Illinois Department of Natural Resources
November 2021
November 1, 2021

A Nature Preserve Celebrates!

By Christos Economou

Photos by Mark Kluge.

Good news for the irreplaceable, original landscapes of Illinois that can be hard to come across these days. It seems all we hear about are new invasive species, bad development projects, and brush encroachment. But one lucky preserve in Lake County has recently bucked the trend and is looking forward to brighter days – literally

A group of people in a prairie work to clear bushes by cutting down vegetation and carrying away branches. In the background are some trees against a partly cloudy sky.

The preserve in question is Lake Forest Open Lands Association’s flagship Skokie River Nature Preserve, a dedicated Illinois Nature Preserve. Like many natural areas, Shaw Prairie and Woods, core parts of the 200-acre Nature Preserve, have suffered like the proverbial frog in hot water from the steady invasion of brush on their formerly open landscapes. Year by year, dogwood shrubs and aspen trees have gotten bigger and bigger—despite valiant efforts from staff and volunteers to control it—shading the life out of the preserve’s sun-loving remnant ecosystems. Concerned staff wondered: how would it be possible to control so much brush without damaging the prairie? More intensive and painstaking work was obviously needed. 

With admirable foresight, Lake Forest Open Lands saw the challenge as an opportunity and teamed with newly formed Friends of Illinois Nature Preserves to seek a long-term, sustainable solution. Together, the groups decided that a dedicated, well-mentored work, learn, and lead stewardship community, operating in direct partnership with Lake Forest Open Lands staff, offered the best chance to achieve lofty conservation goals. 

A large group of people gather in the shade of a few trees. People are conversing and chatting with one another.

On October 2, 2021 Shaw Woods and Prairie welcomed the first round of leaders of the new stewardship community with a grand kick-off event. Turnout for the kick-off was immense and the enthusiasm palpable. Dozens of caring people from all walks of life rose to the occasion, first learning some ecology and restoration basics, then cutting brush and collecting seed of rare prairie species to plant in those areas shaded to death. It would be the first of many such days. And the start of an adventure in learning, leadership, and community with each other and irreplaceable nature. More than 50 people volunteered to help, and an impressive 17 people jumped at the opportunity to learn to lead various components of the challenging work ahead. 

A group of people are gathering seed in a prairie. Each person is holding a brown paper bag to collect the seed.

Comparable stewardship communities at Langham Island (Kankakee River Nature Preserve)Poplar Creek (Shoe Factory Road Nature Preserve)Nachusa Grasslands, and other fortunate Nature Preserves, have inspired this new “stewardship community kick-off” approach. Friends of Illinois Nature Preserves has the great fortune to be helping in organizing two additional kick-offs this fall: on October 17, 2021 event at Kishwaukee Fen, an invasives-threatened but astoundingly rich and beautiful wetland in Lakewood (McHenry County); and an October 23, 2021 event at the needy and deserving Old Plank Road Prairies in Matteson (Cook and Will counties), formerly some of the best black soil prairie in the state. These volunteer stewardship communities are actively seeking inspired, caring people to help preserve their sites’ natural treasures, and to partner with experts who will mentor them in becoming experts themselves. As the model expands to preserves across the state in the coming years, these early stewardship communities will be remembered as pioneers of a new day for nature in Illinois.

A chemist in his day job, Christos Economou is a passionate and dedicated volunteer leader with Friends of Illinois Nature Preserves. He dedicates hours to the care and stewardship of many nature preserves. He currently leads efforts at Old Plank Road Prairie Nature Preserve and Shaw Woods & Prairie.