Summer sunrise at Nachusa Grasslands

Restoration, Nachusa Style

Nachusa Grasslands, Illinois

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In 34 years, The Nature Conservancy has transformed Nachusa Grasslands’s 4,000 acres, reintroduced bison, and influenced countless other restorations.

By Justin Pepper and Don Parker, with Jay Stacy, Bernie Buchholz, Cody Considine, Bill Kleiman, and Kaleb Baker
 

From A Healthy Nature Handbook: Illustrated Insights for Ecological Restoration from Volunteer Stewards of Chicago Wilderness, edited by Justin Pepper and Don Parker. Copyright © 2021 Bobolink Foundation. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C.

A Healthy Nature Handbook

Nachusa Grasslands has attracted a lot of press recently—reintroducing bison within a few hours of Chicago will do that. Without a doubt, the cloven celebrities’ arrival has been exciting, unleashing a primal force upon the land many believe could be essential to rejuvenate it fully.

Yet the bison are just the latest validation of another primal force, the volunteer-fueled restoration championed by The Nature Conservancy (TNC) since 1986, which has restored a matrix large and robust enough to support this experiment.

The Conservancy first acquired 397 acres of natural remnants—mainly unplowed prairie knobs with sandstone outcrops—in 1986, in the area around Franklin Grove, Illinois. Already in a race with housing developments that have now begun to appear in earnest, TNC continued to acquire some adjoining agricultural fields. It quickly set about transforming the land back into a patchwork of prairie and savanna with plant community compositions indistinguishable from high-quality remnants.
 

From the beginning, the restoration has been accomplished by staff and volunteers working side-by-side. This symbiosis has allowed the community to conduct restoration at an ambitious scale while paying close attention to the land’s innumerable details.

Born of the volunteer stewardship culture of Chicago, a can-do ethos has evolved on this expanding island of habitat diversity. Stewards and staff have honed restoration techniques based on trial and error, science, and the drive to find new and better ways of doing things.

What has been accomplished at Nachusa is largely the result of a decision Bill Kleiman, Nachusa’s longtime preserve manager, made decades ago: that engaging volunteer leaders as equal partners would be at the project’s heart. That commitment has paid rich dividends.

Some 25 highly dedicated stewards have put in hundreds of thousands of hours over the decades, making key decisions about their sites and building the culture. By Bill’s estimate, roughly half of Nachusa’s management units now have a volunteer steward. Abetted over the years by thousands of rank-and-file weekend volunteers, their high-quality plantings and carefully tended remnants are the basis (and seed source) from which many new restorations spring.

Bison at Nachusa Grasslands
Bison at Nachusa Grasslands.
Photo by Charles Larry.

As the principle architect of Nachusa’s conservation culture, Bill had something to do with this success. In fact, we could have written a chapter on him alone—the guy can fix tractors, identify rare sedges, deliver keynotes, orchestrate burns, and restore century-old barns. But we decided not to—and not just because Bill would hate it, but because we feared doing so might make this all too easily dismissible. Bill is a remarkable person, but what he’s done is totally replicable.

How it gets repeated will vary from place to place and person to person. Bill, for one, decided that silent, omnipresent reminders might be helpful. So, label gun in hand, he set out to reinforce the effective use of equipment and organization of shared space. His handiwork encourages, even as it has earned him the moniker “mad labeler.” Bill’s labels invite reflection on how each of us can support others’ commitment wherever we’re involved. Ultimately, that’s the only way restoration succeeds.

Autumn creek at Nachusa Grasslands
Autumn creek at Nachusa Grasslands.
Photo by Charles Larry.

Sewing a Quilt, One Parcel at a Time

Volunteers have played a critical role in stitching a vast native landscape back together, one planting at a time.

Of the 132 plantings at Nachusa to date, volunteer stewards have done 44. Compared with those of the staff crews, their plantings are small, totaling 225 total restored acres as of June 2020. (Adding remnants, volunteers manage about 900 acres.) But they’re among Nachusa’s best, often buffering and tying together remnants. In some cases, they build on crew plantings. In others, they provide the cornerstone and seed source for more.

  1. 1987–1994
    A small crew of staff and volunteers do the first plantings around the original remnant prairie knobs. Bill Kleiman becomes preserve manager in 1993.
     
  2. 1997–2002
    Jay Stacy conducts the first volunteer-led planting at Nachusa, followed by others, converting 31 acres of ag field.
     
  3. 1999
    Hank and Becky Hartman begin restoring 51-acre Big Woods. As they revive savanna and prairie, some call them the “overseeding gods.”
     
  4. 2002–2007
    Former Big 10 basketball star Tom Mitchell, working four-day weeks for the IRS, spends two of his other three days planting and caring for four units of Thelma Carpenter Prairie. They remain important seed warrens, especially for coreopsis.
     
