Chicago Ridge Prairie

Come November, there’s not much color left in a prairie. A last splash of yellow, perhaps, in a few lingering coreopsis petals or a stubborn spring of goldenrod. Nonetheless, on my first visit to  Chicago Ridge Prairie , it’s easy to see that it is a special place, a well managed place, a well interpreted place.

To learn just how special, all you have to do is read the signs. Of the nearly 50 nature preserves I’ve visited this year, perhaps only Volo Bog rivals Chicago Ridge Prairie for interpretive signage. Already I knew that prairie remnants are rare in Illinois — of the estimated 22 million acres of prairie that once blanketed Illinois, only about 2,500 acres remain, mostly in small, isolated sites throughout the state. But from the signage I learned that Chicago Ridge Prairie — currently owned and managed by the Oak Lawn Park District — is among the rarest of the rare. It is one of only two gravel prairies remaining on the lake bed of ancient Lake Chicago.  Its calcerous conditions support a distinct combination of about 150 prairie plants — many of them uncommon to rare.

I also learned from the signage that in the 1980s, about a third of the site was ruined by illegal dumping. That’s how we’ve lost so much of our natural land. For some, the last vestiges of our native prairies, wetlands and woodlands are not oases of biodiversity and beauty, they are merely convenient places to dump garbage. But in this instance, someone cared enough to undo the damage, to remove the equivalent of a thousand dump trucks of trash. Someone cared enough to use seeds gathered from the rest of the site to begin restoring the dump site back to its prairie glory. Someone cared enough to work with the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission to get the site dedicated in 1994 as an official Illinois Nature Preserve, providing permanent protection for the site.

I love learning about these hero stories. However, some mystery remains. How is it that this 11.7-acre prairie remnant survived at all? How come it didn’t get plowed up or developed long ago, like everything surrounding it in this inner ring suburb of Chicago?

The triangular-shaped Chicago Ridge Prairie is hemmed in on all three sides — by a raised rail line, an elementary school, and residential housing.

That’s the story I’d love to learn about this and so many other nature preserves — how did they escape the plow, the developer? Who were the other heroes who first had a hand in protecting them? Who once owned the land, perhaps, and chose beauty over commerce? Or who signed petitions, or raised money to keep the site from falling victim to “progress.” Or maybe, as was the case with Gensburg-Markham Prairie, what was the planned development that failed, leading to preservation by neglect, until someone came along and gave these remnants of our shared ecological heritage the care and attention they so richly deserved?

I’ve put out a few feelers to learn more about Chicago Ridge Prairie. Perhaps by the time I visit next summer — when the prairie is in full bloom — I’ll know a little more, rendering my experience of the site richer still.

Volo Bog

Today was a toss-up as to which was more fun — talking to folks about the George Fell biography or taking a guided tour of one of the natural areas that George protected first by buying it and then designating it as an Illinois Nature Preserve: Volo Bog.

First of all, how cool is it that a bog has its own book group: Of Bogs and Books. That’s due to Stacy Iwanicki, a long-time naturalist with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. According to an article published last year in the Lake County News-Sun she started the book group back in 1994.  Since then, they’ve read more than 233 books. Some books, including Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, they’ve read several times.

Stacy Iwanicki, Site Supervisor, Volo Bog State Natural Area

I was flattered to be invited to talk to this group about my biography of George Fell. It’s a great group of folks, who share a deep passion for nature. Not only do they enjoy reading about it, but many of them roll up their sleeves as volunteer stewards, to help keep our natural area gems healthy for future generations to come.

Even more exciting was when Stacy popped in a video she had made many years before — featuring George Fell. I never met George. He passed away several years before I started writing about him. I had seen him in a 1989 documentary entitled Saving Nature,  in which he voiced his signature brand of determination: “If one person is determined that something is going to be saved, it can be done. It will be done. If there isn’t that determination, it doesn’t happen.”

