Bringing Nature Back to the Chicago Area

Ecological restoration has deep roots in the Midwest, where extraordinary community efforts have revived prairies, savannas, woodlands, and wetlands.

In Chicago, bungalows bump up against one another in the city’s thickly settled neighborhoods, the expressways are frustratingly clogged, and multiple skyscrapers stab the clouds above the Loop — the city’s bustling downtown district. Yet even in this sprawling metropolis of 2.7 million people, you can still find pockets of nature that offer respite.

Somme Prairie
In 2017, an army of nearly 20,000 volunteers with the North Branch Restoration Project contributed more than 60,000 hours of their time to try and restore the ecological health of Cook County Forest Preserves. Photo by Christopher Johnson.

In Forest Glen Woods on the Northwest Side, the casual hiker communes with mature oaks and hickories that tower over a winding asphalt trail, while wild ginger and foxglove carpet the forest floor.

This magnificent sight wasn’t always so. As recently as three years ago, a hiker on the same trail would have encountered a massive wall of buckthorn – an invasive hedge – instead of those flowers.  “If you looked at these woods, you couldn’t see through them because there was buckthorn,” says Bill Tucker, a Stewardship Workday Leader for the Cook County Forest Preserves, the oldest and largest forest preserves in the United States. He continues, “That was a problem because there was no light getting to the ground. The buckthorn prevented the plants that we wanted to grow from growing. It also has chemicals in it that will keep seeds from germinating.” Buckthorn outcompetes native species for resources such as light, water, and nutrients. It has few predators, and it is not a good food source for pollinators, insect-eating birds, or herbivores. Because of the plant’s shallow root system, it does not prevent erosion. Buckthorn wasn’t the only problem at Forest Glen Woods. Other invasives, such as garlic mustard and sweet white clover, had invaded the woods. Deer were eating the buds and nibbling the bark of young trees.

Yet in the past three years, Forest Glen Woods has undergone a magnificent transformation. The buckthorn is gone — replaced by native plants such as asters and milkweed, which is critical for monarch butterflies. Native plants provide habitat and food for native wildlife, contributing to the biodiversity of a natural area. They put down deep roots that help to stabilize the soil, prevent erosion, and mitigate flooding. And they add immeasurably to the beauty of natural areas.

Bill Tucker is one of an army of volunteers that are responsible for this ecological renaissance. They work for the North Branch Restoration Project, a community organization dedicated to ecological restoration – that is, bringing degraded native Illinois ecosystems back to ecological health.

In his fine book The Sunflower Forest, Dr. William Jordan III, director of the New Academy for Nature and Culture and co-director of the DePaul University’s Institute for Nature and Culture in Chicago, defines ecological restoration as “the attempt, sometimes breathtakingly successful, sometimes less so, to make nature whole. To do this, the restorationist does everything possible to heal the scars and erase the signs of disturbance or disruption.”

Over the past three years, Tucker has worked closely with the Forest Preserve District of Cook County and the Friends of the Forest Preserves, an independent nonprofit also engaged in environmental stewardship. Radhika Miraglia, its advocacy and engagement director, says, “We’re trying to restore the ecological balance with native plants and animals that have evolved together in the ecosystems of this area.”

In 2017, nearly 20,000 volunteers contributed more than 60,000 hours of their time to cut buckthorn, plant native seeds, put up fencing around young trees to protect them from deer, and carry out prescribed burns, to try and bring the Cook County Forest Preserves back to ecological health. This is truly grassroots democracy – people voting with the hours they spend reconnecting with nature.

It’s an effort that’s been ongoing for the past 40 years. Stephen Packard is the community activist most often credited with driving the restoration movement in the forest preserves. He started out as a volunteer with the North Branch Restoration Project (known at the time as the North Branch Prairie Project) in 1977, and is a founding member of Friends of the Forest Preserves. Packard recalls, “When we first started, we worked on little fragments like two or three acres at Bunker Hill, about an acre at Sauganash, and five or so acres each at Miami Woods and Wayside Woods.” It was Packard who turned restoration into a community project – persuading the Cook County Forest Preserve District to allow him and a cadre of volunteers to begin restoring areas along the North Branch of the Chicago River.

wild ginger
Wild ginger carpets parts of Forest Glen Woods in Chicago's Northwest Side. The woods have undergone a magnificent transformation in the past three years. Photo by Christopher Johnson

Ecological restoration is one of those rare community-driven movements that is founded in science, built as it is on the knowledge of key conservationists such as George Perkins Marsh, John Muir, John Burroughs, Aldo Leopold, and Robert Marshall. Working together with scientists, environmental organizations, and government agencies, the local community in the Chicago Area has restored approximately 12,000 acres  of prairie, savanna, woodland, and wetlands within the 68,000-acre forest preserve. Their efforts have indeed been breathtakingly successful. Many birds, animals, and insects once again populate once-degraded swaths of land. Great crested flycatchers, American woodcocks and Eastern wood pewees have returned to woodlands like Forest Glen, while grassland fauna such as the smooth green snake and great spangled fritillary butterfly have reappeared on the prairies.  

