By Leah Kleiman
Summer is a busy time of year on the prairie with invasive weeds sprouting up and native plants going to seed. That's why every year Nachusa hires half a dozen seasonal staff to keep up with the workload from May through November. Typically the hired staff are in their twenties and going into careers in ecological restoration/conservation.
During May, June, and July we will spend the majority of our time spraying and spading invasive weeds in the hot sun to keep them from taking over the prairie plantings. Backpack sprayers are used to apply herbicide to weeds such as sweet clover and bird's foot trefoil until they start going to seed. Then we will pull them by hand. By mid-August weed season is over and it's time to focus on seed collection.
As each native plant species ripens, the crew will go out and collect them by hand in buckets and barrels. We may collect anywhere between a few ounces to several hundred pounds, depending on the species size and density. After the seed is collected it will be dried on racks in our seed barn and then milled to separate the seed from the chaff. In the late fall the crew will spread the seed we collected in brand new plantings that have not seen prairie in recent years. This year we will plant several areas with a range of habitats. For the most part the seed mixes will be spread using seeders pulled behind trucks and utility terrain vehicles. The crew of 2018 has already covered a lot of ground in weed sweeps and collected some precious prairie plants. Stay tuned for another crew report in the fall!
Meet this year's hardworkers
Nathaniel Weickert is the crew leader, and this is his second summer working at Nachusa. He is from Rockford and received his Bachelors in Biological Sciences from NIU in 2015. He hopes to acquire a Masters degree and continue working in the field of restoration and conservation. In his free time Nathaniel enjoys reading, hanging out with his friends and family, and producing art.
Avery Parmiter is from Connecticut and earned her B.S. in Environmental and Natural Resource Management from Clemson University in 2015. Avery would like to continue to be based in the field of conservation and looks forward to furthering her knowledge about restoration ecology in her second year at Nachusa. In her free time she enjoys traveling and exploring natural areas.
Kim Elsenbroek is from Kingston, Illinois and earned her B.S. in Plant Biology from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale in 2012 and her M.S. in Evolution, Ecology and Behavioral Biology in 2015 from Indiana University at Bloomington in 2015. She was also on the crew in the fall of 2015. Kim aspires to continue working in the field of restoration and conservation as a practitioner, researcher, and/or teacher. In her free time Kim is a dancer and dance teacher/choreographer at Dance Dimensions in DeKalb.
Tyler Berndt is from Minooka Illinois. He recently graduated from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale with a BS in Zoology Wildlife Biology and is currently seeking graduate level opportunities. Tyler had previously worked at Nachusa as an undergraduate ornate box turtle technician. He values learning more about the political and interpersonal deliberations needed to connect fragmented habitats and human dominated ecosystems. Tyler would like to be a consultant or coordinator for organizations like The Nature Conservancy and the USDA Forest Service. In his free time he enjoys exploring state and national parks, historical sites, and cities.
Karey O'Brien is from Minooka Illinois and graduated with a B.S. in Environmental Science from Lewis University. She recently worked at the Forest Preserve District of Will County as a Natural Resource Management Seasonal Laborer. Karey hopes to improve her plant identification skills and continue learning more about natural areas management while here at Nachusa. In her free time Karey enjoys hiking, biking, and watching movies.
Leah Kleiman is a volunteer. This is her second summer working with the crew. She grew up on Nachusa and is working on her A.S. in biology at Sauk Valley Community College. Next year Leah will be transferring to Southern Illinois University at Carbondale to earn her B.S. in Plant Biology and Ecology. She plans to pursue a career in restoration/conservation. In her free time Leah enjoys sketching, hiking, swimming, and hanging out with her friends.
Bios written by the individuals.
Filling our backpack sprayers with herbicide before heading into the field.
Once in the field, we line up and walk transects across each prairie planting searching for invasive weeds to spray.
Picking violet wood sorrel (Oxalis violacea) on a remnant knob. This little prairie flower produces a seed close to the ground so spotting it can be difficult.
