Saving a Prairie and Wetland Complex

Saving a Prairie and Wetland Complex

By Valerie Spale, Save the Prairie Society-Illinois

In the early 1970’s, the founders of the Save the Prairie Society (STPS) began work to preserve 80 acres of Illinois Prairie known as Wolf Road Prairie. The prairie is located in Suburban Westchester, Cook County Illinois, just 12 miles west of the Chicago Loop. STPS is an all-volunteer organization. Our purpose involves land acquisition, native ecosystem restoration, conservation outreach, and education programs.

The Wolf Road Prairie site encompasses a complex of prairie, wetland and savanna. Too wet to plow or graze extensively, the very rich original landscape of the site and its community of rare, threatened, and endangered species has miraculously survived to the present day. In the late 1970’s petitions were circulated in the city of Westchester to save the Prairie, and volunteers became involved in both the acquisition of lots in the Prairie and early restoration of property that was not privately owned. The Prairie is now owned jointly by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (ILDNR) and the Forest Preserve District of Cook County (FPDCC) and is a dedicated Illinois Nature Preserve, managed jointly by the ILDNR, the FPDCC, the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission, and STPS.

Public involvement has been critical throughout the preservation process. Public officials have responded to the large numbers of people attending activities at the Wolf Road Prairie site. Countless citizens have written letters or phoned their elected representatives with messages in support of saving the prairie. As the public continues to witness loss of open space to sprawl, support for land preservation has increased.

Wolf Road Prairie draws visitors from the greater Chicagoland area, Illinois, nationally, and internationally. As a means of educating the public, STPS sponsors tours and activities in the Prairie. Our free monthly programs are very popular and cover diverse topics. In the fall of 2001 we were looking for additional ways to share information and experiences with others involved in saving and restoring wetland ecosystems and decided that holding a Wolf Road Prairie Wetland and Watershed Seminar would help us to 1)take what we have learned on the road, 2) begin an outreach program to tell others about the challenges we have faced and the success we have achieved, and 3) expand our efforts by developing a conservation plan. We applied for and received a grant from GLAHNF for the seminar and also received private contributions and in-kind donations to match the grant.

The seminar brought professional natural resource managers, conservation leaders, municipalities and park districts, public and private landowners, the media, and interested citizens together to network on issues of aquatic degradation, loss of wetland habitat, and preservation and restoration solutions. Seminar participants came from multiple states.

Topics presented included: threats to wetlands and watersheds, water quality impairments and sources, reduction of non-point source pollution using native plants, elimination of exotic species, how to restore a natural ecosystem with limited seed sources, how to propagate rare grasses, sedges, and forbs in the greenhouse for introduction to the wild, methods of introduction for best survival percentages, and the role of partnerships and creative collaboration to preserve and restore wetlands and watersheds.

A highlight of the seminar was a trip to the Wolf Road Prairie wetland and stream corridor restoration buffer site. This site, which is owned by STPS, is located on 5 acres of land adjacent to the Wolf Road Prairie preserve. Featuring stream corridor, savanna and prairie uplands, the buffer enlarges Wolf Road Prairie and adds a new educational dimension with a focus on the protection and expansion of high quality natural areas. The purpose of the recovery project is to return the buffer site to its vital natural conditions and functions as nearly as possible. The buffer site helps reduce streamflow velocity while increasing the quality of surface waters prior to their discharge into the Wolf Road Prairie wetland.

The seminar was the first professional workshop we have undertaken, and it has laid the foundation for the development of a Conservation Campus Plan at Wolf Road Prairie. The Plan identifies the multi-levels of natural and human history at Wolf Road Prairie and lists the public benefits that the preserve offers. The plan also identifies ecosystems and restoration sites on the buffer lands.

We have printed 48 copies of the Conservation Campus Plan, which have been distributed to key conservation figures. The ILDNR awarded STPS a small grant to print additional copies of the Plan, which will be distributed to additional conservation leaders and decision makers. We have been fortunate in our efforts to educate legislators as to the importance of allocating dollars for the acquisition of buffer land and have enjoyed bi-partisan support throughout the years of the project.

We are hoping that the identification of the many uses and benefits of the buffer sites for both the environment and the public will result in the acquisition of additional buffer land for the protection of Wolf Road Prairie, instead of allowing the land to be developed. Currently, in addition to the STPS 5-acre buffer site, the FDPCC owns a three-acre site, and the ILDNR recently acquired 15+ acres of buffer.

The FPDCC has approved acquisition of additional buffer land. High-density development, which would pose adverse environmental impacts for the prairie, has been proposed for parts of this additional buffer land. With land prices of $200,000 an acre or more, the main obstacles to the acquisition of additional acreage for the buffer sites are the cost and the time necessary for conservation protection efforts to intervene in the face of intense development threats and pressures.

The need to protect critical habitat, endangered species, and historic landscapes for future generations has never been more urgent. Wolf Road Prairie, surrounded by shopping centers, housing developments and corporate complexes, serves as an example of how man and nature can live in harmony. Thanks GLAHNF for having confidence in Save the Prairie Society to sponsor a Wetland Seminar at Wolf Road Prairie. We are confident that more people are now aware of the importance of preserving and restoring wetlands as a result.

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Images courtesy of Steven Huyser-Honig,
West Grand Boulevard Collaborative, & Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve.