Anybody can love the mountains, but it takes a soul to love the prairie.Willa Cather
Prairies, savannas, grasslands; I’ve always been in love with these habitats. Illinois claims the moniker of “Prairie State” yet has hardly any prairie remaining. It is vital we not only conserve what is left but work on creating new prairie, to restore the landscape.
Prairies do not have the glamour and glitz of snow-covered mountains, glistening lakes, or thick green forests. But their subtle, overlooked beauty is waiting there for the hardy to seek out. These are the lands where American Bison roamed by the millions. These are the lands where pioneers quivered, fearful of what they could not see beyond the endless sea of grass.
In Illinois we are “lucky” to have a few prairies remaining that we can explore and be reminded of what used to be.
Owned by the Nature Conservancy and kept awesome by countless volunteers donating endless hours of time, Nachusa Grasslands is in a word: awesome. Nachusa has grown to over 3,600 acres and continues to improve every year. In 2014, thirty American Bison were introduced to the preserve. Since then the herd has grown to 100.1
Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie
Managed by the United States Forest Service, Midewin has over 18,000 acres that was the location of the now defunct Joliet Arsenal. About half of this land is accessible to the public with over 34 miles of trails. The goal is to fully restore this landscape to the largest tallgrass prairie in the state, large enough to be a fully functioning ecosystem full of diversity.
Growing up in Winnebago County, we spent a great deal of time exploring the 43 forest preserves that protect over 10,000 acres in northern Illinois. Some of these preserves have restored prairies: Deer Run, Oak Ridge, Blackhawk Springs, Colored Sands, Kieselburg, Sugar River Alder, and more. While these preserves are not huge and the amount of prairie on each is smaller still, collectively they make up a nice display of prairie/grassland landscape. Equally important, they provide a place for people of all ages to explore and discover what prairies have to offer.
Fermilab is America’s particle physics and accelerator laboratory but also has some 6,800 acres of beautiful habitat to explore. Fermilab also has its own bison herd and is exceptionally great for birding.
Indian Boundary Prairies
Designated a National Natural Landmark in 1987 by the National Park Service, Indian Boundary Prairies protects some of the state’s most diverse prairies. Located in Markham, a southern suburb of Chicago, these prairies are a vital showcase to a lot of humans of what prairies once were and what they can still be.
Prairies Outside of Illinois
The American Prairie Reserve is a long-term project in Montana to restore 3 million acres of prairie by connecting private and public lands. As of late 2018 they are at around 400,000 acres or about 13%.
Tallgrass National Prairie Preserve
Managed by the National Park Service, the Tallgrass National Prairie Preserve is one of the best remnants of tallgrass prairie. Located in the Flint Hills of Kansas, this preserve protects around 11,000 acres and supports a herd of bison.
Check out our review of PrairyErth by William Least Heat-Moon. This book has tons of interesting facts, centering around Chase County in the heart of the Flint Hills in Kansas where the Tallgrass National Prairie Preserve is located.
Joseph H. Williams Tallgrass Prairie Preserve
Owned and managed by The Nature Consevancy, the Joseph H. Williams Tallgrass Prairie Preserve located in Osage County, Oklahoma is the largest protected prairie remnant at 39,650 acres. It supports a large herd of bison as well as many research projects.