Restoring Illinois’ Tallgrass Prairie: SUST Major Tiffany Mucci Reports on Her Spring 2016 Internship at Midewin

This spring 2016 semester, several students in the Sustainability Studies Program here at Roosevelt will report and reflect upon their sustainability-related internship experiences. Here’s the first such post from Tiffany Mucci, a senior SUST major interning in plant conservation and ecological restoration at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in Will County, about 50 miles SW of Chicago.

Midewin signSituated between an active landfill and the nation’s largest inland multi-modal port, and dissected by the Illinois Route 53 highway, lives an anomaly to the typical Chicago metropolitan landscape. Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie is about an hour’s drive southwest of the city, near Wilmington IL, and at 30 square miles in size it stands as Chicagoland’s largest protected contiguous open space. Pronounced mih-dey-win, the park’s name references the traditional healing arts of the American Indian tribes indigenous to this region, and denotes its mission to rehabilitate the land to the tallgrass prairie ecosystem that was once a defining feature of the North American continent.

"Placing Pellets in Booster Cups" (source: Illinois Digital Archives)

“Placing Pellets in Booster Cups” (source: Illinois Digital Archives)

Looking back through history, we find this region had been settled and farmed by the Euro-Americans in the mid-1800s. Nearly a century later, with the start of WWII, the land that is now Midewin (as well as the surrounding area) became the site of the Joliet Army Ammunitions Plant (JOAAP), which was a major explosives manufacturing facility maintained for over 50 years until it was fully decommissioned in the 1990s. A toxins-laden ghost town at this point, the JOAAP became the subject of two Superfund National Priorities List sites. After a successful clean-up by the U.S. military, Midewin was made possible by the Illinois Land Conservation Act and the support of forward-thinking people, and was designated the property of the U.S. Forest Service in 1996.

Midewin has partnerships with many other organizations in order to carry out its programs, and also relies on the hard work and dedication of its many volunteers. The prairie restoration work is carried out year-round, each season bearing its own set of tasks, projects, or activities. As any experienced gardener knows, winter is a season of planning and seed selecting. Here at Midewin – conceivably a very large, native garden plot — there is an enormous amount of seed to consider. According to their Facebook page, “Volunteers and staff clean up to 1500 pounds of native prairie seed annually” (United States Forest Service – Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, 2016). Seed cleaning and organizing is a job that involves heavy machinery, precise documentation, and painstakingly calculated formulations, not to mention lots of helping hands, in preparing the seed mixtures for each of Midewin’s restoration fields.

Small Clipper machine used for seed cleaning inside Midewin's horticulture building. (photo: T. Mucci, January 2016)

Small Clipper machine used for seed cleaning inside Midewin’s horticulture building. (photo: T. Mucci, January 2016)

Much of the seed has been collected from the park’s property, either having grown wild or having been cultivated in seed beds, and additional seed is purchased from an outside source to supplement the homegrown collection. A crucial step in the prairie-making process is seed cleaning, a task that takes weeks, even months, to finish. Even with the advantage of industrial-strength machines, separating as much chaff (the husk or other unwanted plant parts) as possible from the seed is time consuming and involved.

One such machine, called a Clipper, uses screens, vibration, and airflow to remove the chaff. The dried, uncleaned seed is fed through the top of the Clipper – only a tablespoon or two at a time – and is shaken down through screens and chutes to separate and direct the plant parts to six different outputs. One or two of these outputs will have gathered the seeds, while twigs, floccus, and other undesirable bits will have been filtered into the other receptacles. Still, the first run-through of a batch of seed will not necessarily yield a perfectly refined product.

Smooth blue aster seeds, fresh from the Clipper. (photo: T. Mucci, January 2016)

Smooth blue aster seeds, fresh from the Clipper. (photo: T. Mucci, January 2016)

With particularly small seeds, it is important that at this stage we take samples from the outputs for closer examination under a low-power microscope. Sometimes we are looking at a mixture of seed and chaff to determine whether an output has collected a sufficient amount of seed for further refinement; other times we are evaluating the quality or integrity of the seeds. After running the batch through the Clipper several more times, a hand screen may also be used to remove any straggling chaff. Once cleaned, the seed is weighed, bagged, labeled, and sent to a cooler for storage.

Volunteers and staff patiently hand-clean swamp milkweed seeds (photo: T. Mucci, January 2016)

Volunteers and staff patiently hand-clean milkweed seeds (photo: T. Mucci, January 2016)

Other seeds are cleaned by more primitive methods, as is the case with milkweed, which is tediously picked apart by hand. Inside each milkweed pod is a neat bundle of seeds and their pappi (the parachute-like fluff that carries individual seeds on the wind) which inevitably becomes a downy mess as each grain is plucked away. As a participant in the Illinois Butterfly Monitoring Network, Midewin recognizes milkweed’s integral role in the lifecycle of the Monarch butterfly, which relies on this plant as a host for their eggs and food source for larvae. Going to such lengths to clean, weigh, and document the multitude of seeds found at Midewin provides quantitative data for the research being done in this long-term restoration project.

United States Forest Service – Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. (2016, January 15). Volunteers and Staff Clean Up To 1500 Pounds of Native Prairie Seed Annually. Retrieved from [Facebook update].

Tiffany Mucci head shotSUST senior Tiffany Mucci is spending her spring 2016 semester interning at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in Wilmington IL, working with staff and volunteers in their restoration program. During the May 2015 section of SUST 390, she authored this creative non-fiction essay about Midewin. This year Mucci is also co-editing the new Writing Urban Nature project for the Roosevelt Urban Sustainability Lab and serving as Assistant Editor of the SUST at RU blog. 

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