Cowles Bog

Cowles Bog is not an Illinois Nature Preserve. Neither was The Nature Conservancy involved in its protection. Nonetheless, this National Natural Landmark provides a direct connection to George Fell.

Cowles Bog is a 205-acre area within the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. Historically, it was part of a much larger wetland complex known as the Great Marsh, which in turn was part of an even larger complex of dune and swale habitat unique to the southern shore of Lake Michigan.

Like the rest of the Great Marsh, Cowles Bog is more accurately described as a wetland complex, comprised of conifer swamp, wet prairie, fen, sedge meadow, marsh, and, yes, bog. This morning, it is ablaze with marsh marigolds, accompanied by the clarion call of sandhill cranes, among the oldest bird species on earth.

Cowles Bog apparently derived its name courtesy of a student of Henry Chandler Cowles. Famous for his field trip excursions, Cowles taught at the University of Chicago for more than 35 years. A pioneer in advancing the field of ecology as an accepted discipline within the natural sciences, he was particularly enamored of the Indiana dunes, a living laboratory for discerning how ecological communities change and evolve over time.

Among Cowles’ students was Victor Ernest Shelford, who, under Cowles’ influence, evolved from a classical zoologist into an animal ecologist. Rather than studying animals independent of their environments, he significantly advanced the understanding of plants and animals being dynamically and inextricably linked as a single community (or biome, to use the technical term.)

Shelford, who spent his entire teaching career at the University of Illinois, stood out from his peers for being activist-minded. Unlike most academics of his time, he was adamant about using scientific knowledge to actually protect natural lands. Accordingly, he founded the Ecological Society of America to do just that. But when his fellow academics grew uneasy with Shelford’s activist agenda, he used his own money to start up a splinter group, the Ecologists’ Union.

George Fell took only one course under Shelford, and apparently didn’t like his professor much. At least at first. Years later, Fell would be elected to the board of the Ecologists’ Union and become the driving force in transforming it into The Nature Conservancy.

The start-up years of TNC were — to put it politely —  dynamic. Big, competing ideas among super smart, exceptionally strong-willed individuals. (Shameless plug alert: I chronicle the necessary sausage making in detail in Force of Nature.)

But when I stroll through Cowles Bog, I think not of the many battles George fought in starting up TNC, the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission, and, in sum, the entire Natural Areas Movement. Rather, I marvel just how interconnected everything is. The many people — yesterday, today and tomorrow — who protect such places as Cowles Bog. And the many different kinds of plants and animals that make such places such as Cowles Bog one of sheer beauty, awe and inspiration.

 

Wolf Road Prairie

Illinois Nature Preserve #15, baby. Well on my way toward the goal of 50 for the year.

At this time of year, a tallgrass prairie may appear a little less than inviting. I imagine that most folks speeding along Wolf Road in suburban Westchester perceive nothing but what appears to be a big patch of weeds waiting to be turned into a housing development, a business park, a commercial strip mall.

Perhaps some might notice the handsome, historic farm house at the north end of the site. For those curious enough to stop to check it out, what they’ll discover that is that the farmhouse is considered to be the oldest remaining structure in Westchester. Moved to its current location in 1980, it was built in the 1850s, when the Prairie State was being transformed to the Corn and Soy Bean State.

Beyond the house, visitors will discover that what looks like dead weeds in early April will soon burst forth into a lush tapestry of tallgrass prairie, with over 360 plant species. At 80 acres, it is one of the largest unplowed prairie remnants remaining in the entire Chicago region, and the best quality black soil prairie east of the Mississippi River.

Oh, and they’ll discover one other thing, too: thanks to George Fell it will never be developed for anything other than what it is by virtue of most of it being dedicated as an Illinois Nature Preserve.

Admittedly a little drab in advance of the official start of spring, Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve nonetheless affords wonders for those who know were and when to look.

Through the husks of last year’s towering flower stalks, one will notice a burned area — evidence of the recent controlled use of fire, emulating one of the prime natural forces that historically helped keep the prairie environment free of trees and shrubs, and which today keeps it free of invasive plants both native and non-native.

In the midst of the burned area is a small seasonal wetland — a magnet for the red-winged blackbirds, blue-winged teals and great blue herons that we saw today. The wetland is an attractive nesting site for Canada geese, as well. Already, this expectant mother is perched upon her nest as regally as any queen.