  5. 2004–2007
    A young father and innovative botanist, Chris Hauser burns the candle at both ends to plant 13 acres at Clear Creek South.

  6. 2006–2013
    Al and Mary Meier’s five plantings connect remnant dry prairies at Dot and Doug Wade Prairie, including a redo of a failed 1994 crew planting. The couple gets up each morning at 4:00 a.m. to drive from Bloomington-Normal.

  7. 2006–2015
    In 10 separate plantings, Bernie Buchholz, with wife Cindy, plants 48 acres of dry mesic prairie surrounding a remnant knob. They spend much time restoring the remnant itself.

  8. 2006–2010
    Jay plants five sites up north in tandem with the Buchholzes, forming a block. In 2012, he plants 16 acres of prairie to the west, which he claims are his last.

  9. 2008 & 2012
    High-school biology teacher Mary Vieregg, with husband Jim, plants 10 acres of prairie nearby at Dropseed Hills North.
     
  10. 1995–2018
    As TNC refines techniques and adds equipment, crew plantings increase in size, including a giant 103-acre effort in 2016.
Map of plantings at Nachusa Grasslands
Year labels = staff plantings (or *previous owner). Turquoise = volunteer plantings. Pale yellow to dark red = older planting to more recent. Remnants = green. Smaller plantings omitted.
Image courtesy Island Press.
Summer - Fall - Winter - Spring
Image courtesy Island Press.

Restoration at Scale

At Nachusa, each new land acquisition is a chance to expand native habitat. Here’s their formula for turning farm fields back to prairie.

  1. Find Remnants
    Even just a few conservative plants can signify a remnant ecosystem. Defend them. Remnants are your best seed source until your plantings expand. Scout often, weed, and connect them with other remnants.
     
  2. Clean the Slate
    Avoid seeding into weedy areas. Most Nachusa plantings begin as ag fields, where years of weed control with glyphosate depletes the invasive seed bank. Before planting, harvest the corn or soy, leaving stubble to prevent erosion.
     
  3. Plant Seed
    Use a diverse mix collected from onsite remnants (and increasingly, plantings) if possible. Get seed out by Thanksgiving—not-yet-frozen soils will hold seed in place. Freezing and thawing will integrate seeds into soil and break seed coats.
     
  4. Be Social
    Nachusa’s stewardship community bonds over informal gatherings: lunch breaks in the HQ barn, dinner at Bill’s, a drink on the porch after the work is done. This is as essential to success as seeding or tractor maintenance.
     
  5. Weed (And Collect Seed)
    Start weeding as soon as you can ID spring seedlings. (Sweet clover and birdsfoot trefoil are prime targets at Nachusa.) Weeding is the main focus this time of year in new plantings. By year three, though, make time to collect seed from early bloomers such as violets. Sow them immediately if you can.
     
  6. Collect Seed
    Nachusa stewards spend increasingly more time collecting seed from established plantings as the growing season progresses. In first-year plantings, the plants are very small, with a few annuals and quick perennials blooming. But the list of blooming plants grows each year. In some areas, such as Nachusa’s one-acre dropseed garden, stewards and crew now even collect seed with a combine.
     
  7. Overseed
    Fill gaps and increase species count. Target areas that may support missing plant associates.
     
  8. Burn
    Prescribed burns are essential to remnants and restorations. Burn a new planting as early as year one. Mow the dried stalks of still-sparse new plantings to make it easier to find weeds in year two and to concentrate fuel enough to carry fire. (Mow as late into fall as possible to leave wildlife habitat, but, ideally, before the ground freezes.) Nachusa burns are varied. Even among prairies, some burn yearly, some every other year, and some every third year. Woodlands have their own regimes.
Spring at Nachusa Grasslands
Spring at Nachusa Grasslands.
Photo by Charles Larry.

Growing an Effective Volunteer Culture

Tips for nurturing a thriving stewardship community.

Ditch your volunteer program.

The first rule of Nachusa’s volunteer program: there is no volunteer program. “It’s a culture; it’s a community,” says Cody. There’s no hierarchy, not even a volunteer coordinator. Stewards are 100 percent peers and colleagues, says Bill.

Lead by example.

“I would get here 8:30, 8:15, and Bill’s been out to work for an hour already. He’s been going around on a tractor, mowing stuff,” says Jay. “There’s nobody sittin’ around. And that inspires a volunteer, because we want our time to matter.”

Empower, don’t control.

“I’ve been asked by people from other projects, how do you control the volunteers?” says Bernie. “And the answer is, of course, we don’t control.” Stewards move toward the landowner’s vision from their own angles. “It was Bill’s genius as a manager that he would empower appropriate people and find the best way they could serve this project,” says Jay. “Your run-of-the-mill managers tend to want to keep all the reins in their hands. And Bill’s the opposite. He would say, ‘Go out and do it.’”

