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Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Kish Fen Kick Off - Sunday Oct 17

A great and needy nature preserve: click here for more background, ecology, nature photos, etc. 

We've been hard at work drafting plans (to be approved by by the soon-to-be-formed volunteer team who will do the work).

Now the Great Kick-off has happened. What we predicted we would do (see below) we now have done! Congratulations everyone!

On Sunday, we start to tackle the mess shown below:

This "dark as a dungeon" buckthorn thicket is shading and killing the northwest edge of the best "hanging fen." Those who choose this will start to cut away and burn this mess on Sunday. (That shaft of sunlight is from the hole we cut to make an opening for our planning group to walk in.) 

Or check out the photo below:

Advisor Dennis Dreher is explaining how brush along this branch of the Kishwaukee River headwaters is degrading and killing the south edge of one of the raised fens. 

We not only slay brush. We also laugh at it. This will be easy. It won't be there for long. 

For perspective, in the photo below, the raised fen is in the foreground as we look north toward that dark, satanic shadow that threatens the hanging fen (on the slope). 
The big dark bump on the horizon, above, is the fen-killing brush we're standing inside, 
three photos back.

Near our cars, on the edge of Red Tail Golf Course, we finalize the plans.
The person making that mighty two-fist gesture is Rebeccah Hartz, the Friends volunteer who is "point person" for this kick-off. 

Amy Doll, at left, Friends director, coordinated this kick-off with Lakewood village staff.

Steve Byers, second from right, resident of Lakewood and recently retired Field Rep for the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission, offers suggestions ranging from how to get more yard signs in place to simplifying fire breaks for the big controlled burns: we can cut the brush along the stream, so that unburnable water will edge one side of the burn just as the unburnable golf course edges the other. (And with streets on both other sides, a lot of our firebreak work is easy.)

On Sunday, we'll study and learn a bit from the experts, and then buckle down to work. If that sounds good to you, please join in!

Kish Fen Kick Off is sponsored by the Village of Lakewood, Friends of Illinois Nature Preserves, the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission, and The Land Conservancy of McHenry County. Some of us volunteers will gather rare seed to sow where brush had killed all. Some of us will cut and burn the buckthorn. The institutions are spread thin and can't do all that work. But we The People can. 

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Bell Bowl Prairie Update

Unless sufficient pressure is brought to bear, a major and truly unique very-high-quality prairie will be destroyed by a public agency. This would be a pathetic first.  

Rusty-patched Bumblebee 
An inhabitant of Bell Bowl on the Federal endangered list
photo copyright by Dan Mullen

Public agencies have a public trust. So far as I can determine, no public agency in Illinois has ever destroyed an area of comparable importance to Bell Bowl Prairie since natural areas were defined and mapped by the Illinois Natural Areas Inventory in 1977. 

Despite some misinformed claims, a Grade A prairie cannot be moved and stay a Grade A prairie - especially one growing from a unique gravel deposit and with the hydrology present here. Any attempt to move it would destroy most of its biodiversity, forever. 

This ecosystem has developed its richness and complexity over the last 18,000 years - since the retreat of the last glacier. If it can be saved and dedicated as an Illinois Nature Preserve, it will be thriving 100 years from now, long after airports have been replaced by something better. One hundred years is just a blip in the history of this prairie. 

Cassi Saari has compiled an excellent well-illustrated and compelling summary of the facts, issues, and strategies. 

Jack White provided both a short and a longer statement as the expert most knowledgeable about the evaluation of Illinois Natural Areas.

The Natural Land Institute (NLI) has a page devoted to Bell Bowl updates. 

There was also a recent Strategies for Stewards post here.

It's too bad this issue is coming to the overall attention of the conservation community so late. Jack White is supporting the efforts of NLI chief contact Don Miller ( and - bless them both - they need more help as hard-working people, researching facts and options, strategizing, and creatively rousing public opinion to convince public officials that there are better options. 

Perhaps key are Rockford area residents, who are most likely to influence the three mayors and the airport commissioners they appoint. 

Perhaps state or federal officials and regulators will be key. 

But they'd need a lot of help from advocates who care. 

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

76 Words on the Destruction of Nature by H.S.Pepoon

 The Author urges upon every user of The Flora that we ever keep in mind the perishable nature of the wild folk we study and that, in so far as we have power and influence, we exert both to the conservation of all of our natural heritage that remains to us, never needlessly maiming nor destroying one of our floral or arboreal citizens, but ever protecting them with zealous care from ruthless hands or ignorant caprice.

Also, a few more bonus words.

First, on finding a stand of pink ladyslippers (Cypripedium acule) on a field trip:

“We paused, drinking our fill and passed on, not one person violating the unwritten law of the orchid lover. An hour later, as we ate our lunch on the margin of the swamp, a party of robust young men and women from (name withheld) College came along, and each gloried in the rare specimen they had plucked. Cypripedium acaule, your regal beauty is your doom.