Volo Bog State Natural Area has done a great job preserving its history, too – articles about the efforts to protect the site are on display in the visitor center

When Stacy first arrived at Volo Bog, she had had the foresight and wisdom to gather George and others who had been involved in saving Volo Bog, and to record them reflecting upon their past experiences. Seeing George talk about the history really brought the book alive for all of us. It’s a moment I’ll savor forever — thanks, Stacy.


But Stacy wasn’t done. After the book group, she gave my wife and me a personal tour of the bog. This was my first visit to the bog, after having written about it fairly extensively in the book. George had had a direct hand in negotiating the acquisition of both Volo and Wauconda Bogs on behalf of the Illinois Chapter of The Nature Conservancy — this was just a few years after he had taken the leadership role in transforming the Ecologists’ Union into The Nature Conservancy. More than a decade later — after he spearheaded the establishment of the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission — he championed the dedication of Volo Bog as the 25th Illinois Nature Preserve.

Bogs are exceptionally rare in Illinois. They are also one of the most dramatic reminders of the glaciers that once covered northeastern Illinois in ice a mile thick. When they retreated, among the landforms they left were large lakes. The vegetation in some of these lakes decomposed and turned into peat mats, which in turn support unique assemblages of plants, including tamarack trees. Volo Bog is the only one remaining in Illinois that includes “all the stages of classic bog succession,” from the open “eye of water at its center to the forested bog around its perimeter.

Just as amazing as the bog was Stacy’s enthusiasm for the site. As she guided us along the floating walkway, she stopped and talked to every other visitor we met along the way, sparking their imaginations with interesting facts and insights into the landscape surrounding them. If George Fell was a force of nature in protecting our natural lands, Stacy Iwanicki is the equally necessary next generation force of nature who helps steward and interpret these sites. Again, thanks, Stacy. Susan and I look forward to a return trip to the bog soon.

The tamarack trees of Volo Bog Nature Preserve

Harlem Hills

Harlem Hills Nature Preserve holds a special place in my heart because it meant so much to George Fell.

As George feared, more houses did appear, but he was able to save nearly 100 acres of this rare, wonderful prairie heritage

A school paper George wrote as a young boy revealed both his love for such native landscapes and his fear that they were being destroyed. “Every spring this bare, desolate hill becomes a beautiful flower garden, equaling, in some respects, any ever made by man.” After describing the seasonal parade of native prairie blossoms, from pasque flowers in the spring through purple asters in the fall, he concluded his essay, “Soon, however, there will be houses and streets, bordered with bushes and dried up flowers, which really belong in Europe, in place of the pleasant hilltop which is now there.”

George and Barbara on their wedding day, May 21, 1948

George and his wife, Barbara, spent their honeymoon night camping among the prairie flowers of what then was known as Byron Easton Hill.

George co-authored with this father — a noted amateur botanist who inspired his son in his passion for our native plants — The Gravel-Hill Prairies of Rock River Valley in Illinois, of which Harlem Hills is the largest and best remaining.

When his father died, George redoubled his effort to protect Harlem Hills, which he did first by buying the land and then having it dedicated as an Illinois Nature Preserve in August 1973.

Today, the site is co-owned and stewarded by the Natural Land Institute (founded by George) and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

This past March, Susan and I visited the site with Jerry Paulson, former executive director of NLI, who worked many years with George. We were too early see pasque flowers — one of the first bloomers on the gravel ridge prairie. And by the time I was able to return in July, the pasque flowers long since had gone to seed.

In past visits, I’ve seen other early season wildflowers. And today, at the height of summer, there are yet other beauties to behold before they give way in turn to the fall bloomers. As George observed, Harlem Hills is indeed, “a beautiful flower garden, equaling, in some respects, any ever made by man.” But its survival is entirely dependent upon humankind, beginning with one man — George Fell.

