Schulenberg Prairie — setting a high standard

Gensburg-Markham Prairie — expanding a remnant

Fermilab Prairie — experiment in expansiveness

North Branch Prairies — Forest Preserve prairies and woodlands



Summer 2000

Classic Prairie Restorations
by Ray Wiggers. ------> To Introduction
Schulenberg Prairie | Fermilab Prairie | North Branch Prairies

Gensburg-Markham Prairie
Markham, Illinois

In 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.

The discoverer and savior was Northeastern Illinois University biochemist Dr. Robert Betz, a Bridgeport native who’d been fascinated by Illinois’ native grassland communities ever since he’d hunted down small remnants of them surviving in farm-country cemeteries.

At 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.

Back 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.

By 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 prairie’s high-quality core and restore the more degraded outer sections — has become the preferred strategy at countless other sites since.

When 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.

Here, on this sandy strand of ancient Lake Chicago, Dr. Betz claimed that he’d 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 to life.

From the beginning, he cut brush, pulled weeds, and burned. Few people at the time recognized that such care was truly necessary: wasn’t nature something that was most authentic if left completely alone?

Aphrodite butterfly. Photo by Ron Panzer.

But 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.

Soon 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 . "We’d cut and burn and throw in seed. The brush would kill off the seedlings and retake control of the ground. So we’d 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 at bay."

At 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 he’d 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.

Gensburg-Markham 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 Nature Conservancy.

Biologist Ron Panzer reintroduced the rare Franklin's ground squirrel to Gensburg-Markham Prairie. Photo by Ron Panzer.

Undoubtedly, the 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 Franklin’s 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 Henslow’s sparrow.

Over 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 vigilant."

Recently, 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.

Visitors to Gensburg-Markham Prairie know they are in a rare and special place. Photo by Ron Panzer.