University of Illinois Extension
The Illinois Steward
Imagine the undulating flight of a red-headed woodpecker between widely spaced black oaks—its signature black and white wing pattern starkly visible against both sky and land. Gaze across rolling sand savannas, punctuated with the yellows of hoary and hairy puccoons in May; tinted lavender–pink with rough blazing-star in August. Picture clear waters, home to silvery slippershell mussels and a diversity of their kin. The vision is real in the Kankakee Sands, a region of diverse habitats with a wondrous biodiversity of life.
The Kankakee Sands—formed by the Kankakee Torrent some 14,000 years ago—has a remarkable cultural and ecological history and is truly one of Illinois’ last great landscapes. An unbroken procession of native tribes, foreign nations, loggers, hunters, trappers, settlers, lumbermen, ranchers, and farmers all saw the Kankakee Sands as an area of unlimited natural resources. The native peoples called it a “wonderful land” because it seemed to provide infinite resources to sustain their way of life. The French, the English, and the early American hunters and trappers all had visions of unlimited fur and wildlife resources.
The second wave of Americans—the settlers—saw seemingly inexhaustible resources of timber, grass, and water to be used endlessly for settlement, farming, and grazing domestic livestock—and later for industrialization. It is hard to believe that the million-acre Grand Kankakee Marsh, a wetland second in size only to the Everglades, has been almost totally drained and converted to farmland, pastures, and towns.
But not all is gone. As remarkable as the draining of the Grand Kankakee Marsh was in the 1800s, there remains an immense, modern-day opportunity to protect and restore thousands of acres of black-oak sand savannas, pin-oak flatwoods, floodplain forests, sedge meadows, and sand prairies that still exist in the Sands. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Kankakee Sands contains the largest concentration of high-quality, black-oak sand savannas surviving in the Midwest. The Kankakee Sands also possesses the largest population of the endangered orange-fringed orchid in Illinois and is the only location in Illinois for the yellow false indigo. Over 30 listed species occur here, and over 25 species reach the limits of their distributions in the Sands.
For these reasons, portions of the Kankakee Sands savannas were recognized by the Illinois Natural Areas Inventory (INAI) in 1978 as natural areas of statewide significance. The Kankakee Sands contains over 4,000 acres of INAI-quality land. Several of these areas are now fully protected as Illinois Nature Preserves or Land and Water Reserves, the highest protection afforded land under Illinois law. According to the National Biological Service, Midwest savannas are a critically endangered and threatened ecosystem, and The Nature Conservancy considers the Kankakee Sands savannas an ecoregional site of major importance.
In 1997, The Nature Conservancy purchased the 7,600-acre Kankakee Sands restoration project area, originally in the lake bed of the storied Beaver Lake of presettlement times. The Nature Con-servancy has built a 120-acre seed nursery that grows over 125 species of native plants that are used to restore about 500 acres per year at the site. This project helped connect other large habitats along the Illinois–Indiana state line where Kankakee, Newton, and Iroquois counties meet. These include the Willow Slough Fish and Wildlife Area, the Iroquois State Wildlife Area, and some of the Pembroke Savannas. Together, they comprise over 23,000 acres. Because of its large size, it is known as the Kankakee Sands Macrosite.
As big as it is, the Kankakee Sands Macrosite faces many modern-day threats. Protection of existing prairie and savanna communities is the first step, and connecting them to each other is a paramount goal. Restoring the intervening landscapes to create a corridor of functioning ecosystems is the next step. This work is costly; and many foundations, organizations, and individuals have contributed money, time, and other resources to help in this effort. The Efroymson Fund of the Central Indiana Community Foundation, Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation, Kresge Foundation, Nancy Winter, and others have contributed to this project. The Kankakee Sands restoration project area has a six-member staff, with 50 to 100 volunteers working annually at various tasks.
It is no wonder, with the mix of unique species and unusual habitats, that this is an area of Illinois that is, and should continue to be, the focus of significant conservation efforts.