But why Susan and I have come to this place, this day, at this time, is to see the skydances of American woodcocks. Save the Prairie Society hosts woodcock viewing events two weekends each year. It’s a friendly affair, with folks arriving around 7 p.m. They gather on the porch of the farmhouse, munching on homemade treats and sipping hot cider to take the edge off the early evening chill.

Those who have seen woodcocks before help the first-timers know what to look for. Someone takes out their cell phone and calls up a youtube video of a peenting woodcock to help attune new ears what to listen for, before the birds — the males, that is, the females, like us, are there to watch — launch themselves skyward with a fluty, flittering sound. Up and up they go, until, having impressed prospective mates, they tumble back to earth with a softer, plaintive tune.

At 7:25, the official time of sunset this day, all chatter stops. Eyes and ears are fixed on the surrounding area. At 7:40, we hear the first peent. And then another. And another. There are clearly several male woodcocks warming up.

A few minutes later, someone hears the fluty-flitter. All eyes search the darkening sky. No one sees a thing.

Another fluty-flitter. Someone points. There! Sure enough, there it is, indeed. A small, dark dot, rising higher, higher, higher, until out of sight.

More fluty-flitters. But they’re hard to see due to the fading light. Our leader saw four. I saw three. Everyone saw at least one.

Perhaps for many, perhaps for most, hanging out on a chill evening for the chance to listen for faint bird calls over the roar of traffic, to spy a tiny dot in the gloaming might not be at the top of their list of things to do. But for the dozen of us gathered, we are in seventh heaven. For a few moments, we are witnesses to an ancient rite. Eons in its evolution to ensure the perpetuation of a species. Strange and wonderful in the joy it affords those of us who take the time to notice.

And because of a guy named George Fell who fought to establish the Illinois Nature Preserves system, the skydances of woodcocks may continue at Wolf Road Prairie for eons to come. And we may enjoy the many species that rely upon Wolf Road Prairie — and the 400 other dedicated Nature Preserves scattered throughout the state — for generations to come.

Upper Embarras Woods

Spring beauties are for everyone to enjoy: they occur in every county in Illinois

This past week, Susan and I didn’t find any pasque flowers at Harlem Hills Nature Preserve. Eager to get a jump on spring, we took advantage of our downstate trip to seek out some woodland ephemerals. We were not disappointed.  The forest floor of Upper Embarras Woods — our 14th dedicated Illinois Nature Preserve of the year — is carpeted with spring beauties.

There is but one dedicated Illinois Nature Preserve in all of Douglas County and it is a gem. The Upper Embarras (pronounced em-bragh) Woods is a 65-acre inholding within Walnut Point State Park. It lies immediately adjacent to a stretch of the Embarras River, itself designated by the Illinois Natural Areas Inventory as a biologically significant stream for its outstanding diversity of habitat features, including gravel bars, gravel-sand raceways, sandbars, riffles, and deep pools.

The nature preserve encompasses old growth forest of giant white oaks and hickories. These elders provide perfect habitat for a host of woodland birds, including red-bellied, red-headed and pileated woodpeckers–all three of which we relished today, along with oodles of black-capped chickadees, tufted titmice, brown creepers and white-sided nuthatches,

This time of year, in many wooded areas, you are likely to see only a patch or two of woodland wildflowers, mostly due to a lack of management. Too many of our protected natural areas are overrun with non-native invasives, including buckthorn and honeysuckle. These shrubby invasives quickly spread and crowd out native plant species, which is bad for the health of our woodlands and, well, pretty crappy for those of us who seek them out for their sheer beauty.

The periodic use of fire keeps the nature preserve relatively free of honeysuckle and other invasives

At Upper Embarras Woods, the spring beauties were everywhere, indicative that the nature preserve portion of the park is well managed. Fire scars on the trees indicate regular controlled burns, which emulate the natural wildfires that used to keep the woodland understory relatively open — necessary for a healthy mix of spring beauties, Dutchman’s breeches, bloodroot and other woodland wildflowers, as well as for seedling oaks and hickories.

Notice the difference? That shrubby wall of green is highly invasive honeysuckle

By way of comparison, just on the other side of the path — across from the nature preserve — there are virtually no spring beauties. Why? Well, at first blush all those bushes might look nice and green. But they are honesuckle bushes. They are the first to leaf out, which robs wildflowers and tree seedlings of the light and nutrients they need to survive.