“I am a botanist but have sidelines of birds and beetles, beasts and butterflys, and all the wild folk of woodland and orchard, swamp and lake. All these beguile my hours. I also use my imagination.


From H.S.Pepoon: Pioneer Conservationist of Northwest Illinois" edited by Cory Ritterbusch. PrairieWorks. Galena, Illinois. 2011

Our apologies to any who might be offended, but these essays were written between 1904 and 1933. The pronoun "he" was then used to mean "everybody." Today we believe that "we" does the job better - and the quotes above are edited thus.

Pink ladyslipper photo by Bob Gibbons/science Photo Library in Fine Art America.

Monday, September 27, 2021

Biodiversity vs. Bulldozer – soon in Rockford

An especially fine and important prairie is scheduled to be destroyed on November 1st – if the conservation community can’t change some minds.
Can you help?
Do you know people who live in the Rockford area?
Might you know other people who would have ways of reaching people in the Rockford area?
See two aerial photos at the end of this post.

The Natural Land Institute is co-hosting a meeting with Sinnissippi Audubon this Thursday, Sept. 27 at 5:00 p.m. at the Forest Preserves of Winnebago Co. office.  

George Fell – a pioneer of biodiversity conservation
Defending Bell Bowl Prairie from a previous threat
Probably in the 1970s
Some great people (perhaps equally hastily) assembled this Facebook site with many details.
If you live in the area, it would be great if you could speak out.
Write to Rockford Mayor Tom McNamara and other elected officials.
Write to Paul Cicero who is chairman of the Greater Rockford Airport Authority.
Write to other officials at that Authority – who, it seems, will make the final decision. 
These are the Airport Commissioners who will make the decision.
What would influence them?
They are making an important decision for all time.
Are there other good strategies at this late date? 
Some people in emails and on the Web sound too angry to be convincing. Approaches that seemed like “conflict” and “aggressive civil disobedience” would not likely work.
Few of the public would be sympathetic to it. 
We’re in a pandemic.
We’ve lived through Trump.
We are living through the early stages of climate change.
Getting a lot of people to weigh in positively and hopefully may be the best strategy. 
There’s a lot of info and quotes from good people on the web page. There’s even a little video clip of Jack White (the principal coordinator of the highly respected Illinois Natural Areas Inventory in the 1970s and an expert on ecosystem quality) explaining how you can’t move this treasure of an ecosystem – and how it got there. But there hasn't been enough concern expressed effectively enough to stop the planned destruction in November.
This prairie has fought off bids to destroy it in the past. It should be dedicated as an Illinois Nature Preserve, which would end the bulldozer threat permanently. 


The Facebook advocates propose letters to editors and officials and signs posted in the Rockford area.  

Are there better strategies to recommend? If so please let me know by "Comment" or email
Then I can add those ideas to this post.
Please share this post - especially with anyone you know in the Rockford area. 


In this aerial, Bell Bowl Prairie is to the left of the two bright white square rooftops. Here, it's easy to see that there is other nearby land for water retention, truck docks, and buildings. 

Saturday, September 25, 2021

Kishwaukee Fen - an introduction to a fine, needy place

A chrysalis is paranormal.

Fens are enchanting.

This fen needs Friends.

Chrysalis of Baltimore checkerspot butterfly,
which may still survive
in this orphan fen nature preserve

This adventure and discovery began when John Nelson of the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission asked us to take a look at some legally preserved sites that seemed to have been abandoned. When we looked at Kishwaukee Fen, its magical quality and vulnerability called out to us … like a baby in a basket on our doorstep.

A 30-acre nature preserve with 27 acres of reed canary grass and buckthorn … closing in on three acres of surviving rare perfection. (Some of those 27 acres of degradation were formerly farmed but included in the preserve as important buffer. Some were sedge meadow over-run by invasives. All could be, can be, and deserve to be restored to health and quality.)

The team that descended on the fen was made up of Rebeccah Hartz, John Nelson, Steve Byers, Amy Doll, Will Overbeck, Megan Oropeza, Eriko Kojima, and me. (Who are these people? See Endnote 1.) In the photo above, in early spring in the stubble of last year's reed canary grass, bright yellow marsh marigold still thrives. 

But the gems of the site are its hanging and raised fens. The diagram below provides the basic idea:
These fens start deep in a glacial moraine rich with limestone.  As pure rainwater percolates through the moraine, it dissolves calcium and magnesium carbonates from the limestone and becomes highly basic (the opposite of acidic).  Most plants and microorganisms have a hard time growing in extremely basic (also called alkaline or calcareous) environments such as these. Specialist "fen plants" adapted to such places thrive here with the benefit of genes that in the future may help food plants adapt to changing climatic conditions. You can meet some of these plants below.  Decomposition of plant litter is slow in fens, and over centuries peat builds up. Peatlands are said to store an immense amount of carbon, more even than tropical rainforests – so conserving and better understanding fens is crucial for many reasons in our warming world.   