Hoary puccoon (Lithospermum canescens) with shooting stars (Dodecatheon)
Tick trefoil (Desmodium)
Yellow coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata)
Flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollata)
White wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla) with bee (and its impressive pollen sacs) and weevil
Tall cinquefoil (Drymocallis arguta) with beetle
Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum)

Liberty Prairie, Almond Marsh, Oak Openings

Liberty Prairie Reserve is exceptional for many reasons. It’s a big, public-private vision to protect nearly 5,800 acres of land in the heart of Lake County, Illinois, as open space. To date, nearly 60% has been protected by donation, acquisition or easement. The reserve also harbors three dedicated Illinois Nature Preserves. Today, I visited all three.

Fittingly, Liberty Prairie Reserve is anchored by Liberty Prairie Nature Preserve. There are no developed trails in this particular Nature Preserve, although a regional bike trail does run alongside at least a part of it.

George Fell argued strenuously against trails in dedicated Nature Preserves. he had a point that because so little natural land remained in the Prairie State, he was unwilling to give up a single square inch more. In the case of Liberty Prairie Reserve, the case for limited public access and no added infrastructure is particularly apt because it is among the rarest of the rare: it was never plowed and only lightly grazed, leaving intact the soils, the topography, the diversity of habitat types — including graminoid fen, sedge meadow and marsh — and a rich mix of more than 150 species of plants, and some rare fauna, as well.

So, too, am I OK with the fact that the main entrance to Almond Marsh Nature Preserve is closed to the public today. In order to minimize disturbance to the adjacent rookery, the parking area is open only Saturday mornings April through July. A small price to pay to maintain a healthy colony of herons. (Anyway, I’ve been to Almond Marsh many times and yesterday — through my camera lens –I got a close up peek at some of the fledgling herons during the regular open visitation hours.)


In the adjacent Oak Openings Nature Preserve, there is a narrow footpath spur into Almond Marsh. But the mosquitoes along the heavily wooded path got the better of me and so I remained on the main trail that runs through wide open space of Oak Openings.

Yes, the trail through the preserve. I empathize with George Fell not wanting wide trails through Nature Preserves, but I have to admit they are kind of nice. The crushed gravel trail through Oak Openings is busy with lots of Sunday morning bikers and joggers. But there is plenty of room for all to enjoy this exceptional landscape, inclusive of prairie, wetlands, woodlands and savanna.


The original Illinois land surveyors back in the early- to mid-1800s tended to use the terms “savanna,” “openings,” and “barrens” interchangeably. Today, there are technical differences, but common among them is a combination of prairie understory and open canopy woods, typically oaks.


There is a lot of restoration underway at this site , including a major effort to reclaim monoculture corn and soybean fields for richly diverse communities of native plants and animals. Some of this reclamation/restoration work is occurring on land previously owned by the Donnelley family.

I’m incredibly fortunate to work for the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation. (As a reminder, this blog reflects my personal views and not those of the foundation) Its founders, Gay and Dot, were instrumental in the establishment of Liberty Prairie Reserve, an ethic they passed on to their children. The Donnelleys helped protect some of the first lands within Liberty Prairie Reserve. Now those lands are being restored to their native habitats by Conserve Lake County and Libertyville Township Open Space District, and have been formally dedicated as buffer lands to two of the three Liberty Prairie Nature Preserves.

As memorialized on the Conserve Lake County website, Strachan Donnelley, founder of the Center for Humans and Nature, had this to say about protecting our natural lands:

“How practically can human communities and individuals fit and live well within nature? We can work unflaggingly to promote effective cultures of conservation and help to spread their influence to an ever widening circle of communities regional, national, and global. Is there really any other moral and civic alternative?”

Old Plank Road Prairie, Dewey Helmick and Hickory Creek Barrens

Susan and I recently enjoyed an Illinois Nature Preserve-alooza while getting a good workout. Pedaling our bikes along the Old Plank Road Trail, we cruised through Old Plank Road Prairie and Dewey Helmick Nature Preserves. The third site was the Butterfield Creek Headwaters Land and Water Reserve. A few weeks later, we returned to the trail and took the spur to Hickory Creek Barrens Nature Preserve.

