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?”

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.