When the hydrology of fens is disrupted, the mineral water stops protecting the peat, and the peat puts its carbon into the air as carbon dioxide and methane. The Nature Preserves Commission studied our finest remnant fens and found that Kishwaukee Fen had the best water, the least polluted by salt. 

At Kishwaukee Fen, the photo below shows one of the hanging fens:
I'm happy to say we were able to recognize new shoots of grass of Parnassus, arrow grass, turtlehead, valerian, and a long list of rare, highly-specialized plants. 

I'm sorry to report that this gem is marred by a massive buckthorn in the middle, and hundreds more just off-screen to the right. 

That the seep areas were especially well preserved was demonstrated by the presence of tufa, a crystalline rock that form here where the water warms up and the dissolved minerals precipitate out. Some people protest, Crystalline??  they say. It's just brown! Yes, these crystals are brown, but curious and special all the same - new rock forming in the air on top of peat. See below. 

Like grass of Parnassus, arrow grass is not a grass at all. I don't know why fen plants have such strange names. Arrow grass is the curious wildflower shown below. The leaves are grasslike. The fleshy flowers are greenish, tinged with purple, and arranged in a tall spike. An earlier botanist recorded two endangered species of arrow grass at this fen; we didn't seem to be sure which species we found. (The pointy yellow things at the bottom right of the photo are the reproductive parts of a sedge, of which this fen has at least eight rare and-tricky-to-identify species.)
Cotton grass (below) is another of this preserve's rare plants. It too is not a grass. 

Now for some fall photos.
I wish they could be better.
The Fen is potentially so beautiful.
But from years without fire, it's not at its best.
The potential is clear, as care restores more and more quality to this priceless ecosystem. So ...
Ugly. Here in the foreground, that green mat is invasive, non-diverse mat of reed canary grass, that has displaced nature in former sedge meadow. In the middle distance, the tan area is one of the raised fens, surviving longer because of the calcareous water. (Apparently, in the diagram above, what Illinois ecologists call a raised fen is, in Michigan, called a domed fen. Conservation and management of fens is a very young science.)

Now we step up on the raised fen. Vastly more flowers will bloom after a burn, but you can get a hint of the richness here. The blue is the fringed gentian. The yellow is bog goldenrod, nearly finished blooming. A lot of the green here is valerian, that favored food plant of the Baltimore checkerspot. The purple is the native, common New England aster. Okay, some common plants live here too. 
Kalm's lobelia, a fen specialist, named for Peter Kalm, sent to North America from Sweden by Linnaeus to catalog the plants of the new world. This beauty was special enough to name after Peter. 
This is the fen fringed gentian, showing its unusual petals, with the fringes at the base of the petals, instead of at the ends, as in the commoner fringed gentian species.

But what's important about this photo is that those drying seeds transition us from the part of this post where we consider needs, opportunities, and the future. 

October 17th was the kick-off event that introduced the Fen in person to potential stewards. Being a steward is an honor, a privilege, a joy, and a certain amount of work. Doing meaningful work in a team of like-minded people can be a pleasure. 

The photo below was taken in the center of the buckthorn patch that overhangs and shades out part of one of the hanging fens ... and extends back into the former prairie. A glacial boulder will one day stand again in prairie instead of brush.

The photo below shows the brush at the edge of the fen. It should not be there. During the kick off we started cutting it back and burned it in a bonfire. Later we will plant fen seeds where the brush had killed all.
About 40 people worked together to help restore this living treasure? (See Endnote 2.)

This last Fen photo shows a little slice of what needs to expand - to be sustainable and support larger numbers of the fen animals. 
We didn't get out to the Fen enough this summer to confirm the presence of the Baltimore checkerspot butterfly (shown below, mating, from another site). This rare butterfly has been recorded at Kishwaukee Fen. Its tiny caterpillars utterly depend, in their first year of life, on turtlehead - a wildflower present at the Fen in small numbers. With burns and invasives control, the turtleheads will likely increase, and the checkerspots may become common here. We hope. Time will tell. 
Mating butterflies (along with seeds waiting to be gathered) represent a future that the Fen feels and hopes for in all its diverse genes. 

As soon as more Kishwaukee Fen restoration events are scheduled (in a week or two?) check this blog and the Friends website. 


Endnote 1
Who are the people who came together to plan a rescue of this worthy remnant of rare nature?

Rebeccah Hartz is a steward at Somme Woods and Friends leader who is volunteering as "point person" for organizing the Kishwaukee Fen kick-off.

John Nelson is a field rep for the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission. He's now in charge of all northern counties, that is couple of hundred preserves, so you can understand why he can't come to Kish Fen all that often. 