By Mary Meier
What do 400 hours of volunteer stewardship, $7,000 in donations, and 100 hours of social media posts have in common? They are all components of the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation’s Community Stewardship Challenge Grant Program.
The Foundation encourages increased local support and participation in the care of habitat by providing grant funds as a match to local dollars raised and labor donated.
Friends of Nachusa Grasslands has been approved for grants totaling $32,000 if we fulfill requirements under several categories:
Friends chose Nachusa’s Orland Prairie, a prairie remnant on the west end of the Big Jump Unit, for its habitat restoration project site. Volunteers have already begun attacking the 23-acre parcel that is heavily infested with the invasive shrub autumn olive. Non-native honeysuckle is also rampant in the area.
Mike Carr, Orland Prairie volunteer steward, who has been working on the unit for several years, says,
“I really enjoy brush clearing, especially the nasty stuff.”
Both autumn olive and honeysuckle are some of the most tenacious foes that Nachusa’s volunteers battle.
According to The Nature Conservancy, “Autumn olive is quickly becoming one of the most troublesome shrubs in central and eastern United States. High seed production, high germination rates and the sheer hardiness of the plant allow it to grow rapidly.”
In addition, a University of Illinois extension website says, “Controlling bush honeysuckle is vital to the preservation of native ecosystems in Illinois. Bush honeysuckle currently poses one of the greatest threats to forest ecosystems in Illinois.”
Saturday workday crews and individual volunteers are using herbicides to kill the woody brush invading Orland. Later this year and early next year, we will over-seed the area with native species collected during the harvest season, conduct prescribed burns, re-contour unsightly gravel pits, and remove non-native trees and large debris from fence rows at the site.
Our long-term goal is to establish a diverse prairie planting on the 23-acre site, providing for long-term weed management and suppression of non-native shrubs and trees. Ongoing stewardship efforts, including volunteer labor, herbicide application, and controlled burns, will gradually help integrate the target area into the surrounding habitat.
How can you help Friends earn the stewardship grant? Volunteer for a Saturday brush clearing workday at Orland Prairie — the next one is on June 9. During the summer and fall, you can also help collect prairie seeds for Orland from the preserve. The Friends Social Media Team uses Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and our website to promote volunteer opportunities.
You can also follow Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation’s Community Stewardship Challenge Grant Program on Facebook and Twitter to learn more about the Foundation.
Yes! Spring fire season is here! As a Nachusa Grasslands’ fire crew member, it is time to get ready.
The Nature Conservancy has three fire crew requirements:
Nachusa Grasslands held its 2018 Refresher exercise on March 10. Folks fresh out of S-130/S-190 attended, along with the regular, seasoned crew. Whatever the team member’s experience, the refresher has always been a day where we all take away lessons.
First task of the day — Field test. It helps to take the test in a group. Camaraderie is regenerated as we chat and laugh. Those of the crew who benefit from being taller help those of us who are shorter by setting the pace of four miles per hour. This portion of the day has been nicknamed the “pack test” by Nachusa’s fire crew. Do we call it the pack test because something unconsciously wonderful occurs during the hike that helps reinforce communication and cohesiveness that a crew will need during an actual burn? Are we working together similar to a wolf pack, thus, a “pack” test? Hmm.
Next — Classroom. This is the time to review our various burning methods and first aid/safety. This portion of the day is perhaps the most difficult because we all prefer to be outdoors. There is the benefit that someone typically brings homemade goodies to share.
Finally, we head outdoors to practice! We split into groups and work through various stations.
Equipment Review. If you have ever burned somewhere else, you immediately appreciate the plethora of tools available at Nachusa. The trucks with large water tanks are helpful. The trucks are not as maneuverable as a utility vehicle (UTV), but the big tanks are great because large volumes of water are available on the fire line. In contrast to the trucks, we have UTV’s with smaller water tanks that can access tight or muddy areas. You can imagine this luxury if you have hauled a water backpack onto a fire line. The trucks and UTV’s are only a sampling of Nachusa’s equipment.