The Old Plank Road Trail derives its name from the plank road that was authorized in 1849 but never built. In 1855, the right of way became the corridor through which ran the Joliet and Northern Indiana Railroad, leased to the Michigan Central Railroad. The line ran both freight and rail for nearly a century, but was abandoned in the early 1970s.

It took more than 20 years to acquire the right of way, raise funds and overcome certain local opposition, but in 1997 the first segment of the Old Plank Road Trail was opened to the public. At the ribbon cutting in 1997, Dewey Helmick, a former village trustee for Park Forest, remarked, “We salute all those people who love to walk, run, ride and skate and admire nature in safety and serenity.”

That same year, the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission named one of the two new nature preserves in his honor. Dewey Helmick Nature Preserve and Old Plank Road Nature Preserve are prototypical railroad prairies. They survived because they remained relatively untouched since the rails were laid more than a century and a half ago — aside from periodic fires set by sparks from passing trains. But that was a good thing, since prairies are dependent upon fire to keep their soils healthy and to keep invasive trees and shrubs from encroaching.

Directly across from Dewey Helmick lies the Butterfield Creek Headwaters Land and Water Reserve. At 83+ acres, it is more than six times the size of the two nature preserves combined, and is popular for the many cormorants and herons that populate its small island. Land and Water Reserves afford a sort of second tier level of protection by the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission.


The Old Plank Road Trail runs for 22 miles from Chicago Heights to Joliet. A little west of Frankfort, a short spur leads to Hickory Creek Reserve. At more than 2,000 acres, it is the Forest Preserve District of Will County’s largest preserve. More than a quarter of it — 575 acres — was dedicated in 1998 as the Hickory Creek Barrens Nature Preserve.

Like the plank road that was never built, neither was a planned regional stormwater reservoir along Hickory Creek. Instead, the accidental openspace, if you will, allowed for the eventual permanent preservation of an exceptional kind of natural area community — a barrens.

Early Illinois land surveys, conducted largely between 1804 and 1843, were not consistent in their terminology. Different surveyors in different parts of the state used “barrens,” “openings” and “savannas” interchangeably. But a modern understanding of  barrens is that it is a specific type of dry forest with open canopies, with understories of grasses and other prairie plants.

Biking through the preserve is fun both for the beauty of the recovering landscape, as well as for the steep up and down hills.

Among the joys of biking the entire Old Plank Road Trail is its rich mix of woodlands, prairies, dedicated nature preserves and well tended backyard gardens. Next time you’re on the trail, make sure to stop by Frankfort Prairie Park, as well. It’s an outstanding example of green infrastructure, using a complex of wetland and prairie — filled with native grasses and flowers — to help store and filter stormwater, and also provide a beautiful place to take a walk, catch a fish and watch some butterflies. Leaps and bounds better than a conventional detention basin for the adjacent residential community. Kudos Village of Frankfort.

Truitt Hoff

Photo courtesy of Sandy Kaczmarski, The Conservation Foundation

There are two things I love most about having written Force of Nature. The first is traveling around the state sharing George Fell’s story with a broader audience. The second is using these trips to explore more of the nature preserves that George helped to protect.

Today, I was invited to speak at the annual luncheon for The Conservation Foundation. There were about 100 people in attendance at Arrowhead Golf Club in Wheaton, DuPage County. Per usual, only a small handful of them had heard of George Fell. After the talk, a lot of folks bought books to learn more about him — George was as complex and fascinating a man as he was a hugely accomplished conservationist.

After the luncheon, I changed into my hiking gear and set out to explore a few nature preserves. There are eight dedicated nature preserves owned and managed by the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County. I decided to visit three of them, beginning with Truitt Hoff, located in West Chicago Prairie — #18 on my way to visiting 50 nature preserves this year.

A terrific online history of Truitt Hoff (would that every nature preserve had such a thing) confirmed what a long-time steward had told me at the annual luncheon. Namely, that Truitt Hoff was one of those forgotten places — former farmland turned to stockyards and eventually sold for development, when former West Chicago mayor Richard Truitt “discovered” the prairie remnant and shared the news with Ray Schulenberg, one of the early pioneers of prairie restoration.