Steve Byers is the recently retired field rep for the Commission. In the past he has burned Kish Fen and given it what attention time allowed.

Amy Doll is director of the new Friends of Illinois Nature Preserves. She is working to find more resources and constituency to our state's more than 600 Nature Preserves, the number of which, thankfully, is increasing. But the insanely slim stewardship budget for them is not. Perhaps that will soon change, but "enough" funding to stop the deterioration is a very long reach away. 

Will Overbeck is a botanist who volunteered to do the most recent plant survey of the Fen. He has worked for the Morton Arboretum and in a wide variety of consulting positions.  

Megan Oropeza is an ecologist with The Land Conservancy of McHenry County

Eriko Kojima, professionally, is a Japanese-English interpreter. But she spends the Lion's share of her time volunteering for the Friends and at the Somme preserves. 

Stephen Packard writes this blog and helps out with many noble stewards communities.

Endnote 2
Who else is helping (in a variety of larger and smaller ways) with this kick-off?

The Village of Lakewood, which owns this Nature Preserve, is a partner in this kick-off. Village Manager, Jean Heckman and Village President, David Stavroupoulos have been supportive in the planning for the kick-off for this new stewards community. 

Kevin Scheiwiller of Citizens For Conservation (CFC), which will donate rare local prairie seed to start restoring quality to the upland prairie areas. CFC can give us larger amounts of seed if we help them gather it at a seed gathering workday

Marla Garrison, professor, McHenry County College

Dennis Dreher, steward, Boloria Fen

Lorna Gladstone, steward and owner, Gladstone Fen

Bonus Endnote 
Oh, and finally, the answer to one Frequently Asked Question: "If this is and Illinois Nature Preserves, why has it been deteriorating so gruesomely??" In fact, why isn't every acre of all 600 Nature Preserves rapidly recovering biodiversity to the fullest of its potential???

Part of the answer is that caring for nature in the modern world is more challenging than people had expected. Another part is that the vision and ambition of Illinois' model Nature Preserve System is so high ... in comparison with taxpayer and elected rep understanding. There's not remotely enough funding or staff to care for these areas without generous volunteers. There's more answer in a related but different kind of kick-off blog post. 

See also: "Who should design and replace these signs?" below.


Fen diagram from Kost and Hyde. 2009. Exploring the Prairie Fen Wetlands of Michigan

Photo credit for Baltimore checkerspot chrysalis goes to Sara Bright.

Photo credit for Baltimore checkerspots mating: Barbara Spencer.

Photo credits for Kish Fen photos, below, to Amy Doll and Rebeccah Hartz.

Photo credit and thanks for the Internet grass-of-Parnassus photo to D. Chayka, turtlehead to Peter Dziuk, and bee's butt to Mary Holland with Naturally Curious.   

Thanks for proofing and edits to Christos Economou, Amy Doll, and Eriko Kojima. 

Bonus Photos!

Friends of Illinois Nature Preserves director Amy Doll recently sent me some compelling shots she and Rebeccah Hartz took this summer. They evoke interesting stories. 

The first one (below) is the champ. I labeled it "squashed". The foreground shows solid, malignant reed canary grass (RCG). The vegetation that the RCG has wiped out here likely includes turtlehead and other species of moist prairie. Above it (not especially visible here) is the hanging fen. It's hidden by aggressive species like cat-tail and sawtooth sunflower, that survive and increase at the edge of the RCG. (Amy took a photo of the hanging fen itself, which comes next in this post.) But in the photo below, the invisible hanging fen is squashed between the RCG and a wall of buckthorn and other invading woody plants. This was a prairie fen, surrounded by prairie. Oh, how happy the fen will be to expand and recover when the RCG and buckthorn are pushed back and the fen can recover. (This not-quite-visible-in-this-photo hanging fen, one of three in this preserve, is about twenty feet wide and runs down the slope for perhaps 30 or 40 feet.)

The next photo shows the hanging fen, close up. The white flower is the rare grass of Parnassus. More about this photo, below. 

One of the many open "seeps" is on the upper right, and the yellow buds of the rare fen goldenrod (Solidago ohioensis) are on the upper left. It's not easy to take excellent wildflower photos. To illustrate, below is Amy's close-up photo of grass of Parnassus.

Then comes a photo of this same species from a more expert photographer:
I'm trying to make a couple of points here. 1) Skill, practice, and learning are needed to take excellent photos of rare biodiversity. 2) We need such photos to convey to the wider citizen public how precious and special these places are, but at times, if they're not careful, photographers do more harm than good. For more on this, see "Three Pleas to Photographers" below. 

The above photo shows one of the raised fens, in the foreground. A hanging fen is visible on the slope behind it. The trees and brush that have shaded out some of the hanging fens and most of the former prairie are on the horizon. That brush is one of our first priorities as the new "friends" community here organizes stewardship work this fall.