White-tailed deer are native to Illinois, but sometimes they, too, need to be controlled least they eat and destroy our woodland wildflowers

Sufficiently managing all of our protected natural areas — including dedicated nature preserves — remains a big challenge. Budgets are tight. Resources are scarce. But an early spring walk along the path that separates Upper Embarras Woods Nature Preserve from the rest of Walnut Point State Park reminds us why we need to find a way — on one side, an abundance of health and beauty, on the other side…well, there remains much more work to be done.

Another spring beauty alongside the namesake river of the Upper Embarras Nature Preserve

Starved Rock Nature Preserve

Winter sunlight on St Peter Sandstone in Starved Rock State Park

How Starved Rock State Park got its name remains a matter of debate. But that it harbors one of the most beautiful nature preserves is rock solid fact.

Legend would have it that the namesake feature of the park — a towering limestone bluff overlooking the Illinois River — derived its name from a mid-18th century conflict between native tribes. Purportedly as revenge for a murdered chief, the Pottawatomies and Ottawas waged battle with the Illinois, who sought refuge atop the bluff. The attackers laid siege, cutting off escape, leading to the death-by-starvation of the Illinois.

The namesake feature of Starved Rock State Park

There is scant historical evidence to support the legend, but archaeologists have confirmed that native people inhabited the area around Starved Rock as far back as 8,000 B.C.E. Fast forward to the 1890s when a Civil War veteran purchased the site and developed it for tourists. A couple decades later, the State of Illinois acquired the site as its first recreational park. In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps built the lodge and cabins and made many trail improvements. In 1966, the park was designated as a National Historic Landmark. One year later, 700 of the park’s 2,630 acres was dedicated as an Illinois Nature Preserve.

On a cold winter day, you can have the canyons all to yourself

In truth, few people visit the dedicated Nature Preserve within Starved Rock. The park, which runs along the southern shore of the Illinois River, is bisected by the north-south running Route 178. The historic lodge, cabins and hiking trails are located to the east of the highway. The nature preserve is to the west. Both boast dramatic canyons, carved through St. Peter Sandstone over the past 15,000 years, or so. The canyons form cooler micro-climates, which support species typically found much further north, such as Canada yew, northern white cedar and eastern white pine.

The original Stairmaster–the final set of stairs leading to the top of Starved Rock

Among the challenges of managing dedicated nature preserves is managing visitors and the impacts they can have on fragile ecosystems. This is especially true at Starved Rock, with its two million visitors per year. The steep slopes of soft sandstone are highly susceptible to erosion. This is bad for both plants and people. Erosion makes it difficult if not impossible for plants to take root and survive. Erosion also makes for bad footing for folks who–in spite of all the warning signs–hike off trail and end up with severe injuries, or worse.

To limit erosion — beyond warning folks to stay on the trails — there are lots of boardwalks and staircases installed in the main portion of the park. But the purpose of a nature preserve is to preserve the landscape in as pristine a condition as possible, which is why there is limited access to the Nature Preserve portion.

Due to the unusually mild winter, there were few bald eagles to be seen save for those that grace the lodge grounds courtesy of talented chainsaw artists

Still, to hike the public trails within Starved Rock is to get a good sense of the rugged but fragile beauty of this ecologically and culturally rich landscape. And after a walk on a cold winter day — a great way to see the park with relatively few people around — it’s terrific to be able to enjoy dinner in the lodge and be warmed by a blazing fire.

6.7 Miles and 2.5 Million Years Ago at Midewin

According to an app on my my iPhone, I took 18,594 steps today at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, totaling 6.7 miles. In truth, I went much farther than that. As I strolled through recovering prairie lands, I traveled back in time–through 1945 and the arsenal era, through the pioneer farmer era of the 1800s, all the way back to the time of the last glacier and beyond.

South Patrol Road Prairie in a snowless mid-February

In spite of the unseasonable, 70 degree temperature, the prairie doesn’t look like much in mid-February. It’s understandable how most people driving along historic Route 66, which runs through the middle of Midewin, are likely to perceive nothing more than dead weeds.

Oh, but before the prairie wakes is a perfect time to dive deeper into the history of Midewin. The dry, matted grasses make it easier to climb the steep slopes of munitions bunkers. This provides a bird’s eye view of the Joliet arsenal era. During the 1940s, hundreds of bunkers on the west side of Midewin harbored massive amounts of TNT and its component chemicals, while even more bunkers on the east side of Midewin held the end products–bullets and bombs that were shipped overseas in support of Allied troops fighting the Good War.