Of course, equipment requires preventive maintenance. Before every fire, all vehicles and tools are inspected for common issues. For example:
Vehicle Extraction. The best way to to avoid pulling a vehicle out of the mud is to not get it stuck. Ah, comedian. Truly. . . we talk about being mindful of the terrain, when to have a vehicle in low versus high, four-wheel drive versus two-wheel, and differential lock or not. Then we simulate a stuck vehicle and practice using the new winches on the UTV’s. The new winches are nifty because they have a “remote” that you plug into the anchor vehicle and therefore operate the winch at a safer distance from the vehicles. With this method, you can get a better perspective of the extraction process and know more quickly if the mired vehicle is clear of the mud. Cool.
Vehicle backup. We use the trucks for this station. When the trucks are loaded with the water tanks, hose reels, and water pumps, it is difficult to see behind the vehicle in order to back up safely. It is extremely important to have a spotter to help back up without incident — property damage or, worse, personal injury. Verbal communication and clear hand signals are necessary between driver and spotter. We practice making a straight-on backup, and then also a straight-on backup with a 90° turn — all between cones! Yikes!
Spot Fire Simulation. By far, the most anticipated station of the day — working with fire! Our burn boss, Bill Kleiman, sets a fire in the prairie and radios a “spot fire” to the waiting crew, asking for resources. We respond, separately attack the fire flanks as two teams, and extinguish the spot fire as quickly as possible, always mindful of safety. The exercise is intended to remind us how to actually approach an unwanted fire, and how to quickly and purposefully move to extinguish the fire before it is out of hand. In speedy succession, we think about the crew member up front working the fire hose and “eating some smoke” — might that person need relief? Can the driver see through the smoke? Is the now blackened area cool enough to drive over? Is somebody tending the hose so that it does not catch on fire? What is the wind doing and how is the fire moving? What type of fuels are we in? Is the fire out with the first pass or do we need more resources? Is the fire completely out? Any flare ups — double check, double check, double check.
We gather for our “after action” review; what was good and what could we have done better? Let’s do another!
When our refresher exercises are complete, we head back to the Headquarters Barn for some snacks, beverages, more camaraderie, and end with the feeling of a day well spent.
I love the whole burning process — from initial preparation to the actual burn — to witnessing the various habitats rejuvenate and thrive following the burns. Do you want to be a part of prescribed fire? Contact us, and we hope to see you on the fire line soon!
This blog post was written by Gwen D., a volunteer steward at Nachusa Grasslands.
Autumn has always been my favorite season. Oaks are my favorite trees. So, it seems fitting in "Oaktober" to write about oaks and oak woodlands
At Nachusa Grasslands and other places in the Midwest, we are trying to restore the health of our oak woodlands. And really, our region is defined by the oaks. The Nature Conservancy calls our eco-region “The Prairie-Forest Border” between the grand prairie to the south and the mixed woodlands in neighboring states to the north. The area was historically maintained as prairie intermixed with oak savanna and woodlands by Native American nations.
Natural plant and animal communities of the region were a direct result of Native Peoples’ use of fire on the land. Without fire, in “The Prairie-Forest Border,” the amount of rain we receive would have yielded dense forests.
Many botanists have defined the various intergrades between savanna, open woodland, and closed woodland by the level of sunlight and density and species of trees. (See https://oaksavannas.org/)
Today, much of our Illinois woodlands have become too shady to allow sun-loving oaks to grow. Shade is the enemy of oaks. Acorns in shade will not thrive after germination and the limbs of oaks will also die if shaded.
How can we tell if the “woods” we are looking at was historically savanna or naturally shady? The presence of large, old oaks with limbs that stick straight out (or used to, but are dead now) indicate the area was likely savanna. An oak growing in full sun without other trees close by will grow limbs horizontally. Oaks that grow close together grow their limbs vertically to reach the sun.
