Preserving the Prairie, a Plot at a Time

Folks in Illinois are making strides to restore and preserve the precious prairie landscape that gives the state its nickname. In the midst of larger endeavors that include relocation of buffalo back to the state for the first time in two centuries, the local land conservancy for west-central Illinois plays a small but important role in protecting nature’s finest.

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In Illinois, the buffalo are back – in small numbers, but back nonetheless.

And scientists are working on ways to integrate the natural prairie landscape with row-crop agriculture.

Developments like these make it an exciting time to be working on conservation. They offer the hope that Illinois could someday again live up to its name as the Prairie State.

In my back yard, it is exciting to be a teeny-tiny part of the land conservation and preservation movement as chair of the directors of the Prairie Land Conservancy (PLC), a division of Prairie Hills Resource Conservation and Development (PHRC&D). The board is a dedicated group of volunteers who seek to make life better in this part of the world. Our organization is the local land conservancy for west-central Illinois.

In December, the Prairie Land Conservancy acquired 535 acres of land near the Illinois River in Banner, Fulton County, from the Central Utility Coal Company for $1.7 million. Restoration will cost about $200,000 more.

“The land sale culminated nearly eight months of grant applications and negotiations to acquire this unique Illinois River flood plain,” said David King, executive director. “Nearly 220 acres of farm land will be restored to wetland habitat of shallow wetlands, wet prairies and bottom land hardwood trees.”

The remainder of the tract may remain in agriculture for the next five years unless it can be put into either the Conservation Reserve Program or the Wetland Reserve Program. It will be managed to help support the restoration of natural floodplain land closer to the river, according to King.

Photo courtesy the Prairie Land Conservancy
Map shows the site of the Central Utility Coal Company land near the Illinois River now owned by the Prairie Land Conservancy.

Help for the acquisition came from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation and a partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that allowed access to funds from mitigation for impacts caused by the construction and maintenance of an Enbridge Pipelines, LLC, project. The Conservation Fund provided technical assistance.

The Illinois River Valley southwest of Peoria has a rich environmental and human history that is a focus for reclamation and restoration of lands once dedicated mainly to agriculture. The river faces environmental problems not only because of farming, but because of engineering work more than a century ago that linked the Illinois River with Lake Michigan via the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. The project benefits Lake Michigan, Chicago’s water source, but allows the metropolitan region’s waste to flow down the Illinois River to the Mississippi River and on to the Gulf of Mexico.

Prairie Land Conservancy’s acquisition in Banner is part of a growing string of natural sites along both banks of the Illinois River that includes Rice Lake State Conservation Area, Banner Marsh State Fish and Wildlife Area, Emiquon Preserve, Emiquon National Wildlife Refuge, and Dickson Mounds State Museum. The clustering of preserved lands is essential to undoing the fragmentation of natural habitat that has disrupted the river and wildlife and resulted in endangered species. The Prairie Land project will help restore additional acreage that is critical to life in and along the river.

Prairie Land Conservancy is a relatively new organization with a growing role in preserving natural areas and promoting sustainable agriculture. The idea for the land conservancy emerged in 2006 as a brainchild of the Prairie Hills Resource Conservation and Development board, which saw the need to preserve land in West Central Illinois. Prairie Land Conservancy operates in 10 counties between the Illinois and Mississippi rivers, prime agricultural lands that are interspersed with natural gems that are critical habitats for cleaner water and wildlife.

In 2007, Prairie Land received a planning grant from the Illinois Clean Energy Foundation. In 2008, it received its first gift, outright ownership of about 200 acres—Stony Hills Nature Preserve—near the banks of the Mississippi River in Hancock County, Illinois. Since then, Prairie Land Conservancy has accepted gifts of conservation easements on some smaller parcels, a bequest from a landowner, and a transfer of a smaller tract of land in Macomb along the La Moine River from the Audubon Society. The organization is now responsible for preservation of about 900 acres of land in three counties.  

Photo courtesy the Prairie Land Conservancy
Part of the farmland on the site recently acquired by Prairie Land Conservancy will be restored to shallow wetlands, wet prairies, and bottom land hardwood trees.

In the case of the conservation easements, Prairie Land Conservancy does not own the land outright. Instead, the owner gives up the right to develop the land and agrees to maintain it according to a plan agreed to with the help of the land conservancy. In exchange for giving up the right to develop the land, the owner might be eligible for special tax treatment based on the difference of price in a more developed or less developed state. The owner also has a guarantee that the land conservancy will make sure the owner’s wishes for the land are carried out. The decision to attach a permanent conservation easement to the land can be one of heart searching, securing support of family members, and legal and financial considerations. It truly reflects a landowner’s love of a place and a commitment to future generations.

According to the Land Trust Alliance, there are 30 local land trusts in Illinois. In 2010, there were 1,699 state and local trusts across the country, as well as 24 national organizations. They were responsible for protecting 47 million acres of land, a number that keeps growing. In our region, prairie preservation and restoration is creating a legacy, recovering much that has been lost. It is gratifying to see the results.

Say the word “prairie,” and you somehow feel better. It comes from the French, and it means meadow or grassy field for pasturing cattle. You first walk through a prairie, large or small, is an unforgettably sensuous experience that you want repeated over and over again. Americans, especially Heartland Americans, are used to seeing and appreciating plants in ordered systems, long straight rows of corn or soybeans…. But a prairie doesn’t exist in that ordered style. Instead, it is a crazy quilt of plants with no recognized pattern although it has a sort of fractured order—there is the repetitive occurrence of the tall grasses serving as a brace for the congregations of wildflowers that pop up or lounge between the tall clumps of grass. 

Tony Fitzpatrick, Signals from the Heartland
New York: Walker and Company, 1993, p. 200-201

It has been nearly a generation since Tony Fitzpatrick wrote Signals from the Heartland, an inspiring tribute to the work of environmentalists in the heartland states of Missouri and Illinois.

Fortunately, the signals from the heartland remain loud and clear today as a newer generation of Midwesterners continues the work of environmental protection and restoration of critical areas in our beautiful landscape.

Timothy Collins is assistant director for research, policy, outreach, and sustainability at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.

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Topics: Environment
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