Monarch caterpillar eating a plant leaf.
Monarch caterpillar Monarch caterpillar © Brett Whaley/USFWS

Stories in Illinois

5 Little Things That Made a Big Difference for Nature

From plants to pollinators, we're celebrating the little things that led to conservation successes this year.

Throughout the year, supporters like you are helping us tackle the greatest threats to people and nature, from climate change to habitat loss. We’re proud of the advancements we’re making on these big issues. Conservation progress requires hard work and perseverance, and oftentimes it’s the little things and the small steps forward that help us achieve our larger goals. 

Every seedling planted in a restoration project helps clean the air we breathe and the water we drink. Each invasive species removed from a natural area by a volunteer helps rare wildlife return. Each monitoring project conducted by researchers helps us understand how people and nature can thrive together.

Here are five of the little things in Illinois that made a big difference for our lands and waters in 2019.

Rusty patch bumble bee
Rusty patch bumble bee Bombus affinis © USGS

Un-bee-lieveable Species Spotted at Nachusa Grasslands

This summer, researchers found something special at Nachusa Grasslands: a rusty patch bumble bee. This federally- and state-endangered pollinator once buzzed its way across 28 states, but is now hard to come by as a result of habitat loss, disease, a changing climate and other factors. The appearance of a rusty patch bumble bee at Nachusa shows that the restoration efforts by staff and volunteer are working, and that Nachusa’s habitats are thriving and providing a haven for creatures great and small.

The bigger picture: They might be tiny, but bumble bees are a keystone species that helps wildflowers reproduce, which in turn provides seed and fruits for other species. They also pollinate crops that honey bees can’t, such as tomatoes, which means that we rely on them for much of the food we eat.  



Arzenville Hill Prairie Restoration In this video created by USFWS, you can see before and after shots of the Arzenville Hill Prairie restoration project, as well as the bird and pollinator species that have returned to the site.

Conservation Partners Rebuilt a Hilltop Prairie

Once upon a time, much of Illinois was blanketed in golden prairie grasses and colorful native wildflowers that stretched as far as the eye could see. Today, less than one tenth of one percent of that habitat remains—so every acre counts. This summer, TNC and partner organizations (the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Illinois Chapter of Pheasants Forever, Illinois Chapter of Quail Forever, and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)  joined forces to protect Arzenville Hill Prairie, a 50-acre natural area. Conservation staff worked with private landowners to remove invasive species like honeysuckle and Russian olive that had outcompeted native plants and wildflowers. They also reintroduced prescribed fire for the first time in many years. Watch the video above to see before and after shots of the project.

The bigger picture:
Today, these 50 acres are bustling with the arrival of bees, birds and butterflies, which means the area is supporting species whose numbers have been on the decline.  Restoring prairie habitat not only helps pollinators, grassland birds and other wildlife thrive, but it helps people by cleaning the air we breathe and the water we drink and removing carbon from the air.

Orange fringed orchids in a savanna.
Orange fringed orchids return to Kankakee Sands. © Rob Littiken

Restoration Revived a Rare Orchid

About 20 years ago, TNC found the first few orange fringed orchids at Kankakee Sands. The natural area where they were spotted was being taken over by woody species, which were shading out the orchids. Over the past 15 years, conservation staff have been working to protect this rare species by slowly thinning out the short, woody plants with mowing, which has opened up the area and let sunlight down to the ground. The orchids were there all along, just waiting for the light to make their comeback. What was once a handful of plants is now almost 1,400, making it the largest and only viable population in the state.

The bigger picture: Oak savannas like those found at Kankakee Sands once covered about 27 to 32 million acres of the Midwest. By 1985, only 113 sites remained. This makes the habitat at Kankakee Sands globally significant, and it is among the only places where rare species like the orange fringed orchid can thrive.

Two children in a Chicago community garden.
Community gardens across Chicago provide places to connect with nature. © Emanuel Love

An Urban Garden Inspired Community Planning

Across Chicago, community gardens are small but mighty. They are home to colorful flowers and bumper crops of tomatoes, zucchini, strawberries and other fruits and veggies that help feed local communities. Residents of Marshall Square toured places like this over the summer, as they envisioned how and where they want to incorporate more nature in their own neighborhood. TNC worked with Latinos Progresando to help facilitate these tours.

The bigger picture: By 2050, two-thirds of the world’s population will reside in cities. These growing urban areas will need access to food, fresh water and fuel, putting increased pressure on our natural resources. Climate change adds additional stress, but reintroducing nature into our cities is one way to ensure their resiliency in the future. Small green spaces, from Nichols Wildflower Meadow to West Pullman Savanna to community gardens in Marshall Square, all play an important role in the greening process.

A volunteer holds a native plant during a conservation work day.
Planting native species provides habitat and helps clean the air we breathe and the water we drink © Sandy Bressner

Small Donations Added Up for “Our World”

The Nature Conservancy launched the Our World fundraising campaign in 2015 to address the most pressing conservation issues for nature and people: land, water, cities and climate. The Illinois chapter will raise $110 million for this effort by Earth Day 2020 and with the support of generous donors like you, we have raised 90 percent of that goal. Thanks to donations of all sizes, we are well on our way to raising the last 10 percent. We are especially grateful for how quickly small donations of $5, $10 and $15 are adding up to make a big impact for nature.

The bigger picture: The Illinois chapter’s contributions are part of a global, $7-billion campaign that confronts the greatest conservation challenges of our time head on. Learn more at


Help protect the little things that give so much to nature and people!