover I use my NRG Pro Weeder to dig up crown vetch by the root. I have found that digging crown vetch up by the root is difficult, but not impossible. The problem with crown vetch is it is rhizomous and the roots are very brittle. This makes digging it up much more difficult than tap rooted plants. The roots tend to break and you will rarely get all of them. If you dig up the plants by the roots there will have to be follow up for a couple years to make sure all the fragments of roots have been removed. This is also a very labor intensive process. I estimate it will take a minimum of 150 hours of very hard work to initially dig crown vetch up by the root for an infestation of this size with progressively less work required in each subsequent year.

  8. Here is another method that you will probably like better. This will allow you to apply herbicide very selectively without disturbing the soil as would occur with digging up the plants roots.

    1. James, thanks for finding this interesting method. Sadly, since the seeds have already formed, it wouldn't work this year. The "cut stem, herbicide, and remove" approach that is recommended at the end, in theory, would. Unfortunately, it would probably represent thousands of hours of work. I wonder if there would be willing volunteers or funding. Sadly, from what I've heard, most of the many people who volunteered to help earlier (but couldn't get approval) now look at the problem as overwhelming. It probably would need a quick contract crew to "hand combine" the seeds out of there before they fall. Perhaps even that isn't worth it, except in the "outliers" and edges - as the seeds have been dropping in the heart of the infestation for many years. They could be cut and herbicide, with a lot of work. But if the prairie is to be saved, the effective work in 2016 and 2017 would probably have to start much earlier in the year.

  9. I really think with some organization a lot of the work could be completed this year. The key is to focus on the edges with the cut and herbicide method until the seed drops then work on the interior after the seed has dropped. Of course as much seed as possible should be bagged, removed from the site, and preferably burned.

    I do not think it would take thousands of hours. I have cleared heavy infestations by hand before without the help of herbicide and I typically am able to progress over 100 sq. feet in an hour. An acre is 43,560 square feet. From your map it appears that 60 % of the 2.5 acre preserve is heavily infested which calculates to one and a half acres of dense crown vetch. The math follows.

    1.5 acre * (43,560 sq. ft/acre) / (100 sq. ft/hr) = 650 hrs (rounded)

    I think the work might progress twice as fast with the use of herbicide, which requires much less effort than digging.

    This amount of time commitment is impossible for the steward. This is the reason the battle is being lost and now appears overwhelming. However, if the stewards as a community come together this problem could be tackled.

  10. I volunteer at a well funded and carefully attended prairie restoration. Despite our vigilance, however, we have seen how quickly a few "missed" sweet clovers can proliferate.

    We routinely acknowledge that our restorations will always require "some" management, but we haven't squarely addressed how our considerable successes will be sustained over the coming decades. Honest thinking about the future is likely to impact how we organize our work today. For example, it might cause us to more or less aggressive about some weed species that we now manage; or it might lead us to initially be more adamant about eliminating internal (former) fence row contours which complicate management. Management will have to become simpler to be sustainable.

    At our site, a small part of the solution may be to dedicate a portion of future distributions of the endowment we are building to a structured long term management plan. Admittedly, endowments are not realistic for many sites.

  11. Tom Vanderpoel recommended the following strategy for this prairie. Cut all stems of all native legumes to the ground. Spray all crown vetch with Transline. I don't remember what he said about when this should be done.

    1. Yes, it is not that difficult for a skilled and dedicated person to control crown vetch - especially on just an acre or so, as at Palatine Prairie. I'd recommend cutting all the stems of conservative legumes and composites before spraying with Transline - or other narrowly focused herbicide.

      A number of people with skill (and Illinois herbicide certification) volunteered to help, back early in the history of this infestation. The problem at that time seemed to be that no one in authority seemed to be willing to authorize them to go ahead.

      Does anyone if the problem there has been solved?