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

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?