This is an important photo, because it evokes some of the history and challenge. Should the main sign really say "No Dumping and Do Not Enter"? Should not the main sign indicate that this is a precious and important place? Is the Fen really protected by the Federal Government? I strongly suspect that no "Feds" have been here (and perhaps will never come) since it was dedicated as an Illinois Nature Preserve in 1993. Yes, there may be some legal complexity that could come into play if there were some groundwater threat, or ... actually I can't imagine any federal protection in any form. What this fen needs and wants will likely mostly come from us. There should be legal access. There should be a trail constructed that would allow visitors to marvel at and enjoy this splendid place, without damaging it. 

Here's another signpost and what's left of the sign. Perhaps it was hit by an errant golf ball. Red Tail Golf Course is south of the Fen, and one of our little jobs will be to weed the golf balls out of adjacent vegetation. But as to the signage, it should indicate that this treasure is protected by the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission and the Village of Lakewood, which owns it. 

Who should design and replace these signs? Should it be the staff of the Nature Preserves Commission, with one person having responsibility for about one hundred such preserves? Should it be the Village of Lakewood, which has no nature preserve staff and a great many other pressing demands? 

No. We, the volunteer friends of nature preserves, should do it - in cooperation with and approval from those strapped government bodies. The Illinois Nature Preserves System was visionary in the foresight that governments would not for the foreseeable future have the needed resources to provide all of what these preserves (and the public who appreciate them) deserve. The Friends of Illinois Nature Preserves are increasingly thrilled and energized by the great people with diverse skills and interests who rise to this mission. The "Kish Fen Kick-off" was another step forward. 

One final flower photograph:
This is turtlehead, the plant that the Baltimore checkerspot butterfly depends on. Peter Dziuk snapped a fine photo of it, which we found on the Internet. See below. 

Four Pleas to Photographers 

1. First, do no harm. There's something seriously wrong with a photograph made while badly trampling a tiny very-high-quality remnant ecosystem. 

2. If you're a beginner, don't try to learn photography in a sensitive natural area, unless you can to do it from a secure trail. With restoration, maybe someday it will be okay for photographers to roll around big restored areas like buffalos.

3. Especially in the saturated peat soils of a fen, trampling can gradually turn a delicate natural community into mud and death. If you're sinking down into peat, please don't go there. If someone has to go there, to treat an invading loosestrife or reed canary, perhaps that person can take a photo while they're there. Maybe we can develop some sort of trail surface that will work in fens (and not burn up, like a boardwalk). 
4. The Internet has more than enough beautiful close-up flower portraits. Take more if you want, but don't do damage to get another one. What conservation does very much need most is images that convey the qualities and richness of high-quality nature. That's hard. The little surviving remnants are so precious - and so little understood. Photos that help capture the relationships and complexities can be important to conservation. Please share them.

And one final-final irresistible shot of a bee's butt - while in the act of helping the fen (photo thanks to Mary Holland of Naturally Curious):

The bumblebee pollinates a turtlehead flower. Those bulging orange things are collected pollen, brought back to the nest for food, but in the process fertilizing the next generation of turtleheads. 

The fen needs more turtleheads because first-year checkerspot caterpillars survive only be eating  turtlehead leaves. (In their second year, they can eat nearby valerian and some other species.)

The human being is the only species that can save all this. 

Look for more Kishwaukee Fen news and plans soon on this blog and at the Friends website. 

Saturday, September 18, 2021

Four Nature Dates

Three “Kick-Offs” and a Celebration
Who should come to the kick-offs? 
- Any person who would like to help launch an important new conservation initiative and explore the possibility of becoming a natural area citizen steward. 
- Any experienced natural area stewards who would like to help mentor a new generation, even if you are already too committed to other sites to be in for the long haul.
If you know any potential future "citizen stewards" who live near any of the kick-off sites, please let them know.
Four Illinois Nature Preserves have big events planned in October. 
October 2nd – Shaw Woods and Prairie Kick-off (Lake Forest)
October 9th – Fults Hill Prairie – 50th Anniversary Celebration
(Monroe County)
October 17th – Kishwaukee Fen Kick-off (Village of Lakewood)
October 23rd Old Plank Road Prairies Kick-off (Matteson)
The kick-offs are building on the knowledge and successes discovered while launching stewardship communities at Poplar Creek, Orland Grassland, Nachusa, Somme, and many other nature preserves – that now are maintained and restored with strong support of stewardship communities consisting of dedicated “work-learn-and-lead” citizen stewards. 
October 2, 2021
THE NEIGHBORHOOD: Lake Forest, Lincolnshire, Libertyville, Highland Park, Lake Bluff, Metawa.
THE PLACE: Shaw Woodland and Prairie in Skokie River Nature Preserve
WHAT’S SPECIAL: One of the two most important prairies surviving in the greater Chicago region needs your help. 