Before trees and shrubs leaf out, the remains of various pioneer homesteads are easier to spy. They lie tucked within overgrown copses–originally planted, no doubt, to provide the earliest settlers some protection from the prairie sun and winds. When the government forced the farmers to sell their land in order to build the arsenal, all the farm structures were either moved or razed, leaving nothing but their limestone foundation bones–memorial relicts, really, of those who first busted the prairie sod as far back as the 1830s.

Amid yet other leafless copses lie mounds of other kinds of stones. These are reflective of the pioneer settler era as well as the Pleistocene Epoch. In the process of plowing up the prairie, pioneer farmers found they also needed to clear their fields of massive granite boulders. Known as glacial erratics, these boulders were left behind by the mile-thick glaciers that last blanketed northeastern Illinois about 14,000 years ago.

As it turns out, placing your hand on a sun-warmed rock from so long ago pales in comparison to hearing the clarion call of a sandhill crane, which speaks to Midewin’s even more distant past as well as its future.

Sorry for the lousy pic–the crane came upon me so quickly and close that I couldn’t get focused fast enough.

The oldest sandhill crane fossil dates back 2.5 million years ago. Once threatened with extinction due to hunting and habitat loss, sandhill cranes continue to make a comeback. Over the past few years, as more and more of Midewin has been restored, flocks of sandhills–or sandies–have been regular visitors to Midewin, stopping over on their migration from Florida to Wisconsin and the upper midwest.

During this time,there has been a pair or two of sandhills that hangs around Midewin throughout the breeding season. No one yet has found a nest, but expectations are that it’s just a matter of time before this largest and most ancient of North American birds raises young again amid the “dead weeds,” better known as hundreds of species of native prairie grasses and flowers, at Midewin.

South Patrol Road Prairie in high summer herbage.

Salt Creek Woods Nature Preserve

On the way to celebrating a nephew’s birthday in Oak Brook, Susan and I stopped by Salt Creek Woods–number five toward the goal of visiting 50 Illinois Nature Preserves this year. In case you’re wondering, Salt Creek–which runs through Salt Creek Woods and a chain of Forest Preserves of Cook County sites–isn’t salty at all. “A tale in an old history…says the stream got its name when high waters in 1838 washed away a wagon load of salt belonging to John Reid, a teamster.”

A few years before the eponymous salt incident, General Winfield Scott and his troops were quarantined by cholera on their way to chase Chief Blackhawk and the last of all native tribes out of Illinois for good.

Girl Scouts wading in Salt Creek, circa 2921

Salt Creek Woods, located in the Bemis Woods unit, must have been among the earliest lands acquired by the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, established in 1909. For, in 1921, the District built the Girl Scouts a log cabin, and also dammed up the creek to provide better swimming opportunities.

Today, the cabin and dam are long gone. What remains is perhaps the richest birding sites in all of the Forest Preserves of Cook County.

At the recent Wild Things conference–this year’s biennial gathering attracted 1,700 professional and volunteer nature stewards, with 300 on the waiting list–Doug Stotz provided the bird data. Doug is Senior Conservation Ecologist at the Field Museum and one of the region’s premier birders.  He shared the results of the 2016 Bird the Preserves, a “big year” competition to see which FPCC site boasted the best bird life.

Confessing (with a wink and a nod) that he is not at all competitive when it comes to birding, Stotz revealed that his site–Salt Creek/Bemis Woods–came in at #1 in the competition. He cited several impressive stats, including the fact that of the four sites he birded within the preserve, the one with the highest total bird count was Salt Creek–a 245-acre tract dedicated as the 8th Illinois Nature Preserve in 1965.

 

Stotz observed that among the reason for the impressive bird count at Salt Creek was the quality restoration and stewardship. As George Fell well knew, the greatest threat to our remaining natural areas is the lack of maintenance. Absent the natural forces that used to maintain our diverse habitats, our prairies, wetlands and woodlands can quickly become overrun with invasive species, both native and non-native.

Even woodlands need some level of controlled burns to remain healthy habitat for plants, mammals, bugs and birds, alike. Some of our preserves have become so overgrown that they require heavy duty, manual removal of woody shrubs and even mature trees. While cutting down trees can be controversial, doing so according to sound, science-based management plans is essential. Overgrown woodlands might appear green and healthy, but as every birder knows they are all but devoid of bird life.

