From Buckthorn to Beauty:

‘Letting the Sunshine In’

Forest Preserve District Recognized for Restoration Efforts at Lockport Prairie East

|  STORY BY CINDY CAIN  |

A pocket of prairie in northeastern Will County wasn’t always a safe haven for plants, wildlife or people.

Forest Preserve staff who ventured into Lockport Prairie East Preserve would come away bloody from the prickly trees that lived there.

“It was a forest of buckthorn,” said Ralph Schultz, the Forest Preserve’s chief operating officer. “It was nasty.”

But recent restoration efforts have salvaged the land and the work has been rewarded with a Chicago Wilderness Excellence in Ecological Restoration Accreditation, which was announced at a special reception held on July 27 at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

Crawling through the thicket

Sedge meadow and encroaching buckthorn. (Photo by Juli Mason)

Prior to the restoration work, venturing into Lockport Prairie East was a tough assignment.

“It was so hard to get across, we were on our knees crawling through the thicket,” said Juli Mason, the Forest Preserve’s restoration program coordinator.

But the trip was worth it. After the Forest Preserve District acquired the land, natural resource managers who tackled the terrain found patches of sedge meadow and nuggets of native species, including the federally endangered leafy prairie clover and the state-endangered glade quillwort.

Leafy prairie clover. (Photo by Juanita Armstrong-Ullberg)

The 30-acre parcel was given to the District by the Illinois Toll Highway Authority to replace Forest Preserve land needed to build the Interstate 355 bridge through Keepataw Preserve in Lemont. The preserve, which does not have public access at this time, is located on the east side of the Des Plaines River across from Lockport Prairie Nature Preserve, which does have public access off of Division Street on the west side of the river.

“We cobbled together funding from various grants to begin the restoration,” Mason said.

Money came from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as well as Hine’s Emerald Dragonfly Habitat Conservation Plan funds and a ComEd Green Region Grant.

Cautiously optimistic

No one was sure what to expect when restoration work began in 2011. In addition to the buckthorn, the preserve also was home to invasive honeysuckle, refuse and rock piles.

The project included the adjacent 176-acre Dellwood Park West, which is owned by the Lockport Township Park District. A portion of the park is managed by the Forest Preserve District through a 2009 intergovernmental agreement.

Forest Preserve staffers were cautiously optimistic about the resurgence of the site, but they were surprised by how quickly the land bounced back. Locations where mounds of buckthorn were piled before removal could have scarred the soil and led to an emergence of weeds. But that didn’t happen, said Nick Budde, the Forest Preserve’s restoration ecologist, who submitted the application to the Chicago Wilderness ecological restoration accreditation program.

Nodding wild onion. (Photo by Juanita Armstrong-Ullberg)

“It filled in with good quality plants because there is a healthy native seed bank in the soil,” he explained.

The restoration work was conducted on 151 acres in both the park and the preserve and it included tree and shrub removal, prescribed burning, invasive species control, native seeding, and monitoring of flora and fauna, Budde said.

The project was so successful, it tripled the leafy prairie clover population at the site.

Budde, who started working for the District in 2015, never saw the preserve at its worst.

“I hear tales of crawling through it,” he said. “But now it’s just busted wide open and looking quite nice. Clear out the bad stuff and the good stuff follows. You can let the sunshine in.”

The combined site is now an outstanding example of globally rare dolomite prairie and sedge meadow, Budde explained.

Recovering biodiversity

Downy wood mint. (Photo by Juanita Armstrong-Ullberg)

While Lockport Prairie East remains a preserve without public access, the work being done there benefits the overall environment, Mason explained.

“Restoration involves managing habitats and repairing degraded natural areas to promote a healthy diversity of native species appropriate to each location,” she said.

Some restoration projects require water flow pattern changes and the reintroduction of missing native species. But at Lockport Prairie East, the two key ingredients to success involved removing common buckthorn, an invasive shrub species, and reintroducing fire through prescribed burns, Mason explained.

(Photo by Diane Banta)

The Chicago Wilderness accreditation program assesses how well land management agencies are doing at implementing biodiversity recovery plans on land they own and manage, Chief Operating Officer Schultz said.

“Having our stewardship efforts at Lockport Prairie East recognized and accredited through the Excellence in Ecological Restoration Program is an honor and great achievement for the Forest Preserve,” he said.

“Our hope is to continue with our effort in partnership with Lockport Township Park District and to allow the history and habitat at Lockport Prairie East and Dellwood Park West to reveal itself through our combined efforts.

“While our restoration and management work have achieved phenomenal results and led to the resurgence of federally endangered species, our work is not done,” Schultz added. “While we can consider this an award, it is really more recognition for the work we’ve done and encouragement for the work we will do in the future.”

(Lead image by Juanita Armstrong-Ullberg)