Since May, the seasonal crew has been working hard at killing and removing invasive plants from the prairie including white and yellow sweet clover, birdsfoot trefoil, king devil, bouncing bet, and reed canary grass. We started the year walking transects back and forth through the prairie plantings like a militant marching band, carefully spot-spraying each invasive species with a selective herbicide from backpack sprayers.
Eventually, the herbicide can no longer kill the targeted plants before they produce seed. Then we switch to hand pulling each plant and carrying them out of the prairie in barrels. This prevents the invasive seed from falling back into the soil, causing problems for future crews.
Once the plantings have been swept relatively clean, we slowly drive the trails in small groups, “weed cruising” for the few weeds that were missed during our regular, methodical sweeps. By August, the weed season on the prairie has ended. While it requires painstaking effort to manage hundreds of acres, our methods are working. The invasive populations that once riddled many of our older plantings have been greatly reduced.
Seed collecting, an important aspect of restoration, takes place throughout the year. This provides a species-rich, diverse ecosystem. Species diversity encourages a more stable food source for creatures such as insects, bugs, and birds.
Last year, the crew’s goal was to plant 103 acres of prairie, Nachusa’s largest planting to date. This year, our goal is to plant 83 acres of diverse habitat ranging from a woodland/savannah border to prairie to more mesic and wetland habitat. However, that doesn’t mean the crew is collecting in small quantities. Thus far we have broken the record for the amount of seed collected in a given year for 17 species!
To manage these large, high quality plantings, many days involve a grueling grind of trekking through dense vegetation in the blazing sun and humidity, our socks and pants soaked from the morning dew. For breaks, the crew take refuge at headquarters or in the airconditioned bunkhouse basement. Popsicles, sunflower seeds, and other salty snacks fuel us between meals. This year we were lucky enough to have some dedicated volunteers regularly joining the crew, giving our efforts a huge boost!
The expertise of the stewards’ immaculate plantings have fueled our motivation and their expertise exemplifies the knowledge the crew strive to attain. The stewards have been a huge help with plant identification and recommendations of seed species to collect, and they have fantastic seed sources.
In return, when the stewards have called for help, the crew has acted as reinforcements in the attack against weeds.
The crew also found time to work on side projects which promote better efficiency. We built two 3’ tall, 4’x20’ raised beds for prairie violets and other small species that are hard to collect in large quantities. The hope is that weed management in these beds will be easier than a ground weed mat. It also affords the plants protection from predating ground squirrels. Also, we have begun converting a shed into a seed milling shed, providing future crews more space in which to collect more seed, dry it more quickly, and mill it faster.
Phil and Kaleb have returned to NIU as full-time students, and Sandra became a part-timer; therefore we have brought on two new crew members. Daniel Crosby, from Rochelle, has been volunteering with us two days a week since July. Nate Scott, from New York, is experienced in a variety of restoration techniques.
The crew members that have been here longest — Avery, Cody, Nathaniel, and Sandra — will be taking turns as crew leader for the rest of the year. Next time you see one of these energetic young faces, be sure to give them a high five!
Written by Kaleb Baker, Nachusa's Crew Boss.
Eugene Jones Baldwin
He is a journalist, fiction writer and blogger. He writes history pieces for the Alton Telegraph and is the author of "The Genehouse Chronicles," a collection of essays on nature, people and places along the Mississippi River.