email alerts

To receive email alerts for new posts of this blog, enter your address below.

Follow by Email

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Seeking a Director and Other Staff

The Friends of Illinois Nature Preserves’ initial board and volunteers are seeking a director and other staff. 

We’ve learned that some good candidates hadn’t heard the news.

The application deadline has been extended to February 15th. 
Please spread the word! An important institution is being born. 


To: potential staff of Friends of Illinois Nature Preserves


Where we stand as an emerging organization


We’re eager to start hiring staff. We have only barely enough money in the bank to get started  (about $55,000). But if we can find people with spirit and determination, we believe that we together can build the substantial organization that’s needed.


We, the current volunteer board and leadership of the Friends, are looking for a few good people. Might you be one of them? If not, might you know a candidate – and help us by sharing this note with her or him? 


We’ve defined the roles of “director,” “administrator,” and “field rep” (see below). But we’re also telling people we’ll eagerly listen to what they have to offer.  


One of our many recent inspirations was a (zoom) meeting with Dwayne Estes, the leader who pulled together the Southeast Grasslands Initiative (SGI). Dwayne’s a hard-core conservationist and fine botanist; he started SGI in 2017 with little but determination, persistence, and being “on the ball.” SGI now has a staff of twelve and a focus on 24 states, including southern Illinois. They’re one of many partners we’d like to work with.


For another example, some of us helped start Friends of the Forest Preserves. When its Director came on in 2004, we had $20,000 in the bank. It now has a staff of more than thirty, mostly consisting of on-the-ground ecological restoration crews. We work with them. 


These two organizations are very different from what Friends of Illinois Nature Preserves deserves to be. But they’re an example of the growth we’ll need. 


Our board and advisors are vigorous, dedicated, and well-connected. We need staff to pitch in fully, as needed, to protect and restore quality to the 594 Illinois Nature Preserves – in every part of this big state.  


These are our draft “Job Descriptions.” Read them carefully, if you want to apply, but don’t let them limit you. 


Prairie, sedge meadow and fen at Bluff Spring Fen Nature Preserve

Who we are and what we do

Friends of Illinois Nature Preserves conserve the biodiversity of the most ecologically important prairies, savannas, woodlands and wetlands in the state by empowering volunteers, securing resources, and conducting education and policy initiatives. The growing Illinois Nature Preserves System thus far protects over 100,000 acres across nearly 600 sites. We provide on-the-ground stewardship, conservation advocacy, and support local land trusts and volunteer communities. We train volunteers in ecological restoration, invasive species control, prescribed burning, and promote collaboration with professional staff.

The Friends are ready to hire initial staff as soon as we can, given emerging resources. Staff will work closely with the Board and volunteers to grow the program, expand resources, and develop relationships with key stakeholders. We are looking for candidates with vision and strategy to take initiative to achieve results statewide while also building local community support. This is an opportunity for people with passion for biodiversity to work for ecological conservation and positive cultural change. 


·      Build a dedicated and effective statewide board

·      With INPC and IDNR staff, identify key areas for Friends to provide support

·      With the Board, lead strategic planning and program development

·      Empower local and regional leaders and communities

·      Coordinate consultants on fundraising and communications


Administrator (or assistant director or something)

·      Promote site stewardship kick-offs, restoration workdays, and other Friends events

·      Provide sites/volunteer groups with materials necessary for effective preserve management  

·      Celebrate preserves, preserve owners, and committed volunteers through mass media, social media and blog outlets

·      Coordinate contract work as needed


Field Representatives

·      Coordinate planning, outreach, and workdays at various Illinois Nature Preserves

·      Connect with volunteer communities to share restoration skills, ecological knowledge, and empower leadership

·      Contribute to the development of a strategy and organizational structure for taking these efforts statewide (e.g. possible regional chapters, county committees, etc.)  


Preferred qualifications

·      A passion for biodiversity conservation and empowering others

·      Demonstrated leadership skills. 

·      Excellent organizational skills

·      Ability to manage multiple projects with collaborators, stakeholders, and volunteers of all experience levels

·      Strong communication skills and problem-solving acumen 

·      Ability to promote the vision, listen, and bring people together. 


Full time? Part time? Salary?

These are all negotiable, depending on the needs and histories of the candidates. One possibility is that all staff start small and increase (rapidly?) with success and resources. Another possibility is that a strong candidate agrees to spend a month or so shopping around among possible funders and agrees to come on full time with a professional salary on the basis of commitments made by the board and contacts. 