Do real work.

As Jay puts it, volunteers aren’t just for “dinky stuff.” “People get into the heart of the work the first day,” he says. “Volunteers collect seed, manage weeds, make up most of our fire crew,” says Bill. “They run our festival, tours program, education program, website, butterfly monitoring, bird monitoring, some of our rare species work.

Two volunteers pick up roadside trash and others help care for the headquarters. Another does carpentry tasks, and so on.” Stewards regularly plan and implement entire projects, says Bill. “I try to say yes to big ideas.”

Hand stewards ownership (and keys).

“Stewards love to have a piece of the preserve they can call their own,” says Bill. “They get to know it well.” Hand them the keys to the headquarters, gates, and tools, too. “Our stewards are out seven days a week, early in the mornings, sometimes late at night,” he says. Bill and Cody estimate that at least 60 percent of volunteer restoration work takes place outside official workdays.

Make time for community.

Being around Nachusa people, you get the impression they must always be laughing. “At the end of the day, you tie it all together with something besides work,” says steward Dave Crites. “And something that everyone can relax and relate to, and have conversations about what they do outside of here. There is a potluck or a cookout or something pretty much every month.” Find ways to express genuine appreciation, too.

Always keep the door open.

“On the fourth day of a heat wave, somebody comes in here and starts asking these kind of entry-level questions—‘What are you doing? How many bison?’” says Bernie. “Bill engages people that don’t have any apparent immediate payoff.” You’ve got to stay open, says Jay. “The person that’s gonna be your best volunteer, odds-on, is going to come at the moment when you least want them to.”

Illustration of humming lunch table
Image courtesy Island Press.

The Humming Lunch Table

Never mind modern burn gear, giant combines, or mapping software—a half-dozen folding lunch tables constitute one of the technologies key to Nachusa’s success.

A renovated two-story barn serves as The Nature Conservancy office, supply depot, seed processing area, and garage. On the second floor, a large multi-purpose area with a wraparound view of the rolling savanna is part conference room, part break room, part office, part library. But every midday, it’s the lunch room.

“There is a conversation that happens at lunch,” says Bernie, “about a species, about what worked on this weed, how I’m getting this to grow, so that there is a continually developing conversation about what works, and how do I make my planting the best it can be—call it ‘best practices.’ We just want it to be better and better and better.”

The most common lunchtime topic? “What seed is ready where,” says Jay. “What are you getting, everybody? You know, there’s a patch there I didn’t touch—go get that.” Crews recently began mapping seed with ArcGIS. Yet the lunch table, like a beehive with scouts reporting in on nectar locations, still provides a vital link to understanding the landscape at any given moment.

“I think the lingua franca out here is knowledge,” says Bernie. “The exchange is knowledge. And I’d rather know; I’d rather be able to tell Jay about an experience with a species than almost anything. We want to know, and we want to share.”

It’s part of the ongoing learning culture, from beginners to veterans. “We learn by trial and error,” says Jay. “There’s not one of us who hasn’t had too much of a species. And people come in at lunch going, ‘Oh shoot, you know, we put in this, and I put in too much of this and this.’” Increasingly, scientists sit around the table, too. “We might have 25 research projects underway,” says Bernie. “Sometimes there might be 15 scientists, or their helpers, sitting at this table at lunch. That’s a lot of energy, and I think it’s a huge opportunity.”

“There are certain physical things that can really help support conservation work,” says Cody, “and one is this barn. A central meeting place, a place to meet someone at lunchtime. You may be all over heck during the day, but lunch is the time you come back and share ideas. Places like this are critical if you want to foster a very community-oriented management of the land.”

Winter at Nachusa Grasslands
Winter at Nachusa Grasslands.
Photo by Charles Larry.

How To Hold and Expand a Planting

Expanding a restoration across thousands of acres is a bit like defending a sprawling ancient empire from marauders. Here’s how they do it at Nachusa.

  1. Battle weeds with seeds. Establish your planting so well that it’s virtually impregnable. The more densely and diversely you plant, the more resistant to invasives (and the better seed source later). Weed infiltrators like crazy. “You win the battle or lose it in the first two years,” says Jay.

    Planting image 1

  2. Protection through expansion. When your original planting is solid—with no internal infestations—you can add territory. Minimize edges by creating a solid shape. (This also makes it easier to burn.) Avoid planting isolated outposts or skinny corridors, as they’re easily overtaken.

