Illinois - Indiana

Kankakee Sands: A Brief History

In 1996, The Nature Conservancy purchased 7,200 acres of agricultural land in Newton County from Prudential Insurance.

Why did we do it? 

It may be hard to believe now, but until the beginning of the 20th century, the Kankakee River fed the largest inland marsh in North America. Prior to European settlement, the borderlands between Illinois and Indiana supported an estimated 400,000 to 1 million acres of swamps, savannas, prairies and forests known as the Grand Kankakee Marsh.  

But the arrival of settlers drastically changed the landscape to the detriment of fish and wildlife. Beaver Lake, which covered a significant area in what is today our Kankakee Sands Preserve, was drained over several decades at the end of the 1800s. The land that emerged after the draining was grazed by cattle and then was farmed with row crops in later decades.  And by 1917, the Kankakee River was ditched and straightened on the Indiana site, and the marsh itself ceased to exist.  

While the marsh is gone, remnant landscapes survive with high potential for restoration and conservation. So in 1996, The Nature Conservancy purchased 7,200 acres of agricultural land in central Newton County from a single owner, Prudential Insurance/Bank. The goal was to preserve the unique habitats that still thrived, and restore the land back to its original state as much as possible.

Active restoration began in 1997 by planting 200 acres with seeds of native grasses and wildflowers. Each year since then, additional acres are taken out of farming following the fall harvest. In 2000, the Illinois side of the preserve came online with the purchase of the Tallmadge Sand Forest Land and Water Reserve in June.

Along with sowing seeds, restoration efforts include monitoring and removing undesirable plants that are not native and invasive. These plants can take over an area and decrease the biodiversity and health of an area. Our staff and volunteers reduce the impact of invasive plants by pulling, mowing, herbiciding, grazing and prescribed fire.

Because wildfires are a natural and healthy part of grassland and barrens ecosystems, prescribed burning is carried out by specially trained and experienced personnel who first write a plan which contains a set of conditions (a prescription) for wind, humidity, vegetation, season, burn breaks, crew and equipment. When these conditions are met, the fire crew assembles at the site and burns the specified area.

We also create small, shallow ponds for amphibians, birds and wetland plants.

Together, these different conservation and restoration techniques across the landscape help us reach our goal of increasing the viability of the surviving prairie remnants and oak savannas.

In 2016, the Indiana Chapter introduced a small herd of bison to Kankakee Sands. The bison  will help us fully realize our  vision of restoring the prairie at  Kankakee Sands.

Bison have been a goal of Kankakee Sands project before there was a Kankakee Sands project. The earliest feasibility report that explored the opportunities for a potential Conservancy preserve points out the benefits of having the animal. There’s a reason for this! The scale of our site at currently over 8,300 acres with more than 6,700 acres of planted prairie, naturally elicits thoughts of bison herds. Our restorations that have been lovingly planted with more than 600 plant species and carefully managed for the last 20 years are far from “restored,” but we’re confident that bison will be part of the answer by recreating the historic interactions that helped create our native grassland ecosystems.

Two hundred years after the creation of our state, you now have the opportunity to see the largest, most iconic mammal found in Indiana at the time of statehood roam the prairie at a Conservancy preserve!

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