Let’s keep Illinois “The Prairie State”
In the advent of the Green Movement, it’s surprising there’s confusion on what “Prairie Restoration” is. Some say, “Eh, just leave it be, it’ll go back…” But, it won’t.
When the settlers first arrived in the Illinois area, the amount of grasslands or “seas of grass” stunned them. European settlers felt the need to tame the land and develop it for their needs. They plowed the prairie for their crops, cultivated plants from their homeland, and suppressed the life giving fires once started by the local Indians. Again, the natural lands were altered to suit the needs of man.
Many years have past since the first pioneer ventured their way to the Midwest, but the influences of this invasion have lived on. Many of the areas that the general public sees, i.e. rights-of-way, unused farmland, and even some forest preserves, are almost void of native species. The Queen Anne’s lace, chicory, and phragmites are commonly thought of as natives, but are not. Most of these imported plants have become dominant in the landscape, with some plants turning downright invasive. This is the basic reasoning that if area’s were left to go “back to nature” they would not, as nature has been altered by man. Since the prairies were once disrupted by humans, if would be fair to say we would need the help of humans to return it to the way it was.
The transformation of a prairie has more importance than to just return the area to native plants. By returning an environment to its former, native state, an ecosystem is developed and many of the native biota (plants, animals, and microorganisms) can flourish. Once you’ve returned the land to its native balance, the magic begins. “Build it, and they will come”, also applies to restoration. Native species of insects, amphibians, and birds will try to return and populate the newly found Eden.
There are many other uses for a prairie other than general aesthetics and the activities we enjoy at our local forest preserves. Prairie and native grasses clean the polluted air of toxins, but also from the soil itself. Aside from reducing erosion, native species can diminish the amounts of phosphorous and nitrogen in the soil. This in turn would decrease problems associated with fertilizers entering water systems.
One of the most fulfilling aspects of a prairie restoration sometimes isn’t the prairie itself. Volunteers, people who get nothing but pride out of a dirty, hard day of labor, conduct most restorations.
Area’s left to fend for themselves will become ravaged by invasive, non-native plant species, driving out the native insects, birds, and animals without the help of humanity. Let us continue to be able to celebrate “Prairie Week” (September 15th – 21st) in Illinois by nurturing our prairies and grasslands. It’s not called “The Prairie State” for nothing!