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.

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