Restoration initiatives like these have enormous environmental benefits, particularly for cities. Restored green spaces don’t just provide habitat for birds and other animals, and protect biodiversity by increasing species of plants and animals. They absorb carbon, filter wastewater before it enters waterways, mitigate flooding and soil erosion, ameliorate the heat island effect that afflicts cities, and provide millions of people the sanctuary of nature.

There are several examples of ecological restoration projects in cities across the United States. In New York, for instance, volunteers and scientists working for the Bronx River Alliance remove invasive species, plant native vegetation, and restore riparian habitats within the Bronx River corridor. At the other end of the continent, San Francisco boasts a wealth of restoration projects, including the restoration of the Presidio, a National Historic Landmark District encompassing more than 800 acres of coastal dune scrub habitat.

Yet, the roots of ecological restoration in twentieth-century US can be traced back to the Midwest in general and the Chicago area in particular – to a group of pioneering scientists who happened to converge at institutions such as the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Morton Arboretum, a public garden and outdoor museum in suburban Chicago.

The most well-known early experiments in prairie restoration unfolded at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum, dedicated in 1932. Over several decades, scientists at the university, including Aldo Leopold, Norman Fassett, Theodore Sperry, John Curtis, and Henry Greene, planted native species and introduced the use of prescribed burning to stimulate plant growth and control invasive plants. Today, the Curtis and Greene prairies at the arboretum total more than 120 acres, supporting an astounding 300 species of plants.

The next great leap forward in ecological restoration occurred in the Chicago area. In 1961, a young horticulturalist named Ray Schulenberg arrived at Morton Arboretum from his native Nebraska. As a boy, he’d been fascinated with the plants of the Great Plains. The director of the arboretum at the time was Clarence Godschalk, who believed in manipulating the land as little as possible and not obliterating native landscapes. Schulenberg, Godschalk, and Floyd Swink, the botanist who wrote Plants of the Chicago Region , agreed to restore one acre of recently purchased farm property — known to all at the arboretum as “the acre.”

Schulenberg collected seeds from cemeteries, along railroads, and from the far corners of farmers’ fields that hadn’t been cultivated. Along with a cohort of volunteers, he germinated the seeds at the arboretum’s greenhouse and then planted them by hand. According to Craig Johnson, the former director of education and information at the arboretum, “They had early success with hand planting and weeding. The prairie produced a rich array of grasses and flowers. It was an integrated prairie, in that it had many different species.” That one-acre plot grew to be a spectacular 100 acres, and is today known as the Schulenberg Prairie.

Around the same time, another exercise in ecological restoration was unfolding just a few miles northeast of Morton Arboretum, in Batavia, Illinois – at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, which sprawls over 6,800 acres. Since 1967, Fermilab has specialized in studying high-energy particle physics, and, surprisingly, the renewal of prairie land.

Ryan Campbell, a former ecologist at Fermilab, says, “Dr. Robert Rathbun Wilson, when he started Fermilab, was looking for something to do with the land other than grow corn and soybeans.” Dr. Robert Betz, who taught biology at the nearby Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago, heard about Wilson’s ambitions for the land and arranged to meet him. The two met, and they hit it off. According to Fermilab lore, Wilson asked Betz how long he thought the restoration would take.

“Well, nothing like this has really been done at this scale, so it might take ten or twenty or thirty or forty or fifty years,” said Betz.

Wilson responded, “If that’s the case, why don’t we start this afternoon?”

They collected and planted seeds, and restored up to 1,000 acres. The restoration project at Fermilab encompasses 25 different plantings, of which the oldest dates back more than 40 years. To deepen Fermilab’s links to the prairie past, Dr. Wilson introduced bison on the grounds in 1969 with a bull and four cows. As of 2018, the births of 11 calves brought the size of the herd to 29.

Until this point, ecological restorationists had focused on breathing new life into former farmlands. But in the Chicago area, the task proved more complicated — the Cook County Forest Preserves were assailed with invasive species, pollution, and litter. Still, the community perseveres, as it has for the past several decades, driven by the belief that instead of destroying the environment, we humans can help nature, restore life, and bring back the diversity of plants and animals.

“There’s a culture of people who are interested in ecosystem restoration, just as there are people interested in golf or bridge or chess. Ecosystem restoration is mentally and physically challenging, but some people find it especially rewarding because you see inspiring results, and they are results that will potentially last for decades or centuries,” says Packard.

Those results are already transforming cities — and the ways in which people interact with the natural world. As Packard says, “We need to take responsibility for the health of the ecosystem. As our relationship with the planet changes, we’re learning how to keep the earth healthy.”

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