Not long ago, before urban sprawl, before the industrial revolution and before the advent of agriculture, Illinois was a land of natural lushness.
Vast vistas of tall grasses and vibrant wildflowers stretched from horizon to horizon and greeted early settlers with awe-inspiring beauty and diversity.
This spectacular landscape covered 95 percent of the state, earning Illinois the title of "Prairie State."
Today, however, less than two percent of those lands remain -- a sad commentary on the destruction wrought by modern development on our natural surroundings.
Fortunately, prairie restoration projects in recent years have become more numerous, and the Fox Valley Park District is among those driving the efforts. To date, the FVPD has developed 1,100 acres of natural lands, wetlands and woodland areas. Continued expansion of these areas is a top priority in the park district's long-term strategic plan.
"Prairies are an endangered biome," said Cathy Daul, natural areas specialist. "Throughout the park district, we are identifying sites for restoration and then enhancing these areas over the years through a process that restores the land to what it once was."
It begins with the elimination of nonnative species -- weeds, mostly -- to get the site "clean." After 2-3 years, the site is planted with native prairie seed, along with plant plugs.
Some common plant species used in restoration include white wild indigo, purple prairie clover, New England aster, side oats grama and little bluestem, all perennials that can live up to 75 years.
"These plants are indigenous to Illinois and they are beneficial to many pollinators and songbirds for nectar and seed -- this is their major difference from ornamental plants," said Daul. "Not only are they aesthetically beautiful, but they help build and stabilize soil with their deep root systems and also enhance wildlife habitat."
Good examples within the park district can be viewed at Blackberry Trail Park, Stuart Sports Complex and the remnant Aurora Prairie on Bishop Avenue in Aurora. Newly renovated Lippold Park -- just north of Red Oak Nature Center -- features a large swath of restored prairie. It's still a work in progress, but Daul expects it will become a showpiece in 2-3 years when Lippold takes shape as an outdoor education venue.
You'll also notice signs of natural area restoration around many of the district's ponds and lakes, where "shoreline buffers" at the water's edge create multiple benefits. These naturalized strips of native plants prevent erosion, deter messy Canada geese and greatly enhance a lake's ecosystem by absorbing and filtering storm runoff before it drains back into the water.
Many of the prairie plants being restored come from seed gathered throughout the parks system and grown in the park district's greenhouse.
For all its plant varieties, prairie restoration also involves many volunteers. The park district has worked extensively with students at Waubonsie Valley High School to plant areas around Waubonsie Lake -- some have even talked about working in the field for a career.
On Oct. 15, volunteers are welcome to join Daul and others at South Broadway Park, where they'll be enhancing the prairie-scape with spring, summer and fall blooming plants. For information, call the greenhouse at (630) 897-4261.
Plant by plant, these efforts are making a difference.
Jeff Long is the public relations manager for the Fox Valley Park District. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org