    Planting image 2

How to Defend Edges

Nachusa Plants a Common-Species Border

If your planting adjoins a weedy area, try seeding a 6- to 10-foot border of common native species. Depending on habitat, this could include hoary vervain, wild bergamot, black-eyed Susans, yellow coneflower, and lots of Canada rye—all seed that’s easy to get. These fast-growing species can hold off some invaders. If you do see infestations, you can spot treat with broadleaf herbicide and worry less about off-target casualties. Your hardy natives will fill in any gaps you create. When you’re ready (such as after you’ve planted the adjacent area), you can overseed with a richer mix.

High-quality interior - Border - Weedy exterior

Pink plant

Year 1 = Year 100

As much as possible, plant in year one every species you want in year 100. Don’t leave out the conservatives for later.
 

Focus Your Overseeding

That said, augmentation is always possible. “You can tell when a species really likes a spot,” says Jay. “They’re bigger, and there are more of them—it’s just a look they give. Then you look it up in Swink and Wilhelm. What are the associates? You get a 20-species list, and just go seed in that area. We call that focused overseeding.

“So you try and build plant communities. You go to a natural area; especially if the soils aren’t homogenous, you’re gonna come on one community, then a different one. We’re trying to imitate that.”

Experiment Corner: Herbicide-Tolerant Plantings

To more efficiently establish stable new plantings, Cody Considine is experimenting with what he calls Herbicide Resistant Prairie Restoration. It starts with a fall seeding of known Transline-resistant species. (Seventy-two have been identified so far, including Castilleja sessiliflora, Dalea purpurea, and Zizia aptera.) After letting the seedlings get established for one growing season, he boom-sprays with Transline until the invasive seedbank is exhausted—one to two growing seasons. Then he overseeds with the rest of the species that don’t tolerate Transline. While this approach relies heavily on herbicide, the spraying period is finite. Based on what he’s seen so far, Cody believes this practice will have its place in large-scale restorations.

Experiment Corner: How Much Seed is Enough?

What’s the optimal amount of seed to use when planting? How do you get maximum plant density and diversity without wasting seed?

Graph of seed weight per areaBill wanted to put those questions to science. So in 2006, he teamed up with researchers David Goldblum, Brian Glaves, and Lesley Rigg, seeding 72 plots with a dry prairie seed mix, leaving 18 unseeded plots as controls. Sowing at 10, 30, 50, and 70 lbs/acre, they found that after two years, plots with more seed showed considerably greater diversity, conservatism, native plant density, and resistance to weeds. The difference between 50 and 70 lbs/acre, though, was far less significant.

Bill’s takeaway: for new plantings, use 40 to 50 pounds of seed per acre (with chaff).*

*As every site is different, adapt your approach as needed. Research published in the June 2013 issue of Ecological Restoration.

 
Learn more about Nachusa Grasslands.

 

Justin PepperJustin Pepper is the Bobolink Foundation’s chief conservation officer. Bobolink’s focus is biodiversity conservation in the Americas, emphasizing grasslands, wildlife, and community-based conservation.

Don ParkerDon Parker is a Chicago-region freelance writer, editor, and illustrator with extensive experience in the field of conservation including as a longtime habitat restoration volunteer and leader.

In 1996, Jay Stacy was selling clothes in a high-end Michigan Avenue shop. An avid birder, he drove out to Nachusa one day, on a tip about grasshopper sparrows and upland plovers. He saw both birds within five minutes, and stayed to become one of Nachusa’s longest-serving volunteer stewards.

Long a “50-dollar-member” of TNC, Bernie Bucholz went to a workday and never stopped coming. In Nachusa, he found “the perfect antidote to a 20-year career in finance.” He’s been a steward since 2006 and was a leading founder of Friends of Nachusa Grasslands. The nonprofit has given $210,000 in research grants and raised $2 million for endowments to care for the grasslands in perpetuity.

Growing up in nearby Dixon, Cody Considine first joined the Nachusa crew in 2005 as a technician. For his graduate thesis, he studied fire history at TNC’s Kankakee Sands Preserve. Now deputy director, he supports all restoration and management operations, including overseeing burns, hiring crews, and leading the bison program.

Nachusa’s first and only full-time preserve manager, Bill Kleiman has built the program into a flagship example of large-scale habitat restoration. A founder of the Illinois Prescribed Fire Council and leader of the Grassland Restoration Network, he has mentored generations of conservationists.

Kaleb Baker started as a Saturday volunteer, later joining the crew as a technician for two seasons and pursuing his MS in Ecology, including a thesis on honeysuckle control. He chaired the stewardship committee for the Franklin Creek Conservation Association.

One of the world’s leading conservation organizations, The Nature Conservancy has roots in nearby Rockford. As owner of Nachusa Grasslands, it has long empowered the project with staff, training, funds, and land acquisition, as well as support for its innovative approach to restoration.

Header photo, summer sunrise at Nachusa Grasslands, by Charles Larry.

 

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