Ornate Box Turtle at (unnamed) Nature Preserve

To apply, please send a cover letter and resume to the Friends at In your cover letter, please try to address the questions raised in “Where we stand as an emerging organization” – above.


Background research, if you’d like …




Initial announcement or who we are and what we hope to achieve:


Our first Annual Report: 

Sample media:

For Nature Preserve photos, thanks to Michael Jeffords and Susan Post

Thursday, December 10, 2020

The Old Plank Road Prairies - a quick peek at an ongoing drama

Seventeen miles long – planned as a "plank road" across the prairie, becoming a railroad for a century, now a bike and hiking trail. Over all that time, a few patches of original black-soil prairie survived here – within the fenced right-of-way – nowhere else over hundreds of square miles.

When surveyed in the 1970s, the Old Plank Road Prairie Nature Preserves were some of the best black-soil prairies in The Prairie State. The easternmost two miles are owned by the Village of Matteson and Rich Township. Finding nearby owners to care for them was crucial to the Openlands' campaign to save them when the railroad was abandoned. It worked, but the local ownership agencies had neither the expertise nor resources needed to provide all the care needed for fragile ecosystems.

For a time, trained volunteers managed them well. But the original staff partnerships that recruited, trained, and supported the volunteers gradually shifted to other focuses, volunteers drifted away, and the prairies spent decades with declining stewardship. Thus, without burns or invasive control, overgrowth by crown vetch, teasel, and brush badly degraded and, in some areas, completely eliminated the prairie.

Coming to the rescue in 2010 were the Orland Grassland Volunteers, working twice a month all year round in cooperation with Nature Preserves staffer Kim Roman and (now) Friends of Illinois Nature Preserves board member Stephen Packard. Much progress has been made, but much more work is needed. This November, Friends and Orland volunteer Bill Fath organized the first burn in two years, with staff help from The Nature Conservancy. Are you possibly interested in prairies? Do you live in the south suburbs? Might you be interested in learning more about - and possibly learn to help care for these gems? If you’re interested, contact the Friends or the Orland Grassland Volunteers

Also, so much more of this is needed at hundreds of sites, so please check out the Friends' first "Annual Report" (and make a year-end donation, if you can) at Friends of Illinois Nature Preserves. (We need more burn gear, for example.)

For more details about the Old Plank Road Prairies, also check out:



Four Plank Road Burn photos below:


It starts with a plan.

At the beginning of every burn, Bill Fath briefs the trained volunteer crew.

Fail safe - on a windy day
The fire starts slowly in this area.
Wind is strong from the left, and we don't want a flare-up to send sparks across the street.
We took great care to be good neighbors. 

Fire looks impressive here, but it’s all controlled. 

In this case, the 33-foot-wide strip of prairie burned ferociously.
But the land behind it was a non-flammable plowed dirt field.
Still, Bill stationed people out there to watch. 

Progress over time.

In this 2018 photo, only two of us wear fire-protective Nomex clothes.
This year, Christos Economou from the Friends rounded up a good deal more and better
fire tools and gear. (Check back to first photo.)

We, the Friends, need more and better fire tools and protective clothing for all parts of the state ... and more staff help for recruiting, training, permits, and troubleshooting. If you would consider donating, check out the Friends' first Annual Report: click here. (If you give in December 2020, two matching grants would double your donation.)


Thanks for proofing and edits to Eriko Kojima

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Friends of IL Nature - FIRST ANNUAL REPORT - Please Share

The Friends of Illinois Nature Preserves




Please click below (and please share).

2020 Annual Repor

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

Nov. 5, 2020: Langham Update and Plans -

November 5, 2020

Starting last August, the Friends have helped sponsor brush cutting and seed gathering "workdays" every week. Yesterday, we and staff gave a controlled burn to 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 with better fuel, so the fire can really do its work. According to Dan Kirk (IDNR Heritage Biologist), "This site hasn't seen a real burn in a long time - too little fuel."  Dan authorized us to gather from nearby DesPlaines Dolomite Prairie. Old photos and descriptions tell us of the island's "grassy banks" populated by many rare species typical of prairies and open savannas. But hardly any of the warm-season grasses had survived the shade on the island. So now we're adding to the mix: little bluestem, northern dropseed, side-oaks grama, and Canada rye. Soon we'll broadcast these and all the other species we've gathered on the island, which will lead to more natural, bigger, and better fires and - more importantly - the richer, more diverse, and more sustainable ecosystem.  

Of course, those seeds will depend on sufficient light levels if they are to thrive. For now they'll 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.