Middle Fork Woods Nature Preserve

For me, the best way to cap a conference about saving nature is to go out and walk around in some. After two days spent indoors in windowless conference rooms, I sneaked away a little early to take a hike through Middle Fork Woods–the 4th of 50 Illinois Nature Preserves I plan to visit this year in celebration of the publication of the Fell biography.

Don’t get me wrong, spending two days with close friends and colleagues at the annual Vital Lands Illinois conference is, well, vital. Initiated several years ago by the Grand Victoria Foundation, Vital Lands Illinois is a network of public and private land conservation from across the state, working together to coordinate and enhance land conservation. At this year’s conference, we greatly expanded our horizons by including a dedicated consideration of mitigation and agricultural programs to bolster land protection efforts.

For the past couple of years, we’ve held the annual VLI conference at the University of Illinois, in Champaign-Urbana–alma mater for both me and George Fell. There are two dedicated Nature Preserves in Champaign County, but one is on private land and access to the other requires permission from the local forest preserve district. So, I headed straight east into Vermilion County to Middle Fork Woods Nature Preserve, located in Kickapoo State Park.

The preserve is named for the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River, the only river (rather, a 17.1-mile section thereof) in Illinois designated as a National Wild and Scenic River. Ironically, what makes this stretch of the river particularly wild and scenic is the very thing that destroyed much of the adjacent landscape. Along its meandering course, the river has cut into layers of bedrock formed during the Pennsylvanian Age, 320 million years ago. Among the strata–or layers–of bedrock are sandstone, siltstone, limestone, shale and–most significant–coal.

Dating back to the mid-1800s, there have been more than 150 coal mining operations in Vermilion County. In fact, the first coal strip mining in the United State occurred in Vermilion County, and that–along with slope mining–is exactly what happened at what is now Kickapoo State Park and the adjacent Kickapoo State Recreation Area. Between 1918 and 1924, Surface Mine No. 6 and Slope Mine No. 6 produced nearly one million tons of coal. Today, mining laws require companies to restore mined lands to their original condition, but not so when Vermilion County boasted another first in 1939: the first wasted minescape to become a state park.

On a cold winter day, stripped of its foliage, much of Kickapoo State Park is revealed for what it is–a reclaimed minescape: the deep water ponds, the tailings, the sheered-off cliffs, the erosion gullies and, of course, the sealed-off mine entrances. Nonetheless, there is an inherent regenerative power in nature that has softened the scars we have left, providing habitat for many plant and animal species, as well as a restorative hike for a conference-fatigued individual such as myself.

In case you’re wondering, it’s not the mined portion of the 2,800-acre state park that is dedicated as a nature preserve. No, by law, dedication as an Illinois Nature Preserve is reserved for an area that “retains or has recovered to a substantial degree its original natural or primeval character.” In this case, that means a 69-acre area within the park that escaped the ravages of mining; where various kinds of glacial-era deposits were not stripped away to get to the coal, leaving intact “plant and animal populations…distinct from those found elsewhere in Illinois.

Incidentally, on the way home, I spied nearby a next generation of energy production on the prairie. Perhaps no source is perfect, but is harnessing the free wind perhaps better than the extractive practices of the past?

 

Kankakee River Nature Preserve

I’m trying hard not to feel guilty. I should be at the Women’s March downtown with Susan and fellow Pullmanites Amy and Laura and Lorraine and jb, and tens of thousands of others. To stand in solidarity for the values I hold dear: equity, inclusion, fairness, kindness, love, the arts, the environment.

I am so proud of and heartened by those who showed up all over the country to have their voices heard en masse. But, as I awoke before the day’s first light this morning, I could not shake Wendell Berry’s “The Peace of Wild Things” out of my head:

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

And so here I am at Kankakee River State Park, in search of Kankakee River Nature Preserve, on a beautiful, unseasonably warm Saturday morning. At first, it’s odd. There is no still water here. We haven’t had much rain, but perhaps the thaw that comes with 59 degree weather–in January!–has released a deluge into the Kankakee River, which has spilled over its banks, running incredibly fast and filled with dead trees carried along like toothpicks.

Equally weird is the silence. Early morning is typically the best birding time, when the avian world wakes up to actively flit and feed. But this morning, I see not a single bird. I hear nothing save for the burbling of water channeling its way through various spillways to the river. Have even the birds headed downtown to add their voice to the protest?