The online history also tells how the other man for whom the site is partly named — Mel Hoff — was appointed the Volunteer Steward in 1982 and formed the West Chicago Prairie Stewardship Group. It took 24 years of sweat equity to remove invasive species, abandoned cars and all kinds of other debris. But eventually, the diverse site — containing freshwater marsh, mesic silt loam savanna, and at least three different kinds of prairie communities — returned to health and was designated as the Truitt Hoff Nature Preserve in 2006.

The work of stewarding our natural areas is never done. The West Chicago Stewardship Group remains active. It is guided by a detailed management plan developed by the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, in accordance with the Illinois Natural Areas Preservation Act, which requires such plans for all dedicated Nature Preserves.

At the trailhead, the stewardship group had posted its most recent newsletter, that helped me better see and understand the site. Out in the field, I found brush piles, evidence of the clearing reported in the newsletter. I also encountered lusher grasses yet fewer wildflowers than anticipated, which the newsletter chalked up to a wet spring.

The grasses were so dense and lush, in fact, that they all but obscured the narrow footpaths, which reminded me of a question raised at the annual luncheon — about public access to nature preserves. I acknowledged that George Fell was more of a nature-for-nature’s-sake kind of guy. Whereas most of his Illinois Nature Preserves Commissioners preferred wider, more inviting trails to encourage people to explore nature, George was adamant that trails be kept to a minimum, and that visitors should walk single file, like the “Indians” used to do.

George would have been much pleased by the trails at Truitt Hoff. They afforded a particularly up close and personal experience of the prairie. (Along with a few ticks and chiggers.) There may have been fewer wildflowers than usual, and most of the birds appeared to have taken a siesta to avoid the mid-day sun, but the preserve was teeming with all different kinds of dragonflies.

Eastern pondhawk (female), Erythemis simplicicollis

Thanks, George Fell. And Mayor Truitt and Mel Hoff. And all those who continue to steward this exceptional site, which “is different from other DuPage County forest preserves in that it contains no large picnic areas or fishing lakes. Instead, it offers visitors the unique opportunity to enjoy a tranquil walk through one of the state’s rarest — and richest — prairie ecosystems.

Widow skimmer (female), Libellula luctuosa
Common whitetail (male), Plathemis lydia
White-faced pondhawk (female) Sympetrum obtrusum
Twelve-spotted skimmer (female), Libellula pulchella

Churchill Prairie

Following The Conservation Foundation annual luncheon, I headed out to visit three Nature Preserves in DuPage County. My first stop was Truitt Hoff, located in West Chicago Prairie Forest Preserve. My second stop was Churchill Prairie, a part of Churchill Woods Forest Preserve.

One of the questions asked at the annual luncheon was what is the difference between forest preserves and dedicated Nature Preserves? The nation’s first county forest preserve district was formed in Illinois. The Forest Preserve District of Cook County was established in 1914. Several other northeastern Illinois counties followed suit, including DuPage County, which established its forest preserve district in 1915.

Our region’s forest preserve districts contain many exquisite natural area gems — areas of exceptional beauty and biodiversity. However, early in his career, George Fell observed that there was nothing in the enabling legislation that prohibited county forest preserves — or state parks, park districts, etc. — from developing even the most sensitive ecological areas for recreational or other purposes.

The restored marsh at Churchill Prairie Nature Preserve

This sparked George’s life long crusade to permanently protect our highest value natural areas, on private lands as well as within publicly-owned lands. In fact, among the first nature preserves dedicated following the passage of the Illinois Natural Areas Preservation Act in 1963, were 11 within the Forest Preserve District of Cook County — the finest gems, if you will, within the county’s emerald necklace of greenspace.

Churchill Prairie was dedicated as a Nature Preserve in 1993, the year before George Fell passed away at the age of 77. His legacy lives on, however, in the beauty of this and now more than 400 other dedicated Nature Preserves.

