In 1840, a young traveler named Eliza Steele ventured into Illinois and was dazzled by the tallgrass prairie near the city of Joliet. "A world of grass and flowers stretched around me," she exulted, "rising and falling in gentle undulations, as if an enchanter had struck the ocean swell, and it was at rest forever."
Tallgrass prairies—like this one in Kansas—once dazzled onlookers with their waves of color.
Since then, farming and development have nearly obliterated this unique ecosystem. Yet in one of the most compelling environmental success stories of the past 30 years, the Midwest has experienced a prairie renaissance—the widespread restoration of prairies and related ecosystems, such as oak savannas, to ecological health. Molly Murray, outreach manager for the University of Wisconsin at Madison Arboretum, said these restoration efforts "have provided huge benefits for science. When we restore an ecosystem, we learn about it. We have learned about the role of fire in maintaining ecological health."
The roots of prairie restoration were planted right there at the university, when Aldo Leopold was appointed the first chair of game management in 1933. Leopold traveled throughout the state and observed firsthand the extensive soil erosion in Wisconsin.
At the University of Wisconsin, he met a group of ecologists who planted prairie flora such as bluestem grasses, coneflowers and pasqueflowers on 70 acres of land that became known as the Curtis Prairie. A later site planted in the 1940s and 1950s was the 50-acre Greene Prairie, named after prairie expert Henry Greene. The group also conducted experiments with controlled fires, which restored nutrients to the soil, helped control weeds and stimulated the germination of grasses and forbs (flowering plants with non-woody stems).
But the prairie restoration movement failed to catch on. Bill Jordan, III, the co-director of DePaul University’s Institute for Nature and Culture and the author of The Sunflower Forest: Ecological Restoration and the New Communion with Nature, explains, "Even though the idea of restoration was crucial to maintaining healthy ecosystems, the emphasis in the environmental movement was on preservation of ecosystems."
In 1961, prairie restoration gained momentum when a young horticulturalist from Nebraska named Ray Schulenberg came to the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Illinois. Craig Johnson, director of education at the arboretum, recalls, "Ray went searching for prairie remnants, and he studied them to see what the grasses and forbs were. That was how he became interested in the disappearance of prairie and the animals that used it as habitat."
The Morton Arboretum had just purchased a farm at its western edges. Schulenberg joined forces with the director of the arboretum and a botanist who had an encyclopedic knowledge of Chicago-area flora to restore prairie to one acre of the farm.
Schulenberg and arboretum workers collected seeds from prairie remnants, allowed them to germinate at the greenhouse, and planted them by hand. They also weeded by hand, which was critical to the restoration process. The result was an extraordinarily rich plant variety—500 species in all.
These efforts stirred a rush of restoration activity in the 1970s, starting at Fermilab National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois. Robert Betz, a professor at Northeastern Illinois University who knew Schulenberg well, spearheaded the restoration. According to Bob Lootens, one of the lead groundskeepers, "Betz wanted to do large-scale restoration, and today the restored prairie covers between 1,000 and 1,100 acres." To restore so much land, Fermilab’s groundskeepers have pioneered the use of mechanized farm equipment, such as combines and fertilizer buggies, for planting and harvesting seeds.
A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for prairie restoration presented itself 12 years ago, when the U.S. Forest Service took over the Joliet Army Ammunition Plant, a tract of 15,000 acres, and created the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. According to Bill Glass, the ecologist for the prairie, "Illinois’s Department of Natural Resources found a number of threatened species of birds there," including the upland sandpiper, the bobolink and the loggerhead shrike. Their findings added urgency to restoration efforts.
The managers decided on a mix of flora based on soil surveys. They also examined nearby prairie remnants. Glass says, "A prairie can look healthy to the casual eye, but it may have a long way to go to be ecologically healthy." Invasive species such as garlic mustard present a continuing problem.
Prairie restoration is now an essential part of the mission of conservation districts and environmental groups throughout the Midwest. Chicago and its collar counties boast dozens of restored prairies, and the Great Plains states of Nebraska, Oklahoma and the Dakotas are restoring thousands of acres of grassland.
Professionals and volunteers believe passionately in prairie restoration for a number of reasons. Restoring this unique ecosystem preserves the biodiversity of North America, as numerous grasses, forbs, birds, mammals and insects require contiguous grasslands to survive. Restoration also brings thousands of volunteers into a more intimate relationship with the environment. Johnson says, "Restoration fulfills people’s need to repair the land. We turned to the land for what we needed economically, and now we are repairing that resource."
Restoring prairie also provides a connection to the American past. Every fall, the McHenry County Conservation District sponsors the Trail of History, an effort to reintroduce thousands to this magnificent ecosystem as it existed 150 years ago and stoke interest in the tallgrass prairie so that it can once again nurture some of the most precious and threatened species in North America.