I have visited the state park several times, without ever realizing that two portions of it were dedicated as an Illinois Nature Preserve. I head out in search of one of the tracts, known as either Langham or Altorf Island, one of several islands dotting the Kankakee River. And as I walk along the river, the new moon overhead and refusing to hide its face in the light of the new day, I consider that there are different ways of protesting. In his own way, George Fell protested against the wanton destruction of the remaining natural lands of Illinois and the nation. His was a life-long protest, the determined, hard slog of transforming the Ecologists’ Union into The Nature Conservancy, now the largest conservation organization in the world. The even harder effort to envision and see through to passage the Illinois Natural Preservation Act, which inspired many other states to follow suit in protecting their remnant and critically important natural lands.

At first, Langham Island appears not so different from its sister islands, save the for tiny sign that reminds everyone that it is a dedicated nature preserve, and that everything on it is protected by law. What’s to protect, you might think, peering at the leafless trees and the dense understory of invasive honeysuckle. But a closer look reveals that a goodly portion of the island has been cleared of its invasives. A couple years ago, Habitat2030 and Friends of Langham Island teamed up to cut brush and conduct controlled burns to restore the native habitat; in particular to rescue from extinction a flowering plant that occurs only on this 20-acre island and nowhere else in the world.

Standing here, riverside, staring across at the island treasure in our midst, another quote–this one by Margaret Mead–pops into my head: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

It is then that I spy on the water not a single wood drake, but more than a hundred goldeneyes and countless Canada Geese. And hear the downy woodpeckers, and white-breasted nuthatches and brown creepers busy at their feeding.

I do in fact grieve this day in fear of what the next four years may hold. At the same time I am comforted by those who show up–alone, with others, when needed and every day–in defense of the wild and wonderful things of this earth.

Sand Ridge Nature Preserve

So far, so good–second week of January and I’ve visited my second nature preserve toward my goal of visiting 50 this year. As many times as I’ve been to Sand Ridge Nature Center, I’d never gone five minutes further to Sand Ridge Nature Preserve. Today I did.

Along with Camp Shabbona Woods and Green Lake Woods, Sand Ridge Nature Center and Nature Preserve comprise a complex of protected lands measuring about one mile square. For the geography geeks among us, the federal Land Ordinance of 1785 created a system for mapping “western lands” (Illinois then was considered “the west”) for future development. Each township consisted of 36 sections, each section measured a square mile. That’s why, if you’re wondering, this particular nature complex is pretty much shaped like a square.

About 10,000 years before the Land Ordinance of 1785 was passed–for the geology geeks among us–Sand Ridge Nature Preserve was about 40 feet under the waters of Lake Chicago. As the waters retreated and advanced, and ultimately settled at their current Lake Michigan level, they left behind a series of beach ridges, alternating with low-lying lands. This “dune and swale” habitat was–and is–incredibly rich in the diversity of plants and animals it supports.

Most of the beach ridges were bulldozed, of course, and the low-lying lands filled in to make flat land for farming and development. However, the sandy soils were not that great for farming. So, in 1962, the Forest Preserved District of Cook County built a nature center on its section of former farm land. Three years later, in 1965, the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission dedicated the best of this land as its 9th dedicated nature preserve.

Unlike Sand Ridge Nature Center, there are no trails in Sand Ridge Nature Preserve. But that’s OK because what interested me most on my visit today was the utility corridor that runs alongside it. At first blush, you may not think there is much in common between a nature preserve and a utility corridor, but they share a powerful bond. As I point out in the book:

“The underlying strength of the Illinois Nature Preserves system lies in its being anchored in two powerful common law doctrines: dedication and public trust. According to common law, ‘a dedication is the deliberate commitment of land to a public use by the owner, with the clear intention that it be accepted and used for some public purpose.’ The doctrine of public trust dates back even further to Roman law and underpinned the tradition of the public commons in medieval European towns and the earliest towns in America. The doctrine, the essence of which is that the public has a legal right to certain lands and waters, is in evidence today in our nation’s innumerable parks, preserves, and public rights of way,” including utility corridors.

