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The Buffalo Grove Prairie is a typical Illinois natural area: a long, narrow strip of native black-soil prairie sandwiched between the Soo Line tracks on the east and the bare clay of a construction site on the west. Overhead, supported on two rows of steel towers, two Commonwealth Edison high-tension lines run the length of the prairie. Along the western edge is a third line supported on wooden poles.

From a distance this looks like any other weed patch, but up close even my semiskilled eyes can begin to discern its special features. Entering the prairie last Sunday from its southern end along Lake Cook Road, the first things I recognized were the broad, pointed leaves of the prairie dock. Then I noticed the clusters of white flowers on the wild quinine plants and a scattering of pink phlox. Following a path through the prairie, I noted the swordlike leaves of the rattlesnake master.

Then, with the expert help of the Nature Conservancy's Steve Packard, I added purple prairie clover and cream false indigo to my list. And best of all, Leiberg's panic grass, a tiny and unremarkable plant that is nonetheless a great rarity and a certain indicator of the highest quality prairie.

But last Sunday morning, the most remarkable sight on the Buffalo Grove Prairie was a group of about 50 people armed with rakes, shovels, and wheelbarrows spread out along a narrow strip of bare earth that marked a gaping wound running the length of the prairie. The wound was the result of Commonwealth Edison's latest assault on this splendid remnant of our natural landscape, and the people were volunteers helping to heal the wound, donating a Sunday of hard labor to a midwestern equivalent of cleaning the oil from the fur of Alaskan sea otters.

The trouble had begun a couple of weeks earlier, when a contractor working for the utility had entered the prairie with a backhoe and dug a trench right through the heart of the area. Not satisfied with this bit of destruction, the contractor compounded the problem by dumping the spoil from his ditch on the prairie, burying populations of at least two endangered orchids, the small white lady's slipper and the prairie white fringed orchid.

Local people who knew what a special place this was saw what was going on and called the village of Buffalo Grove and the Nature Conservancy; their intervention stopped the work before things got any worse, although a conduit line had already been installed. The utility agreed to refill the trench, but the heavy equipment they used for the job is not delicate enough to remove all the spoil that had been dumped on the prairie. The plants under the remaining spoil would soon die of suffocation if they weren't exhumed, and that job had to be done by hand. The 50 volunteers provided the hands.

They worked like archaeologists uncovering an ancient civilization, carefully raking the compacted spoil away from the original prairie surface, uncovering the beaten down but still living plants and giving them another chance.

The source of this disaster is easy to locate. It sprang directly from Commonwealth Edison's belief that they are the electric company and they can do anything they want. Com Ed is used to owning the land under its power lines. That ownership gives them the right to dig trenches. Unfortunately, part of the land under this particular right-of-way is a dedicated street and therefore the property of the village of Buffalo Grove. The street has never been built, and the shape of the development going on around this land is such that it probably never will be. But the village government is aware of the value of the prairie and is holding the land in part to ensure the protection of the natural area.

The village's commitment led them to route the water main that brings them Lake Michigan water around the land, even though the rerouting added to the cost. When the developer Trammell Crow, Inc., began to build on adjoining property to the west, the village asked the Nature Conservancy for advice on how the building could be done without damaging the prairie. Acting on the advice, the village and Trammell Crow negotiated some changes in the developer's original plans. Trammell Crow even agreed to move some buildings to prevent shadows from cutting off sunlight from the prairie.

In order to dig on village property, Com Ed needed a permit, which they did not have when they started digging. When I talked to William Darling, district superintendent of the northwest area for Com Ed, he first told me that the street had been vacated and the land now belonged to the electric company. When I told him that what he was saying was contrary to what I had heard, he backed up a bit and said that while the deal was not completely worked out, the street "will be vacated in the near future."

He also told me that Com Ed had a permit to do the work and that everything it was doing had been approved by representatives of the Nature Conservancy and the Sierra Club. But then he admitted that the permit and the approval had come only after the ditch had been dug. In fact, the work that has been permitted and approved is a damage-control operation designed to prevent any further harm.

Com Ed has been known to engage in this sort of behavior in the past. They are famous among conservationists for such deeds as burying the last Illinois population of a plant called the lakeside daisy under tons of coal at their Joliet generating station. Last fall somebody dumped fresh concrete right on the prairie white fringed orchids at Buffalo Grove. A contractor working for Com Ed had been pouring concrete nearby and seemed the most likely source, but William Darling told me that they couldn't be sure who had done the deed. Com Ed did go out last winter and remove the concrete.

Most conservationists look at events like these and assume that Com Ed is trying to destroy the prairie piece by piece. It's down to nine acres now, so a few more swipes at it, and the utility would be able to do what it wants with the land without worrying about any tree huggers (or Leiberg's panic grass huggers). Of course, we can't prove that this is happening.

What we clearly need is some kind of arrangement between Com Ed and the Nature Conservancy and/or the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission. Com Ed owns a number of parcels of land of great natural value, and, ideally, protection plans could be worked out for all of them. Joel Greenberg, field representative for the Nature Preserves Commission, has been working on putting together such plans, but progress has been slow.

The Nature Conservancy first suggested a protection plan for Buffalo Grove in 1982, but so far nothing has been worked out. Com Ed has had the conservancy's latest proposal in hand for the past 18 months and has not responded to it. Maybe this latest incident will generate enough bad press to spur the utility into some kind of resolution.

Large corporations are not famous for their willingness to relinquish control over their property, so it is not too surprising to find Com Ed proceeding very slowly on this question. Ideally, executives of large utilities would recognize the value of our few remaining scraps of natural Illinois and share the attitudes of the 50 volunteers who realize that rescuing even a tiny bit of prairie is worth a day's hard labor.

Steve Packard put it to me this way: If people were digging next to a cathedral, you would expect them to do whatever they could to see that their digging didn't harm the structure. But if a cathedral fell down, we could build a new one just like it. For that matter, we could take one apart stone by stone and move it to a new location. But an ecosystem 10,000 years old, an entity far too complex for us to understand or reconstruct, can be casually destroyed, annihilated without a second thought.

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