Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie
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  • 16 Piecing Together Prairie Mosaic

    The gold tones of fall.

    People arrived on the land we call Illinois 10,000 years ago. It was a tree filled land. Changes to the land came slowly and 5,500 years after people arrived, tall grass prairie came to dominate this same land. The land was not effected too greatly by man. Unstoppable winds blew across grasses, sun baked the earth, rains soaked the sod, and storms danced through the plains. Humans had little effect on this vast grassland except for the occasional fires they started that would sweep across the horizon. The interaction of creatures that made this prairie web carried on. 

    In the 1830’s men from the East began to affect the prairie in new ways. They tried to tame a wildness. Settlers said they “broke the prairie.” They plowed the sod, drained the soil, built houses and farms, laid drain tiles, constructed roads, planted crops, divided the land with fencing, and laid railroads for eighty years. Then for sixty years after the farmers, man used the land as a place to manufacture explosives and construct weapons to protect a nation. Even as a munitions plant, farming and grazing domestic animals on some of this land continued. Alien plants from other ecosystems and countries were brought to the prairie accidentally and intentionally. These plants did not fit into the prairie web and grew with abandon. Fire was seen as a danger and no longer scoured the Illinois lands of trees and woody shrubs. Prairie seemed like a distant memory to the land. The land waited. 

    In the spring of 2009, the land north of the spot where you now stand was given a resuscitating breath of prairie plant and seed. These 50 acres north of this trail had been used agriculturally in row crops for 40 years before the army bought the land. In 2009, 5,000 plugs of prairie plants were put into the ground, 1,000 lbs. of prairie seed were spread over the soil, and one hundred twenty three different plant species for mesic and wet-mesic environments were chosen. Since the long awaited infusion of prairie plants in 2009, more than 20,000 plugs have been planted by volunteers and contractors.

    Much of the seed to create this 50 acres of restored prairie came from remnant patches of prairie that grew unseen and unheeded on the cemeteries and along the railroad lines that are part of Midewin. These seeds were planted in huge production beds to create a source of local seed for recreating the prairie mosaic of Midewin. Along with the blend of prairie plants added back to these 50 acres, fire has also taken its rightful place as a nurturer of the prairie land.

    Seed for new prairie plantings are gathered from rows of seed beds and other wilder restored areas. Each year 1,500 lbs. are gathered from seed beds and restored areas on this land. At Midewin, seed beds are located at River Road, Turtle Pond, and at the Welcome Center. 

    Currently 3,000 acres of tallgrass prairie in its many forms, from dolomite to wetland to mesic prairie, have begun the restoration process. This renewed prairie must be managed to add new prairie species and to control invasive plants through mechanical removal, herbicide, and controlled fire. The restoration process continues and will eventually touch all the 19,161 acres of Midewin. It can take a lifetime and more to recreate the prairie mosaic, we unwittingly destroyed. The land is patient. It will wait for us.

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