A year ago if you looked past the gate of Short Cemetery in Coal City, Ill., near Morris, you would have seen a predictable landscape: a tranquil collection of gravestones surrounded by trees. But, to the trained ecologist, the native prairie plant life was crying out for help, choked by invasive species and overgrowth that had crept in since the cemetery was originally declared protected land in 1988.
So last March, a crew of committed volunteers conducted the first burn there in years. Burns are a key part of prairie management. Most invasives don’t survive them, and deep-rooted prairie plants thrive on them. At Short Cemetery, there were almost not enough prairie plants left to burn. And although the grounds will need several years of care for the prairie to really come back, it was already showing signs of life when I visited in June, with an abundance of spring flowers and sunlight brightening the space.
The dramatic makeover of Short Cemetery is a microcosm of a statewide preservation effort that kicked off in early 2020. Called Friends of Illinois Nature Preserves, this volunteer organization brings together expert ecologists and botanists with people who just like the idea of preserving — or “stewarding” as they like to say — the Prairie State’s most valuable natural heritage: the prairie.
Stephen Packard was a pioneer of the stewardship movement in the late 1970s, which was so successful that the Chicago area now teems with volunteer stewardship groups to cut back invasives, reseed with natives and assist with prescribed burns. Now 77, Packard is backing Friends, which aims to take the same idea to the state’s 596 officially designated Nature Preserves.
“Nature Preserves are like churches. They need a congregation,” said Packard, who serves as the group’s treasurer and sees himself in support of a new generation. Packard believes that the work of stewarding these precious natural resources has enduring appeal. “It’s complicated and demanding and rewarding and fulfilling enough to the people who do it, that you could have [a stewardship group] everywhere, like a Little League or the local audubon society,” he said.
In 1963, the creation of the Illinois Nature Preserves made the state a pioneer in conservation. You’d probably recognize the triangular signs — with its charming cardinal and white oak leaf — but many people I’ve talked to don’t know what Illinois Nature Preserves are. In the language of the landmark legislation, they are land that “retains or has recovered to a substantial degree its original natural or primeval character.” There was a sense of urgency about preserving these biodiversity hotspots in the early ’60s because Illinois had plowed up or developed more than 99% of its prairie.
The innovative part of the Nature Preserves idea is its high level of protection: Illinois was the first state to protect land in perpetuity, preventing these tracts from being nibbled away or developed. Another pioneering aspect of the law decreed that even land owned privately or by municipalities can be drawn into the system. For example, Glenbrook North, my old high school, has an acre and a half prairie remnant designated an Illinois Nature Preserve. Some of the most valuable preserves are the 29 pioneer cemeteries on undisturbed prairie. But most of the preserves are where you’d expect them to be: Half of the acreage is in state parks, and 25 are in Cook County Forest Preserves. To date, all of the state’s Nature Preserves remain intact.
The Illinois Department of Natural Resources (DNR) oversees the Illinois Nature Preserves. Assistant Director John Rogner said through the mid-1900s, the conservation movement practiced “fortress conservation.” But in the early ‘60s, the full force of invasive species hadn’t yet struck. Invasives like buckthorn, honeysuckle and reed canary grass would soon sneak into the “fortress” built to keep Illinois’ landscape safe. “There was a realization, my Lord, now we have to manage all of this or it’s going to decline and we’re going to lose them anyway,” Rogner said. “So that’s where we are right now.”
Not rocket science
At a Friends of Illinois Nature Preserves event in March, an enthusiastic band of volunteers gathered at Goose Lake Prairie near Morris, where there are a couple acres of high-quality prairie in need of attention. An invasive berry plant with thorns — aptly anointed the “purple pokey” by the volunteers — was just one of the species wreaking havoc in the area. After the invasives were cut, Kim Roman from the DNR led a burn of the area. Matt Evans, president of Friends of Illinois Nature Preserves, noted that the group’s effort was “one of those cases where we tipped the scales in just one day.”
But aside from that small, high-quality plot, there are 1,500 more acres of nature preserve that still need the attention regular stewardship would afford them. The Friends of Illinois Nature Preserves has since multiplied these types of workdays, matching restoration experts with local teams of volunteers. The idea is that these trained locals will eventually lead the groups themselves.
Packard noted: “Starting a stewardship group is sort of like learning to drive a car or change your baby. It’s not rocket science, but you don’t do it right without anybody helping you learn how to do it.”
While some of the small, privately-owned nature preserves like Short Cemetery stand to benefit dramatically from the Friends attention, so do some big, famous parks.
This past December, I checked in on a Friends workday at Langham Island, a 20-acre island and part of Kankakee River State Park. The site is revered among nature lovers as something of a botanical Galapagos, hosting a number of rare plants and the only known population of a beautiful wildflower now called the “Kankakee Mallow.”
But in recent years, the island has been overrun by invasive honeysuckle. A Friends group led by Emma Leavens has been knocking that down. And in an attempt to create more mallow, last year they took logs out of a bonfire to create a “rolling bonfire” to wake up more mallow seeds. It worked. I saw the tall mallow stalks. Mallow seeds are now waiting for spring where the honeysuckle used to be.
The effort has drawn attention in the Kankakee area, attracting new volunteers and contributions. Among the local workers that day, Steve Bohan and Karen Horn live right next door to the state park in the town of Altorf. They’ve had a great time volunteering. Bohan said they’re complete amateurs but committed to the cause. “We believe in biodiversity,” he said. “We believe in restoration.” Horn added that she found it amazing to see the island “open up” after the brush was taken out. She’s looking forward to seeing more native plants in their natural habitat.
Bohan’s and Horn’s positive experiences is part of the goal, said Leavens, a Friends organizer. “What we’re trying to foster is a culture and practice of participation,” Leavens said. “And that will require a lot of people — but mostly it will require people who care.”
The machinery of Illinois’ native ecosystem
Because of the patchwork ownership of the Nature Preserves, management of the system was always going to be a collaborative affair — which is why the Friends intervention may have come at the perfect moment. In the past 15 years, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, the biggest player and the state’s governing body for the preserves, has seen its budget slashed. The DNR’s Rogner estimates that half the staff has been cut in that time. Today, the division that oversees that nearly 600 Illinois Nature Preserves amounts to just a dozen staffers. But the DNR is trying to bring new energy, nonetheless. Recently, the Nature Preserves received an interim executive director, and the DNR said it plans to fill the role, a position that has been vacant for four years, soon.
George Covington, the chair of the Nature Preserves Commission, which helps select new Nature Preserves and advises on their care, is acutely aware of the need for more visibility. “There’s a whole lot of people raising money for conservation in Illinois, but none are raising money specifically for the Natures Preserves,” he said. The Friends group hopes to change that.
John Rogner thinks the Nature Preserves are in a good position to rebound. “That’s the legacy of the Nature Preserve system that was designed to keep all the machinery of our native ecosystem still intact, so we could rebuild it at some point,” he said. “And that’s what it’s there for now.” Moreover, Rogner noted, the biodiversity contained in the preserves is “all that’s left of the real Illinois, our real native landscape that was here. Those are the bits and pieces — the nuts and bolts of the machinery, so to speak.”
It just needs people who care.
Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled volunteer Steve Bohan’s last name.