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This year marks the official beginning of the Poplar Creek prairie and savanna restoration. This was the year the first brush was cut, the first weed patches plowed up, the first wild seeds gathered for planting on the site.

But the origins of the project date back to the fall of 1984. At that time a coalition of suburbs in northern and northwestern Cook County had proposed siting a 275-acre landfill in the middle of the 4,000-acre Poplar Creek Forest Preserve. The idea made great economic sense to the municipalities involved. Why buy 275 acres of expensive private land when you can steal it from the taxpayers of Cook County?

The Tribune editorialized in favor of the idea, pointing out that the towns needed the dump and characterizing the Poplar Creek preserve as nothing more than a weed patch that didn't particularly deserve protection.

Fortunately, an opposition coalition developed, uniting local residents and environmentalists in a fight against the dump. Our concern was to maintain the sanctity of forest-preserve land. The Cook County forest-preserve system is a great historic achievement. It was the first metropolitan park system anywhere in the world to take the preservation and restoration of the natural landscape as its primary goal. Its holdings now total about 11 percent of the land area of Illinois' most populous county, and, by long-standing policy, more than 80 percent of that land is completely wild.

Throughout the history of the preserve system various supplicants have come before the county board, which governs the preserves, asking for a piece of this land--often for laudable purposes. The University of Illinois once asked for forest-preserve land to build a branch campus. In the World War II era, the U.S. War Department wanted a site for an atomic-research lab. In every case the board turned them down flat. We reminded the board in 1984 of that honorable tradition, and they responded by unanimously voting down the landfill proposal.

We also suggested alternative futures for the Poplar Creek preserve. It is true that most of the 4,000 acres is weedy old fields, but those weedy old fields already support populations of prairie birds. Why not restore prairie plants? A prairie that big would be unique in Illinois and a major refuge for rare animals and plants.

Discussions on the subject began then between the Nature Conservancy and the Forest Preserve District. The discussions culminated in an agreement to restore native-plant communities to about 600 acres at the western edge of the preserve. The Nature Conservancy would manage the land for the district with the help of a $100,000 grant from the Robert R. McCormick Charitable Trust. I find it pleasant that Colonel McCormick's money is helping restore a preserve that his newspaper thought fit only for dumping garbage.

The site will make this, in time, the most beautiful prairie in Illinois. From a high hill at the northern edge the land descends gently to Poplar Creek. An ancient prairie oak grove provides a counterpoint to the sweep of the open grasslands. Few signs of civilization intrude on the view. Poplar Creek is a lovely little stream bordered by wetlands, where many rare plants grow.

Steve Packard, director of science and stewardship for the Nature Conservancy, has been overseeing the project. The grunt work was done by John Aavang and Brad Woodson, who committed a chain-saw massacre on large numbers of buckthorn shrubs in the oak grove. European buckthorn is a nasty imported weed that is capable of taking over the understory in any woodland or savanna grove. It grows so densely that it drives out native shrubs and wildflowers. It can even prevent new oaks from establishing themselves.

With the buckthorns gone, the seeds of native savanna plants, most of them gathered by volunteers who picked over unprotected sites, will be planted this fall and next spring. Most of the seeds will be of plants of the summer and fall flora. The grove already has a fairly good population of plants that flower in spring, such as rue anemone and shooting star. Once the native plants are reestablished, the occasional prescribed burn will keep the buckthorn from returning.

The big, old oaks, suddenly freed from the tangle of buckthorns, are gorgeous. They are about 200 years old, with broad, spreading crowns and huge, gnarled limbs--as handsome in their way as any redwood.

A local farmer was hired to plow strips across the open grasslands that will be planted with the seeds of various prairie grasses and wildflowers. The soil of grasslands in old fields is also filled with weed seeds that sprout when plowing tears up the existing plant cover. These weeds would be strong competition for the prairie species. In order to suppress them and give the prairie plants a good start, the plowed ground was disked twice this year and will be disked again next spring, destroying any new sprouts of weedy plants.

Finding enough prairie and savanna seeds is a big problem for a restoration of this size. Prairie plants are rare, which means their seeds are rare, and most healthy populations are on protected ground. You would not want to rob existing preserves of their seed crops, because those seeds are necessary to sustain the preserves.

Seeds of various prairie plants can be purchased from nurseries, but most of these are hundreds of miles away. By long-standing custom, local restorations rely on seed sources within 50 miles of the restoration site. The idea is to foster local ecotypes, plants precisely adapted to the conditions of northeastern Illinois.

Seeds for the Poplar Creek restoration will come from four major sources. One will be seeds gathered from unprotected sites by volunteers. Another will be a nursery in Saint Charles called Natural Gardens, which specializes in growing native plants from this area.

The third will be from the prairies and savannas of the North Branch of the Chicago River. The North Branch Prairie Project has been working to restore native vegetation in the forest preserves along the North Branch for more than a decade. Seeds gathered from sites now destroyed were planted along the North Branch. They sprouted in such abundance that the North Branch can now provide some seeds for Poplar Creek.

The fourth source is the prairie restoration at Fermilab in Batavia. With a rich assortment of prairie species already established on more than a square mile of land, this restoration also has some seeds to spare.

Many restoration efforts have to start from zero, turning old cornfields and cow pastures into native prairies. Poplar Creek is decades ahead of these. At the northern end of the 600-acre restoration area is Shoe Factory Road Prairie, a natural prairie that has been designated an Illinois nature preserve.

As conditions on the rest of the land become more like natural prairie, we can expect seeds from this preserve to spread. Even more important, prairie insects and other invertebrates that have been surviving on the tiny ark of Shoe Factory Road Prairie will be able to spread out over hundreds of additional acres.

Poplar Creek also supports healthy populations of those prairie birds I mentioned earlier, and there are even coyotes living on the land.

Poplar Creek represents the first attempt at large-scale prairie restoration on forest-preserve land, but if all goes well, others will follow. The district and the Nature Conservancy are discussing extending their joint efforts to the Palos area, where the district also has large holdings. Expansion of the Poplar Creek restoration is also possible. The current boundaries are Shoe Factory Road on the north, Golf Road on the south, Route 59 on the east, and the preserve border on the west. Most of Poplar Creek's 4,000 acres lie east of Route 59, a vast expanse of weedy old fields just waiting for restoration.

An active volunteer group is already at work at Poplar Creek. If you would like to get involved in its restoration activities call the Illinois Nature Conservancy at 346-8166.

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