- Burn crew members are needed. We will train. 
- Major parts of the prairie are now under thick brush. Removing that brush will launch a miracle of recovery. A careful brush control team will be trained and empowered. 
- Seeds of the rare plants need to be spread where brush killed them. Learning seeds is fun and rewarding.

The remnants survive here thanks to decades of determined effort by Lake Forest Open Lands Association. 
If you’re the right person, any or all of these adventurous tasks very much need you. 
October 9, 2021
THE NEIGHBORHOOD: Belleville, Valmeyer, Prairie du Rocher, and “sort of in the neighborhood of” Carbondale and East St. Louis. 

THE PLACE: Fults Hill Prairie Nature Preserve 50th Anniversary Celebration
WHAT’S SPECIAL: One of the most dramatic and ecologically important sites in southern Illinois – a 528-acre preserve with a complex of rare hill prairies and limestone glades as well as a large block of woods. It had lost more than 30% of its area between 1962 and 1998. Heritage Biologist Phil Borsdorf reports $100,000 of contract restoration there and 3 large burns in the last 3 years. “It actually looks the best it's looked since my 25 years here,” says the Nature Preserves’ Debbie Newman. 
One of the many dramatic parts of the Fults Hill Prairie Nature Preserve complex.
Photo courtesy of Michael Jeffords and Susan Post
October 17, 2021
THE NEIGHBORHOOD: Lakewood, Bull Valley, Huntley, Crystal Lake, Algonquin and Woodstock
THE PLACE: Kishwaukee Fen Nature Preserve
WHAT’S SPECIAL: A splendid high-quality fen, prairie, and wetland system that’s been “preserved” but has lacked the attention it deserves to thrive and be appreciated. Since its discovery by John Rogner, Jerry Wilhelm, and others in 1992 and its subsequent protection, the site has remained an "orphan" site little noticed by the surrounding community. In some places groundwater emerges, forming three “hanging fens” that support endangered plants and rare butterflies, as they release streams of pure water down flowery slopes. Crystalline “tufa” rock forms around the edges of the seeps. The emerging groundwater flows downhill, coalescing into spring runs, through wet prairie and sedge meadow before joining a headwater of the Kishwaukee River. Two “raised fens” maintain similar rarities while surrounded by still thriving wet prairie and sedge meadow. The especially intact groundwater hydrology, consisting of high quality and lime-laden spring water, has helped maintain the floristic integrity of the site. But invasive chaos has been closing in. Much of the preserve is now brush or invasive reed canary grass. New stewards will learn to cut brush, burn, and gather rare seed; they'll be rewarded by healthy recovery of a beautiful ecosystem. 
Photo above shows hanging fen and seep with endangered plants and huge buckthorn.
Nearby, brush threatens to cover all. 
October 23, 2021
THE NEIGHBORHOOD: Matteson, Rich Township, Mokena, Tinley Park, Homewood, Frankfort
THE PLACE: Old Plank Road Prairie Nature Preserve
WHAT’S SPECIAL: These were said to be the finest black-soil prairies in the state. A historic early plank road/then railroad was divided up among local governments and made into a bike trail with prairie nature preserves on both sides. But these treasures needed care that was beyond the capacity of the busy local officials who were nominally the caretakers. In theory, the Illinois Nature Preserves System would find ways to assure care, but it didn’t happen. In the absence of fire and other stewardship - teasel, crown vetch, buckthorn and other evils ran amok. Nature Preserves field rep Kim Roman provided what support she could. But she is responsible for 72 preserves.  The Orland Grassland Volunteers have 960 acres to restore. They have heroically taken time out to reverse the Plank Road disaster, and recently the Friends have too. But the Plank Road Prairies need their own stewards group.  
For years, there were no burns. Recently, "pick-up" teams have burned when they could.
A bigger team and more regular care are needed. 
Photo by Shane Tripp

Who should come to these events?
Everyone who lives nearby should celebrate Fults. 
As for the kick-offs, please think about it: these events are for people who might want to work to restore the nature there. You don’t necessarily make a commitment by showing up. But they’re not for people who just want to learn about nature. We’ll have such general events in the future, as we recruit and build support for these and other sites. But these kick-off events are a first step in offering “the privilege of stewardship” to people who’d consider cutting brush, pulling weeds, gathering seeds, and saving the nature of these needy preserves. If you want, the work sessions also include "field seminars" - at the college or grad school level - on ecosystem function and restoration. Many people learn to lead. Others just appreciate the opportunity to contribute, working with like-minded Friends. If you, or anyone you know, might be up for at least checking out this kind of mission, please spread the word.
Hope to see you there. 


Thanks for proofing, edits, and info to John Nelson, Steve Byers, Debbie Newman, Phil Borsdorf, Amy Doll, Eriko Kojima, and Christos Economou. 

