This spring 2016 semester, several students in the Sustainability Studies Program here at Roosevelt have reported and reflected upon their sustainability-related internship experiences. Here’s Tiffany Mucci’s final such post, 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.
Reflecting on my work at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie this semester, one thing is very clear: This is a long-term restoration project that will take the work of many generations of staff and volunteers to bring these 19,000 acres back to some semblance of the tallgrass prairie that defined this region 200-and-some years ago.
Frankly, it is an effort that I won’t see the end of in my lifetime.
Twenty years have passed since the birth of Midewin, and the U.S. Forest Service and its many partners have made remarkable strides in rehabilitating this land, yet this prairie-making business is still very much in its infancy. The property as a whole is a heterogeneity of grasslands, wetlands, and woodlands; winter wheat and soybean fields; cattle pastures; a bison range; bunker fields; and other abandoned structures leftover from the arsenal years.
For such a large-scale restoration project, it’s best to take things one bite at a time, so to speak. One of the uphill battles is in effectively removing invasive plant species. Here, the autumn olive, multiflora rose, and Japanese honeysuckle are a few of our most relentless exotics. Each of these plants was deliberately brought to North America in the 1800s and early 1900s by horticulturists who did so with benign intentions. Whether the reason was for soil erosion control, living fences, or ornamental plantings, these non-natives found a cushy new place to call home – and it didn’t take long before they wore out their welcome. These exotics continue to thrive here, making life difficult for native plant species.
Invasives removal is a battle between man and shrub, which is far more arduous than it sounds. We brush-cut regularly throughout the winter and early spring, stopping the plants’ growth before they can put out their foliage. Using loppers and hand-saws, we dodge spiny branches and thorns, cutting low to the ground, and slather on a bright blue-green coat of herbicide over the stumps. At the end of the day, clothing snagged and skin scratched, it feels as though those motionless shrubs were fighting back the whole time. And so, the invasives are hacked away at year after year with steadfast determination and the vision that someday our fields will be free of these formidable bushes.
Hard work and determination does pay off over time. One of Midewin’s biggest milestones was met last fall, with the reintroduction of a small herd of American bison. A milestone indeed, but one that is highly experimental, and calls for careful monitoring — even vigilance — over the next couple of decades. The theory is that bison grazing will encourage a more self-sustaining tallgrass prairie ecosystem, by fostering a wider diversity of grassland vegetation, birds, and animals. Perhaps one of the hardest things to accept going into this experiment is that we must be prepared for any outcome, whether that is success, failure, or somewhere in-between.
Agriculture, industrialization, and even horticulture have left their lasting impressions on our native landscapes, damage that we are still learning how to undo. MNTP is a prime example of the ecological challenges we face in the 21st century. Although this place will forever be one-of-a-kind for its unique history and circumstances, I see this prairie project as model for the future as formerly industrialized places become the subjects of restoration.
It is going to take patience, diligence, and the steady hands of time, but the iconic tallgrass prairie is coming to life once again on an unassuming parcel of land named Midewin.
SUST 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.