To give the oaks a fighting chance modern prairie restorers make use of controlled burns, as well as actual removal of invasive trees growing under and up into the limbs of the old sentinel oaks. We also remove the non-native bush honeysuckle (and other non-native shrubs) from the understory.
Our region’s historic mixture of prairie interspersed with woodland types — from dry to wet, from open to somewhat shady — had an enormous species diversity of understory flowers, grasses, and native shrubs.
If action is not taken by restorers, the result is a mud forest floor, impenetrable understory with honeysuckle bushes, and an overstory of dead oaks. Elms, maples, and other shade-loving fire intolerant trees move in to take the place of oaks and hickories.
This combination of a solid thicket of invasive honeysuckle and loss of oaks gives hardly any habitat for animals. For example, deer and turkey dislike maple and elm, but they love acorns!
Native oak-hickory savannas and woodlands in the region are disappearing along with bird species that depend on the open structure: red-headed woodpeckers, great crested flycatchers, and eastern bluebirds. Native wildflowers such as kitten tails, wild hyacinth, prairie lily, and starry campion along with grasses such as bottle brush rye, woodland brome, and long-awned wood grass will not grow in heavy shade. And there are the native shrubs: hazelnut, American plum, hawthorn, and Iowa crabapple! None of these tolerate shade either.
I encourage you to read up on oak woodlands, then take a hike. Explore the Stone Barn Savanna and see how we are doing. It’s a work in progress and sometimes messy, but we see the native oak savanna dependent plants and animals are thriving.
Here are some great websites that discuss oak savannas:
Pleasant Valley Conservancy—Oak Savannas
Last of the Oak Savannas Survive in Minnesota
What is an Oak Savanna?
Written by Susan Kleiman, a Nachusa volunteer.
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.
Decades ago, across a patch of land where cattle grazed, two students of Aldo Leopold recognized the call of the upland sandpiper. That eerie sound helped Doug and Dot Wade to recognize a highly degraded remnant prairie. Against all odds, a process started that would save this piece of ground for nature. Over the next few years a small group of people would demonstrate that given the right conditions, mainly the exclusion of cattle and return of fire, that rare prairie plants would once again thrive. In One Man’s Endeavor to Save the Prairie Kim W. Johnsen writes . . .
This group of listeners, thinkers, and activists led The Nature Conservancy to purchase the land that would become Nachusa Grasslands. On August 26, 1986 the first 130 acres were purchased. (Prairie Smoke 2016 Annual Stewardship Report; p. 4-5) Over time, more and more land containing degraded remnants was purchased, followed by farm fields of row crops that connected the remnants. These farm fields would need to be planted with native plant seeds and nurtured to bring back a prairie with a diversity of grasses and flowers.
Some area ecologist observed the restoration work in progress at Nachusa, and in small areas within the Cook County Forest Preserve District, and labeled it gardening. After all, he thought, the succession of plants and trees from an area, to be followed by others, is a normal ecologic function. When weather conditions change, or fire is absent, or a river changes course, or a natural barrier creating a dam breaks to expose the lake bottom to sunshine and air, plants and animals that are better suited to the changed conditions move into those areas and nature heals itself. Normally this happens over very long periods of time, but it happens. So, when groups of people began to step in and remove some plants in favor of others and began harvesting nearby seeds and planting them, it appeared to that ecological purist, to be gardening.
People doing ecological restoration start with the premise that the natural environment has been altered by humans to a degree that normal processes of succession no longer work. A restoration starts by researching the plants and animals that have historically been present. This is done by studying old diaries, maps, land surveys and any other document that can be obtained. Museum collections are reviewed to see what was collected or recorded in the area. An effort is made to return the land to pre-settlement conditions. When seeds are selected, with a few exceptions, great effort is made that they are locally sourced and the species are historically part of the landscape. Once the plant community is restored, it is hoped that the insects, birds, and mammals will return.