As you can see from this photograph, there is another powerful bond between nature preserves and utility corridors. Within the Chicago region, ComEd’s utility corridors encompass about 40,000 acres. That’s a lot of land. In fact, it rivals the 58,000 acres of dedicated nature preserve lands throughout the entire state of Illinois. For a number of years now, ComEd–in partnership with Chicago Botanic Garden, Prospect Heights Natural Resources Commission, and many others–manages its utility corridors using native plants. This helps buffer nearby nature preserves, expands habitat for rare and endangered species, such as Blanding’s turtles, and provides critical connections between our region’s nature preserves, forest preserve district lands and other natural areas.

Ever seeking to improve its natural areas program, this past year ComEd refined its mix of prairie grasses to help protect Illinois’ monarch butterflies. And in partnership with Openlands, ComEd annually provides grants to municipalities and park districts that focus on conservation, preservation and related open space improvements. In 2016, Our Green Region awarded 22 grants of $10,000 each.

Even on a cold, cold day, I love walking through Sand Ridge, with its icy swales reflecting the late afternoon sun, the crisp air occasionally punctuated with the “peep” of downy woodpeckers and the “eep” of a white-breasted nuthatch.

But I also enjoy this walk for the beauty of the human interface. Certainly, we have destroyed most of our natural land–less than one-tenth of one percent remains. But here, in this place, I find beauty not only in the preserved land, but also in the engineering of a transmission tower, as well as in the commitment of a public utility–working with many different partners–to protect and buffer and care for our biological heritage, our remnant natural area gems.

Thornton-Lansing Road Nature Preserve

I’ve never been one to make New Year’s resolutions. But this year, to celebrate the publication of the George Fell biography in April, I resolve to visit at least 50 Illinois Nature Preserves in 2017.

Today, on the first day of the new year, Susan and I take a mid-winter walk at Thornton-Lansing Road Nature Preserve. A lot of folks think that nature is something far away. But Thornton-Lansing is only 15 minutes from where we live on the south side of Chicago. Way back in 1965, two years after George Fell successfully advocated for the passage of the Illinois Nature Preserves Act, it was the 12th area to be dedicated as an Illinois Nature Preserve. Today there are nearly 400 Illinois Nature Preserves, each of which has virtually iron-clad permanent protection thanks to George Fell.

Even longer ago, between 11,000 and 13,000 years, Thornton-Lansing and much of the south suburban region was under the waters of Lake Chicago, the glacial-era ancestor of Lake Michigan. As the ancient lake waters receded, they left in their wake a flat lake bed with a succession of beach ridges, sand dunes, spits and bluffs. By the time people started settling the area in earnest, the site boasted prairies, fens and marshes, alternating with scrub-oak forests on sandy ridges.

Most of this kind of habitat was filled, timbered, plowed or paved over in the steady march of the Chicago region growing into the third largest metropolitan region in the United States. However, soon after its establishment in 1914, the Forest Preserve District of Cook County began buying land along Thorn Creek, a 21-mile Tributary of the Little Calumet River. Eventually, Thorn Creek Forest Preserve–comprised of several different units–grew to nearly 6,000 acres, of which 440 acres was dedicated as the Thornton-Lansing Road Nature Preserve.

Some may think that winter is a bleak time to visit nature preserves, but not so, as George Fell well knew: “Everywhere we look in the natural world we perceive beauty in form and color, whether in magnificent scenery or in the subtle patterns formed by bare branches against the winter sky…”

Bare branches afford other delights as well, such as this bird’s nest–a kind of solitary ornament atop a spindly, Charlie Brown Christmas tree of a sapling.

The absence of leaves makes it much easier to spy winter birds, such as blue jays, white-breasted nuthatches, downy woodpeckers, and red-bellied woodpeckers. But they remained too high up in the branches to get a good picture.

On the ground, however, the lack of greenery reveals the burn scars on trees–evidence of the stewardship necessary to maintain the health of this rare sand savanna ecosystem, a fire-dependent natural community that requires periodic burning.

Some of the trees also bear numbers, spray painted in bright orange, evidence of the effort underway to open up the tree canopy to help encourage healthy populations of rare woodland flowers. In fact, so important is Thornton-Lansing Nature Preserve that the Forest Preserve District has identified it as its #2 priority restoration site. 

Next time out, we’ll be sure to visit Jurgensen Woods North Nature Preserve, a 120-acre sister site, located just across the road within the same forest preserve. But, for now, both Susan and I are perfectly content to soak up the last rays of the late afternoon sun before heading home to a New Year’s Day Dinner of Hoppin’ John.