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Nachusa Grasslands

25 Years of Transformation

A Story of Transformation

Images of Nachusa throughout its 25 years show the preserve's transformation to what it is today and the people who helped make it happen.

Looking Toward The Next 25 Years

Here’s a look at what staff has in store for the future of Nachusa:

  • Continued improvement of the habitat through weed management, seed collection and prescribed fire
  • Acquire more land
  • Possibly reintroduce a grazer, such as bison
  • Eventually reintroduce prairie chicken
  • Possibly have Nachusa become an ecological research site for tallgrass prairie restoration

Vast stretches of grasslands once covered Illinois, providing natural habitat for various wildlife. In 1840, Eliza Steele described the prairielands of Illinois as “a world of grass and flowers… animated with myriads of glittering birds and butterflies.”

However, the fertile soil of Illinois made for rich farmland, and the prairies were plowed. Very little of the prairielands remained, except for those that were too rocky or too wet to farm. Much of the land in and around The Nature Conservancy’s Nachusa Grasslands Preserve was such, too rocky and wet, and these remnant prairie habitats were spared.

In 1986, the Conservancy acquired 400 acres of these small prairie remnants interspersed with corn fields. These lands desperately needed natural areas management. Nachusa’s Preserve Manager Bill Kleiman recalls, “When Nachusa first started out, the prairie remnants were dingy, brush filled, bisected by fences and fence row trees. Some of the prairies were so heavily grazed they looked like lawns with thorn bushes for cattle shade.”

Fortunately, prairie enthusiasts saw great potential in the land that is now Nachusa. As volunteer John Heneghan said, “We felt we had found a place we could do something positive for the environment.”

Now in its 25th year, Nachusa extends nearly 3,000 acres and is home to a total of 700 native plant species and 180 species of birds. Nachusa has Illinois’ largest populations of federally-threatened prairie bush clover and is also home to rare animals such as Blanding’s turtles, bobolinks and Henslow’s sparrows.

“Few restoration projects have been able to create high diversity habitat restorations,” Kleiman said. “Nachusa has been noted for getting this done.”

Throughout these 25 years, it is more than Nachusa’s land that has seen an incredible transformation. These restoration efforts have helped transform the lives of the volunteers as well.

“When we first started volunteering at Nachusa, we knew nothing about prairie species or restoration techniques,” says Mary Meier, who has volunteered with her husband since 2002. “Tending the prairie remnants and restorations is challenging, but even weeding can be gratifying when we survey an area free of invasives after a long day of cutting and clearing. But our best reward comes from seeing an abundance of prairie species flourishing under our care.”

With exemplary weed management, seed collection, prescribed fire and volunteer recruitment, Nachusa serves as a model for future restoration efforts at other preserves. The volunteers and staff have made Nachusa into what it is today, and they have plans to continue and expand their efforts.

Cody Considine, a conservation staff member at Nachusa, said it is critical for the staff and volunteers to continue managing and improving the current habitat through weed management, seed collection and prescribed fire to ensure these rare ecosystems grow and stay healthy. With continued restoration and land acquisition, Cody is hopeful they will also be able to reintroduce animals such as bison and prairie chicken.

“Nachusa has been recognized to be one of the top two best places in Illinois for the reintroduction of the greater prairie chicken,” Cody said. “If we continue to protect and restore more high quality grassland habitat, the prairie chicken may become a reality at Nachusa Grasslands.”

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