The gardener and the person doing ecosystem healing share many common procedures that some think have similar results. Both sow seed into the ground, use cuttings and plants grown in containers, pollinate plants by hand, and use herbicides to eliminate unwanted plants. Each prepare the ground to maximize chances for success. Many of the tools and methods used in the healing process were first used by gardeners. The result of all the effort in both cases, is a landscape beautified with flowers, grasses, shrubs, and trees. So why is ecological restoration not gardening?
The gardener is looking for maximum visual impact and will select plants originating from distant lands to accent a garden. A gardener will place plants to offer coordinating and contrasting, colors, heights, shapes, and varied bloom times. A gardener may crossbreed plants, often pollinating plants by hand to maximize and enhance desired qualities, allowing only the plants with those qualities to propagate. A neighbor, who loved to garden, would hand pollinate his snapdragons and then isolate the flower so only the pollen he provided could become seed. Every year, his snapdragons had robust and colorful blooms. The efforts of the gardener are directed to provide a display pleasing to the human eye.
Restoration efforts promote plants that are native to the area — plants that need special habitat to thrive and that are now rare. Habitat, once abundant, has been converted to roads, parking lots, buildings, and farms. Neglect has degraded other natural areas where native plants find it difficult to survive and reproduce. The suppression of fire has allowed honeysuckle, multi-flora rose, and other invasive species to crowd out fire adapted plants. A friend, who loved native plants, would hand pollinate an endangered plant whose population was no longer large enough to reproduce; the insect most likely to pollinate the plant was no longer present or the plants too far apart for insect pollination to be effective. This plant, the federally endangered eastern prairie fringed orchid, painstakingly hand pollinated, and caged to prevent deer browse, began to thrive on a few new sites where seeds were scattered. In time, seeds of this orchid from a population in Lake County were spread in many places at Nachusa. For years no orchids were found, but in one wetland, it now thrives at Nachusa, uncaged and once again pollinated by insects. Nachusa’s population is now one of the largest in the state and among the largest in the world. (Prairie Smoke 2015 Stewardship Report; p. 6) To a person doing ecosystem healing, placement of a plant in conditions it will thrive is important, thus matching the seeds or young plants to the environment best suited to its needs. Conditions such as whether an area is naturally wet or dry, sunny or shaded by trees, or even a north facing or south facing slope may determine a native plants success in growing and reproducing. Ultimately it will be nature that decides whether a plant succeeds or fails in any given location, just as it did before Europeans arrived.
When gardening, the gene pool for the next generation is selected by the gardener for qualities that please people. It might be size, color, shape or some other unique feature that people choose to pass forward to the next generation. In ecosystem healing, the goal is to let nature do the work of selecting the next generation. A diverse plant mix, matched to the right ecological conditions will self-assemble over time, to fit back into its native environment. As the insects, birds, and mammals return, they select the gene pool for the next generation; thus, providing an opportunity for the normal processes of change and succession to be restored.
The greatest compliment for the work done at Nachusa won’t come from people visiting to admire the view, although the views at Nachusa are spectacular. Every visit offers something different in bloom, often changing the color and look of the landscape from one week to the next. Many of the flowers and plants were once abundant and covered vast tracks of land as far as the eye could see, but now they only survive in small isolated patches and have become rare. Many require special conditions of associate plants or companion soil microbes to thrive, conditions that are slowly being restored at Nachusa. The greatest compliment comes from the variety of insects, birds, and mammals that find their way to Nachusa and begin to thrive. Recently the upland sandpiper not seen in the area since 1988, returned to Nachusa to add its voice to the prairie remnants; when it nests and raises it's young this will be viewed as the greatest compliment of all.
Written by Paul Swanson, a volunteer at Nachusa.
I have been a high school French teacher, registered piano technician, and librarian. In retirement I am a volunteer historian at Lee County Historical and Genealogical Society.