The 65-acre Churchill Prairie Nature Preserve actually consists of a “complex patchwork” of different kinds of natural area community types, including a couple  different kinds of prairie, sedge meadow, mesic upland forest, dry mesic upland forest and savanna.

The Forest Preserve District of DuPage County has been conducting some extensive restoration of the site, and it shows. The savanna — known as Babcock Grove — has been cleared of invasive brush, which restores its transitional state between prairie and forest. Ecologically speaking, this is an ecotone — where two natural communities meet and support a particularly rich array of plants and animals.

Earlier in the day, at Truitt Hoff, I was blown away by the diversity of dragonflies patrolling the site. At Churchill Prairie, it was all about birds. Adult bluebirds and Baltimore orioles — flashing blue and bright orange against the green canopy of the savanna — were far too busy gathering insects to feed their nestlings for me to get a good picture. But a downy woodpecker was a little more cooperative.

If there is one thing George Fell may not have appreciated about the site, it is the wide, crushed stone path. As mentioned in the blog post about Truitt Hoff, George preferred “Indian trails,” as he called them — narrow footpaths that maximized the amount of nature. Most Illinois Nature Preserves Commissioners — in George’s day and today — prefer trails that invite the public to enjoy the best remaining natural areas in the state. Sorry, George, but the Regional Trail that runs through Churchill Prairie does just that.  I could have walked it back and forth for hours, but I had one more Nature Preserve to visit…on to Belmont Prairie.

The inviting Regional Trail through Churchill Prairie. But no dogs, bikes or cross country skies, please. Dedicated Illinois Nature Preserves are among the very few places where plants and animals can exist without such additional human pressures.

Belmont Prairie

I had a great time talking to supporters of The Conservation Foundation at its annual luncheon. While out in DuPage County, I added three Illinois Nature Preserves to my list — #s 18, 19 and 20 on my way to the goal of visiting 50 this year. My way of celebrating the publication of Force of Nature.

Belmont Prairie is the smallest of the three preserves I visited today. It also may be my new favorite. Truitt Hoff clocks in at 290 acres, Churchill Prairie at 65 acres. Belmont Prairie totals only 10, with an additional 15 acres as buffer.

In 1820, there were approximately 22 million acres of prairie in Illinois. In 1978, George Fell and others completed the first statewide survey of how much natural land remained in Illinois. The Illinois Natural Areas Inventory revealed that there were  only 2,352 acres of prairie left, scattered in small parcels throughout the state.

Like several of the Nature Preserves I’ve visited thus far, Belmont Prairie survived by accident, or because someone hadn’t yet gotten around to developing it before it was “discovered.”

The land that includes Belmont Prairie was first bought from the US Government in 1842. By 1890, about half of it was developed as a golf course. By 1920, homes were built.  In 1970, Alfred and Margaret Dupree collected a rare prairie flower on the site and showed it to an expert at the Morton Arboretum. The Nature Conservancy — of which George Fell was the driving force in its founding — acquired the site. According to the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission, the site was dedicated as an official Nature Preserve in 199. The current owner of the site, the Downers Grove Park District, lists the dedication year as 1994. Either way, along with 400+ other Nature Preserves, it now enjoys the highest level of protection possible.

(Quick side note: it was also an amateur nature enthusiast who collected a rare prairie plant at Truitt Hoff and showed it to an expert at the Morton Arboretum, which set the wheels in motion to have both sites dedicated as Illinois Nature Preserves. The system works.)

Belmont Prairie may be small, but it affords one of the richest displays of wildflowers — with grace notes of dragonflies, butterflies, bees and birdsong — that I have seen anywhere.  To whet your appetite, below is just a small sampling of what I discovered. Enjoy. And then visit. You’ll be glad you did.

