Illinois was once blanketed with abundant grasslands where bison, badgers and songbirds lived among the prairie plants. But after two centuries of farming and development, little remains of this famed "sea of grass."
However, at the Nachusa Grasslands Preserve, prairie now stretches as far as the eye can see and visitors can simultaneously take a step back in time and view the future of conservation in the Prairie State.
From the start, Nachusa existed because of people who care for this land. In the 1980s, volunteer prairie enthusiasts told The Nature Conservancy's scientists about a tract of former farmland nearly 100 miles west of Chicago, near rural Franklin Grove, Illinois. All saw the potential in the many remnant prairies and woodlands nestled among corn fields.
Thanks to decades of stewardship and devoted volunteers who have meticulously reconstructed its native habitats, Nachusa now resembles the rich grassland of earlier ages. Rare animals and birds — such as bison, Blanding's turtles, bobolinks and Henslow's sparrows — are found alongside one of the state's largest populations of federally-threatened prairie bush clover.
The achievements have not come easily. According to Nachusa Project Director, Bill Kleiman, conservation and restoration are, by their very nature, slow and steady.
"Our staff is part of the community, meeting landowners and talking with local people, doing what the Conservancy does best. We identify a tract, find the funds to purchase it, move on to the next tract, and keep doing that for years," he says. "We also have to take a blank slate like these agricultural fields and turn them into a diverse community of native grasses, flowers and animals, which requires countless hours of detailed work. Persistence and patience are probably our most important tools."
Habitat restoration is as much art as science, and the notion of bringing a landscape back to a former state is still a new one. Methods used at Nachusa Grasslands, including prescribed fire, serve as a much-needed model for Conservancy projects in other regions. In fact, a 2007 conservation peer review proclaimed, "The restoration approach and techniques… are outstanding. In terms of large-scale, high-diversity sites, no one is getting better results."
Nachusa serves many other important roles, including one as a resource for the Dixon National Tallgrass Prairie Seed Bank, at the Chicago Botanic Garden. It collects and stores the seeds of tallgrass prairie region flora and is part of the global Millennium Seed Bank organized by the Royal Botanic Gardens. Nachusa is considered an exemplary source of seeds which may one day be the foundation of restoration efforts in other preserves around the world.
Today, the preserve extends more than 3,500 acres. "For Illinois, this is conservation at an enormous scale," states Kleiman. But restoration efforts take place at an extremely micro level.
"Our volunteers might spend all day on their hands and knees, on a single plot of land, collecting mere handfuls of seeds. We'll use those seeds to plant another small section of land. Then we monitor that section, again on our hands and knees, for invasive weeds. For us, habitat restoration is synonymous with sustained stewardship and a committed volunteer crew." Staff and volunteers hand collect about 5,000 pounds of seed each year, representing more than 200 species and with a value of at least $150,000.
Even as the restoration efforts take hold, the preserve confronts the combined threats of development, invasive species and a need to be resilient in the face of future changes.
"We now know that it's not realistic to think that even very healthy natural areas can sustain themselves without lots of labor. We have to be on the land every day, and that need will continue," says Kleiman. Management requires weed eradication, seed harvesting, prescribed fire, planting and replanting of native species and a consistent source of funding. The staff and volunteers who undertake these tasks consider them both stewardship and a true legacy.
While the project began with small but high-quality remnants surviving among row crops, after two decades it now comprises a diverse, bountiful mosaic of species that grows more robust with each passing year.
What might Nachusa Grasslands Preserve look like in another 20 years? Expect to see more land protected, more volunteers caring for its plant and animal inhabitants, more children wandering its trails, more university students researching its dynamics and more adults using and appreciating its resources. At the Conservancy, the definition of successful habitat restoration is this: a vibrant landscape that is deeply entwined with the lives of the people who love it.