Friday, September 17, 2021

The Diversity and Promise of Shaw Woods, Savanna, and Prairie

This photo essay describes an incomparable 134-acre Illinois Nature Preserve...
... that is calling out for help.
There may be no other place in the region where a very high-quality prairie thrives close to fine remnant (easily restorable and connectable) oak woodland and savanna. That’s richness. 
These three remnant ecosystems comprise a gem of the region – and a gem worthy of more friends. Thus, we’re planning the kick-off of a new initiative on October 2nd. 
The moment
Most of our finest prairies are deteriorating or barely holding their own. How important is Shaw? Highly respected ecologist Marlin Bowles, then of the Morton Arboretum, evaluated all the region’s prairies, with a grant from Chicago Wilderness a few years back. In Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan most prairie had deteriorated because of insufficient care. Bowles found that Shaw and Somme were the two best classic prairies in the region. Yet both need more and better care, and both are starting to get it. (See Endnote 1: History and References)
This post will try to tell the stories of Shaw through photos.
Our first photo, if you understand it, evokes the first strains of scary music in a horror show:
That woody arch is invading the best prairie. Before long, ecologically speaking, woody shade could kill all.
But below is the real horror:
Brush, some dense, now stretches off for acres. High quality prairie survives in the dark clutches of prairie-killing woody plants. There is much Grade A prairie under the brush – and even more restorable Grade A. If all were dead, the horror would be over. No, the strangulation is in process. The irreplaceable remnant prairie is gasping for light. As a reminder, here’s how the best recovering parts will look next spring:
The richness of the vegetation here indicates the survival of much other rare biota (fungi, invertebrate animals, etc.). Diverse, rare, conservative plants fill every square foot, with displays changing every week or two from spring and summer through fall. A priceless treasure. Irreplaceable. Our top priority, defeat the brush without harming the living treasure beneath. It takes many dedicated hands and minds, but it can be done.
Early vision
Initial credit for saving this preserve goes to architect Howard Van Doren Shaw (1869-1926). Few noticed back then. He did. For a while The Nature Conservancy owned parts of it but wisely turned them over to the local Lake Forest Open Lands Association (Open Lands).   

Great credit also goes to the Open Lands’ team; they’ve surpassed most conservation land managers, which is why this prairie still rates so high. But we’re rapidly learning that nature needs more care than we thought. "It takes a village,” or at least “a community” to provide the ongoing, dedicated, thoughtful care that an ecosystem of this quality needs and deserves.
So, this summer, Open Lands got together with the Friends (Friends of Illinois Nature Preserves) and launched a new chapter in this history.
Some History

Decades ago, kids used to burn this remnant every year at Halloween. It was a neighborhood tradition. The best prairie is surrounded by water and normally un-burnable buckthorn, so the kids got away with it, to the lasting benefit of the ecosystem. 

The very-high quality area is said not to have been grazed much by horses or cattle, perhaps because of the wetlands surrounding it. Eastern parts of the prairie were lightly grazed, but many species (including the normally grazing-sensitive purple prairie clover) survive there and can be supplemented with seeds gathered nearby. 

The Plan
Well, there is no plan. Sure, there’s a framework, and there are ambitions. But the real on-the-ground plan will be made in cooperation with the people who adopt this place and demonstrate how much we can aspire to.
Prairie does not survive too close to trees. The map below shows the approximately 15 acres that could most quickly be restored to high quality. Some of the larger ecosystem is owned by supportive neighbors in adjacent houses. But these central 15 acres are owned by Open Lands, who are great partners and eager for us all to get started here.
In the larger context, below, you see the prairie on the right, Shaw Woods to the west, and the remnant savanna (McLaughlin Meadow) to the south of the woods. To knit this complex healthily back together 
will take a great many skills and dedications: seeds, loppers, chain saws, cages to protect rare plants until there are enough to reproduce and stand on their own, controlled burns, and monitoring of plants, birds, butterflies and others, so we can learn and improve our stewardship. 
Why do prairies, oak woods, and savannas need (and deserve) so much care?
Biodiversity can be restored sustainably. But, left alone, in these times, it’s challenged by altered hydrologies, climate, fragmentation, invasive species, and more. Decades ago, we conservationists were lulled into misjudgment by our rush to preserve the last of nature before it was gone … coupled with the nearly religious belief that, if left alone, nature ought to be able to take care of itself. Now we’re learning better, bit by bit.
Consider the savanna remnant here, blandly called McLaughlin Meadow. Decades ago it was thought of as not quite so good a prairie as Shaw. That was wrong. Yes, it has suffered more degradation, but it’s not a prairie.
Many species, as in the photo below, reveal its true nature. 
The yellow stargrass might be found in a prairie, but the white grove sandwort is more typically savanna. McLaughlin has scattered bur and scarlet oaks along with large amounts of such savanna shrubs as New Jersey tea and meadowsweet. It boasts such herb species as:
Arenaria lateriflora – grove sandwort
Asclepias purpurascens – purple milkweed
Baptisia leucantha – white false indigo
Carex pensylvanica – Penn sedge
Gentiana flavida – cream gentian
Lathyrus venosus – veiny pea
Luzula multiflora – wood rush
Vicia americana – purple vetch
… none of which are in the Grade A Shaw prairie, and all indicate savanna rather than prairie origins. 
The superficially attractive view below is more typical. The plants in bloom are New England aster and sawtooth sunflower, both fine plants in their ways, but their ways are as increasers after some degradation. Most of the rest of what’s visible is brush.
As high quality black-soil savannas are even rarer than prairies, this rich but battered remnant deserves to be as hallowed as Shaw Prairie. Its recovery potential for savanna birds and butterflies is especially high, as all those “edge” woods and thickets that surround Shaw Prairie harbor many savanna species (and recovery potential). The edges we will always have with us. Let’s help them be all they can be. (Every time we go there we pull some garlic mustard, on rock above, or some other invasive. With an expanded crew, they can be history.) 
The photo below shows woodland seeds, in this case blue cohosh, begging to be gathered and broadcast into receptive ground. Shaw woods is a patchwork of rich remnants intermixed with large areas of thuggish species that choke out quality (including alien honeysuckle and bittersweet, and buckthorn along with equally problematic briars and tall goldenrod). More fire and seed are needed. 