Butterfly weed, Asclepias tuberosa L.
Halloween pennant, Celithemis eponina
Scurfy pea (how can you not just love saying “scurfy pea”), Psoralidium tenuiflorum
Purple coneflower, Echinacea purpurea, with bumble bee
The distinct leaves of compass plant, Silphium laciniatum — soon this plant will send a tall stalk high into the air, filled with bright yellow, sun-like flowers

My Journey into the Wilds of Chicago

In my quest to visit 50 Illinois Nature Preserves this year, I could almost make the case for adding a whole bunch more to my list from having spent this past weekend at a single site: Printers Row Lit Fest.

A first-time book author, this was my first time as a participant in Lit Fest — “the largest free outdoor literary event in the Midwest.” Through the grapevine I’d learned about Windy City Historians and was delighted to be invited to share their tent.

My fellow writers offered books on a wide range of subjects — from historic bridges to presidential biographies, from Maxwell Street to labor history. My good friend Rich Cahan and his CityFiles Press publishing partner, Michael Williams, were there with their wealth of photography-based titles, including the heartbreakingly beautiful and timely, Un-American — The Incarceration of Japanese Americans During World War II.

Also there was Mike MacDonald, whose exquisitely handsome My Journey into the Wilds of Chicago bears a direct connection to my book, Force of Nature. George Fell spent his life protecting the natural area remnants of Illinois (and beyond.) Mike MacDonald has devoted himself to photographing and writing about a lot of those very same natural lands that George protected.

Mike features 28 nature preserves in his book, from Chiwaukee Prairie in southeast Wisconsin to Cowles Bog in northwest Indiana. In between, in northeast Illinois, Mike celebrates a number of sites, including at least 16 dedicated Illinois Nature Preserves.

Among them is one of my favorites–Bluff Spring Fen. Over the course of the past three decades — due largely to countless hours of sweat equity by a dedicated corps of volunteers — this Forest Preserve District of Cook County site has been transformed from an abandoned mine/dumping ground/off-road vehicle course into one of the state’s premier Nature Preserves.

Bluff Spring Fen

For such a small site — the dedicated Nature Preserve comprises about 2/3 of its 160 acres  — it boasts an exceptional diversity of habitat types: dry gravel prairie, mesic black soil prairie, bur oak savanna, sedge meadow, marsh, and its namesake feature, fen. Fens are exceptionally rare, occurring only in the northern third of Illinois. Calcerous fens are the rarest, with only 14.5 acres remaining in the entire state.

Bluff Spring Fen is home to an astonishing richness of plant and animal species, including at least 39 different kinds of butterflies (according to the Illinois Butterfly Monitoring Network.) Doug Taron, a long-time site steward and Chief Curator at the Chicago Academy of Sciences, is trying to add one more–the swamp metalmark. This small, orange and richly-patterned butterfly was last recorded at Bluff Spring Fen around 1940, and last seen anywhere in Illinois in the 1980s. Taron and his team have been raising swamp metalmarks at the Peggy Noteabaert Museum and releasing them at Bluff Spring Fen, which is one of the few places that contains its favorite food plant: purple-flowered swamp thistle.

Bluff Spring Fen is a living laboratory for restoration and butterfly reintroductions. But as one Chicago Tribune writer observed, “Beyond its scientific value, Bluff Spring Fen is, to put it unscientifically but truthfully, beautiful.”

So are Mike MacDonald’s photographs. So beautiful, in fact, that looking at them is almost as good as being there.

There’s hardly a dull moment in Bluff Spring Fen’s prairie. Just as blooms of leadplant and coreopsis fade, purple prairie clover rises to take their place.

But as I’m sure Mike, Doug and many others would agree, don’t cheat yourself. Head out to Elgin. Meander through Bluff City Cemetery. Park your car and wander into a richness and diversity of beauty that rivals any museum, anywhere.

And then keep going. Check out all the preserves featured in Mike’s book. And then keep going some more, and visit all 400 dedicated Illinois Nature Preserves, each of them waiting just for you.


Grant Creek

Chalking up Illinois Nature Preserve #17 of 50 this year was a piece of cake. Sort of. I spent the early part of the morning monitoring grassland birds — as I do every spring — at Tract 104 within Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. Then I jumped in the car and headed to the southwest side of Midewin to visit Grant Creek Nature Preserve.

