Ray Wiggers. ------> To
Schulenberg Prairie | Fermilab
Prairie | North Branch Prairies
the south suburban town of Markham stands Gensburg-Markham
Prairie. It is a classic of restoration rather than of reconstruction,
for it was discovered and saved before its high-quality
prairie community had vanished.
discoverer and savior was Northeastern Illinois University
biochemist Dr. Robert Betz, a Bridgeport native whod
been fascinated by Illinois native grassland communities
ever since hed hunted down small remnants of them
surviving in farm-country cemeteries.
Gensburg-Markham Prairie, bulldozer scars have nearly healed.
The outlines of a platted road are only faintly visible
as the prairie vegetation restores itself. Photo
by Bill Glass.
in the 1960s, on a day he was visiting relations in Markham,
Dr. Betz took a stroll and accidentally came upon this precious
island in time. Convinced that it was of immense biologic
importance, Dr. Betz enlisted the help of colleagues and
secured crucial assistance from the Markham Garden Club
and the Openlands Project.
1971 the Gensburg family, which owned a 60-acre section
of the prairie, agreed to donate their holding to The Nature
Conservancy. Later, other pieces of surrounding land were
added to the preserve. The method Dr. Betz formulated here
to proceed outward from the prairies high-quality
core and restore the more degraded outer sections
has become the preferred strategy at countless other sites
Dr. Robert Betz discovered the Gensburg-Markham Prairie,
it looked more like a woods. But Betz saw ancient prairie
surviving under the young brush. Hundreds of volunteers
like George Derkovitz (above) have in three decades cut
brush off more than 200 acres. Photo
by Ron Panzer.
on this sandy strand of ancient Lake Chicago, Dr. Betz claimed
that hed found a large patch of original prairie.
Others disputed that claim by insisting that the land had
too many trees and shrubs to be a real prairie or
by noting that large parts of the land were given over to
weeds. Dr. Betz saw that. But he also recognized that beneath
all the evidence of degradation there survived the remnants
of an ancient ecosystem that, with care, could come back
the beginning, he cut brush, pulled weeds, and burned. Few
people at the time recognized that such care was truly necessary:
wasnt nature something that was most authentic if
left completely alone?
butterfly. Photo by Ron Panzer.
Dr. Betz recognized that this prairie had much in common
with a sick human being. For its health to be restored,
it needed skilled attention, and therapy. And the therapy
worked. The best parts of the site responded quickly with
a profusion of rare grasses, wildflowers, insects, birds,
snakes, and other characteristic prairie organisms. But
large weedy areas remained much as they were.
Dr. Betz was harvesting seed from the healthy prairie core
to restore the rest. "When we cut the brush, it would
just come back if there was no other plant to fight it,"
says Dr. Betz . "Wed cut and burn and throw in
seed. The brush would kill off the seedlings and retake
control of the ground. So wed cut and burn again,
and throw in even more seed. It was a battle. But wherever
the native grass took, the fire would then keep the brush
first, Dr. Betz was not sure that his efforts would truly
succeed. Still, after a few years, he noticed prairie betony
returning to the areas hed reseeded. Then came isolated
pink phlox plants, and white prairie clover, and wild quinine.
Not only could he save the core, he could help it grow.
is now a National Natural Landmark, and deservedly so. In
a pattern common to other, younger restoration projects,
this prairie has expanded gradually into a composite holding
of more than 100 acres, owned and administered by Northeastern
Illinois University, the Natural Land Institute, and The
Ron Panzer reintroduced the rare Franklin's
ground squirrel to Gensburg-Markham Prairie.
Photo by Ron Panzer.
decades-long success of Gensburg-Markham and its companion
sites has been partly due Northeastern Illinois conservation
biologist and local resident Ron Panzer, who first volunteered
at the site in 1977 and who, a year later, became its paid
naturalist a position he retains to this day. A student
of prairie fauna generally and insects specifically, Panzer
has conducted substantial research at this site and others,
and has here reintroduced selected native animals, ranging
from the rare Franklins ground squirrel to the rattlesnake-master
borer moth. He has also noted the unplanned return of a
few other animal species, including a breeding community
of the Henslows sparrow.
the years of work, he has learned that restoration cannot
be driven by some preconceived notion of what the grand
result will be. "I have a fundamental respect for the
laws of biologic succession. Things change here naturally,
and they should." He has learned that prescribed burning
the modern, planned version of prairie wildfires
of past centuries does not solve all problems. "Some
people think that burns are a cure for everything. But fire
is not helpful in curbing all invading species. We must
also hand-cut, apply herbicide when necessary, and be very
three white-fringed orchids bloomed for the first time,
in the sixth year after seeding as part of a species
recovery program sponsored by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
But the greatest unsolved problem is the difficulty of restoring
a vibrant and diverse animal component to complement the
more easily reintroduced plants. From fringed orchids to
moths and squirrels, a prairie is coming back to its full
richness at Gensburg-Markham.
to Gensburg-Markham Prairie know they are in a rare and
special place. Photo by Ron Panzer.