Shaw Woods has the potential to be of dazzlingly high quality. Like many woods, the spring flora survives with thick beds of trilliums and yellow violets. But unlike most woods these days, Open Lands has kept this grove of bur and white oaks sunny enough for survival of the summer and fall flora. It features such species as:
Amelanchier arborea – Juneberry
Aralia nudicaulis – sarsaparilla
Brachyelytrum erectum – long-awned wood grass
Carex grayi – bur sedge
Cirsium altissimum – woodland thistle
Corylus americana – hazelnut
Hylodesmum glutinosum – pointed tick-trefoil
Solidago caesia – blue-stemmed goldenrod

The little fragment of good woodland has these plus a long list of other fine woodland species. And there's a great deal of adjacent degraded woods that this quality could expand into.
Now Come the Stewards
Seeking nimble fingers, eager minds, lovers of learning, strong backs, plant ID skills, dedication to a brighter future for people and nature (not everyone needs to have everything): both Open Lands and the Friends hope the stewards community forming here will be a training ground and inspiration for similar initiatives at other needy sites. (Essentially all preserves are needy).  
Here, Emma Leavens and Eriko Kojima gather seeds as they prep for 
October 2nd.

If you’re too busy elsewhere but have the ability to help lead and provide momentum in the early stages of this effort, please help! If you’re perhaps a beginner, but might be sufficiently curious to try working with this new team for a while, please help!
In early September, azure aster blooms and other fall species start to swell their buds.

Next spring, in the same area, scarlet painted cup, hoary puccoon, and bastard toadflax will kick off another season. And with our good efforts, they and all the world will thrive increasingly, on into the future. 

Endnote 1. History and references
Among ecologists, “prairie” refers to the classic ecosystem on rich soils. “Sand prairie” is much less rare and much better represented in preserve systems. The contrast is even greater between rich-soil savannas and woodlands compared to sand savanna and sand woodland. Many species of rich soil ecosystems are not represented in the commoner sand preserves. The classic ecosystem that made the Midwest so rich and important to the world's food supply was our black soil prairie. Preserved genes from rich-soil preserves may be invaluable to the future of agriculture. 
When Marlin Bowles told me (SP) that the Somme and Shaw Prairies represented the best surviving eastern tallgrass prairies that he knew, I started spreading the word. Not to take away from the many other fine and needy preserves, I wanted to be especially sure that we took good care of these two.  
Shaw is quite different from Somme. The mesic (average moisture) parts of Somme are thick with cream false indigo, prairie lily, and prairie gentian. Shaw has none. Somme had no prairie clover or scarlet painted cup (until the latter was restored with seeds from Shaw). Some of the differences certainly reflect the stresses the two sites have endured. Overall, the wetter components seem to have survived better at Shaw and the drier at Somme. But both have great remnants of both. Neither have high quality dry or dry-mesic prairie. 
The official Nature Preserve description of Shaw can be found at:
Two good references are:
Bowles, Marlin L. and Michael D. Jones, Repeated burning of eastern tallgrass prairie increases richness and diversity, stabilizing late successional vegetation. Ecological Applications, 2013.
Bushey, Charles L. and Robbin C. Moran, Vascular Flora of Shaw Prairie, Lake County, Illinois. Transactions, Illinois State Academy of Sciences, 1978.

A request for photographers
Do you have better photos of Shaw? They could help build this intiative. Photos from other seasons? Birds or butterflies or other biota? Please send them to us at the Friends.

Thanks for edits and suggestions to Eriko Kojima.