According to Google Maps, the preserve was accessible via a frontage road to I-55. However, turning onto the road, I immediately came to a closed gate, beyond which lay an unpaved, overgrown two-track.

That’s one of the things I love about Nature Preserves: many of them lie in seemingly lost or forgotten places. When it was dedicated as a Nature Preserve in 1978, Grant Creek lay between I-55 and the mothballed Joliet Arsenal.

To most folks, speeding by on the highway, then and now, Grant Creek Nature Preserve — if noticed at all — probably seems a fallow farm field at best. A weed patch at worst, waiting for some better use to come along. But, according to the Illinois Natural Areas Protection Act, all nature preserves are put to their “highest, best and most important use for the public benefit.”

Leaving my car at the frontage road gate, I have to agree that the two-track is in fact mostly a patch of weeds. Honeysuckle and other non-native invasives abound. Not that I’m complaining, as they provide habitat for a wealth of shrubland birds: willow flycatchers, field sparrows, orchard orioles, and yellow warblers.


But here and there between the dense shrubbery, I spy glimpses of open space. A mile down the road, I find an open gate leading into 78 acres of “high quality wet prairie and mesic prairie communities with over 110 different native prairie plant species.”

The yellow umbrels of wild parsnip appear pretty enough, but they can burn people and crowd out the likes of native spiderwort and other native plant species

In truth, this rare patch of probably unplowed prairie — the presence of limestone too close to the surface made it unfit for anything other than grazing — could use a little TLC. The continuing state budget woes have resulted in cutbacks and other compromises in the ability of the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to adequately steward their sites.  For instance, native spiderwort is in full bloom, but competes with wild parsnip. In addition to being a weedy, non-native invasive plant, wild parsnip is a danger to people — contact with the plant can result in painful, blistering burns. More benign, but equally unhealthy are the number of shrubs dotting the preserves. Grassland birds — the most imperiled class of birds — require large expanses free of shrubs in order to breed successfully.

This said, perhaps the very highest value of Grant Creek Nature Preserve is that it provided the template for restoration at the Grant Creek restoration area at Midewin, with which it shares a border.

Historically, the soils of the Grant Creek area within Midewin were a little more substantial, which led early farmers to ditch and drain the area for farming. Even then, the soils were thin enough that they had to cut into limestone to lay the drain tiles.

Gary Sullivan of The Wetlands Initiative unloads a truckload of native plant plugs during a volunteer workday

Working hand-in-hand with the US Forest Service, The Wetlands Initiative removed the drain tiles, cleared the area of non-natives grasses and fallow farm weeds, and — using the adjacent nature preserve as a guide — replanted the site with native plant species.

Over the years, I spent more than a few volunteer days helping to restore Grant Creek, ankle-deep in wet prairie, hand planting native plant plugs. And as the mix of wet and dry prairie has recovered, I’ve joined with others to monitor the recovery of grassland birds to the area. Today, the site is particularly rich with dickcissels, eastern meadowlarks and bobolinks. Listen closely, and you’ll hear the occasional Henslow’s sparrow, a state-listed threatened species. Rare is the day that I don’t see great egrets, impossibly white against the emerald green of their wetland habitat. And although no one yet has confirmed it, I suspect that sandhill cranes may be nesting in Grant Creek or some other similarly-restored area at Midewin.

Bobolink on the wing — emitting its burbling mating call — over the restored prairie in Grant Creek

In its entirety, Grant Creek is part Nature Preserve and part National Tallgrass Prairie. It also stands the intersection of our past and future efforts to protect the natural lands we love. Because of George Fell, we have a strong nature preserves system (when it is fully funded) that provides permanent protection for our best and most important natural area gems. Because of the US Forest Service, The Wetlands Initiative and other nonprofit partners, and a growing army of dedicated volunteers, we are reclaiming more and more of our natural area heritage. Acre by acre, we are putting the prairie back in the Prairie State.

The restored wet prairie land of Grant Creek