Over the years, conservation biologists and land managers have discovered a number of concepts that are important for the conservation of species and communities on a landscape scale. For instance, we know that the following factors are important: size, hydrology, fire and grazing, politics and the press, volunteers, and people’s perspectives. We have learned that ecosystems are resilient, exotic invasive species are our enemies,
herbicides can be our friends, and saving the last remnant natural areas and restoring the largest remaining landscapes possible are both worthy and essential conservation goals.

Illinois a Leader

This issue of The Illinois Steward focuses on 12 landscape restoration projects in Illinois. The projects include restoration efforts focused on prairies, swamps, forests, savannas, wetlands, and backwater river marshes—the dominant landscapes in Illinois at the time of European settlement.

Illinois became the first state to conduct a statewide inventory of its remaining natural areas when the Illinois Natural Areas Inventory was completed in 1978. Conducted by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (at the time called the Illinois Department of Conservation) and the University of Illinois, the inventory determined that—with the exception of a few small, isolated tracts and the 2,500-acre Goose Lake Prairie State Natural Area—very little high-quality prairie remained. So it is not surprising that more than half of the projects highlighted in this issue are focused on restoring prairie and savanna landscapes.

The Midwest is a leader in prairie restoration due in part to the vision and pioneering work of early restorationists like Norman Fassett, Ray Shulenburg, Bob Betz, and Peter Schramm at places like the University of Wisconsin Arboretum’s Curtis Prairie, Schulenburg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, and Knox College. These smaller-scale, labor-intensive early restorations were the "learning laboratories" that laid the groundwork for the large-scale landscape projects that are under way today.

So why is size important? Small remnants that occur in fragmented landscapes like Illinois are more susceptible to the negative effects of external influences; and as a result, there is a strong need to restore areas as large as possible. Larger areas also provide a better opportunity to restore the processes that are essential in creating and maintaining these areas; processes such as fire, grazing, hydrology, and flooding regimes are all difficult to restore on small areas. Once a landscape has been systemically altered, the only way to reclaim it is through a well-reasoned restoration approach.

Landscape as Community

Paul Gruchow, in his work Grass Roots: The Universe of Home, may have captured this idea better than anyone else: "The prairie is a community. It is not just a landscape or the name of an area on a map, but a dynamic alliance of living plants, animals, birds, insects, reptiles, and microorganisms, all depending upon each other. When too few of them remain, their community loses its vitality and they perish together. The prairie teaches us that our strength is in our neighbors. The way to destroy a prairie is to cut it up into little pieces, spaced so that they have no communication."

The lesson of community is well demonstrated at Prairie Ridge State Natural Area, where since the early 1960s people have been trying to save Illinois’ last remnant population of greater prairie-chickens. From those early days of "single species concern," Prairie Ridge has become a model of ecosystem management for grassland species, providing habitat not only for the greater prairie-chicken but also for over 100 plant and animal species of conservation concern, including 29 other threatened or endangered species.

The practice of restoration has been around for a long time, but it is only recently that restorations have been attempted at these very large scales. So Illinois is once again on the "conservation frontier," embarking on some of the largest and most complex restoration projects anywhere in the Midwest, in an effort to enhance the long-term sustainability of these areas and the species they harbor.    

Although prairie restoration has deep roots, the restoration of large wetlands and backwater lakes is still in its formative years. One of the key goals at places such as the Emiquon Complex, Nygren Wetland Preserve, Dixon Waterfowl Refuge, and Cache River Wetlands is to return natural flooding regimes to these backwater ecosystems, which are the nurseries for the invertebrates and fisheries that provide the food for herons, eagles, ospreys, king- fishers, ducks, river otters, turtles, and other species that live in these habitats. Similar to the issues prairie restorationists faced in their early efforts to return fire to the prairies and savannas, restoring flooding to the floodplains of rivers can be challenging, from both the biological and political perspectives.

Volunteers an Essential

In many of these restorations, it is volunteers that make the projects successful and affordable. Places such as Nachusa Grasslands and Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie benefit greatly from thousands of hours of volunteer effort every year. These volunteers, from teenagers to retired folks, work hard every day no matter the season or the weather. Volunteer work consistently involves the identifying, harvesting, cleaning, and planting seeds of hundreds of native plant species, as well as using herbicides to control invasive species, especially exotic plant species.

We also have learned that ecosystems are resilient. Therefore, if we apply good science and sound economics to the restoration of landscapes, we can do so in a manner that not only is beneficial to the plants and animals that depend on them and the people who enjoy them but also is based on an economically feasible model.

The Illinois Ozarks project is a good example, comprising over 200,000 acres of forest habitats in southern Illinois. Within one 40,000-acre block of forest, mostly within the Shawnee National Forest, there are a small number of agricultural fields. These fields are marginal for growing crops but allow brown-headed cowbirds, a species of open country, to gain access to the interior of the forest and lay eggs in the nests of migratory songbirds, which then raise cowbirds instead of their own offspring. This phenomenon is called "brood parasitism" and often results in these areas failing to produce enough offspring to maintain their populations—a situation that is called a "habitat sink" by conservation biologists. By reforesting these fields, parasitic cowbirds lose their access to the interior, allowing songbirds to successfully raise their own young. Conservation biologists call these areas "habitat sources" because they now produce enough young recruits to increase the populations. Because these small fields are inside a large block of forest, the restoration of 1 acre back to forest has the effect of changing 6 acres of adjacent forest from a "population sink" to a "population source." This provides a six-to-one return on investment that any conservation biologist or economist would consider a very successful outcome.

Adapting to Climate Change

Landscape restoration also may play an important role in helping species and communities adapt to climate change. Large-scale restorations can "fill the gaps" and give species and communities the ability to migrate to more suitable locations or adjust their seasonal movements over a shortened time frame as climate change alters the current landscape. The Lost Mound Unit of the Upper Mississippi Fish and Wildlife Refuge is a good example. Protecting 13 miles of shoreline on any large river is clearly significant from a freshwater perspective, but in today’s changing world this may also prove to be an important link in the north–south migration corridor for mobile species such as waterfowl and songbirds. Perhaps even more importantly, the protection and restoration of the entire gradient from the backwater sloughs of the river up to the Mississippi River bluff hill prairies provide a vertical migration corridor that the less mobile and arguably more vulnerable species such as snakes, turtles, insects, amphibians, and plants may require to adapt successfully to climate change.

It is our goal in this issue of The Illinois Steward to provide you with an overview of just 12 of the many landscape-restoration projects under way in Illinois. Consider a last observation about these projects: They all rely on partnerships to be successful and economically feasible. We want to thank all the partners throughout Illinois who are working on landscape projects. And we want to thank all who contributed to this issue of The Illinois Steward. We hope you enjoy the articles and the beautiful photographs, and we hope you will visit these remarkable places.

James R. Herkert is director of science with The Nature Conservancy–Illinois, and Francis M. Harty is director of special projects with The Nature Conservancy–Illinois.