Native prairie gets ready to take seed at Illiniwek Forest Preserve

Illiniwek’s Mike Petersen shares plans for creating a native prairie.
Illiniwek’s Mike Petersen shares plans for creating a native prairie. CREDIT KENDA BURROWS

“To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover, and a bee.
And revery.
The revery alone will do,
If bees are few.”

That was Emily Dickinson’s advice in “To Make a Prairie,” which she penned long, long ago when wild places were in abundance.

But as Illiniwek Forest Preserve Superintendent Mike Petersen and his team can attest, the modern-day reclamation and restoration of a native prairie and forest is a far more herculean endeavor. That’s especially true when it’s launched during the Rock Island County Forest Preserve District’s busiest seasons.

But for Illiniwek’s top ranger, his hardworking team and avid conservationists, the hot, sticky, often backbreaking work to begin transforming the county’s newest forest preserve is a labor of love.

Indeed, Mr. Petersen’s excitement was contagious as he shared with the QCBJ the fledgling preserve’s progress and plans during a recent visit to the 180-acre undeveloped site in East Moline. The land was purchased by the Rock Island County Forest Preserve District with a $1.03 million grant from Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation. 

Early progress on the long-term conversion also continues to fuel Mr. Petersen’s dream of a continuous conservation corridor that will one day stretch from the Interstate 80 Bridge along the Mississippi River to Illiniwek Forest Preserve District. 

It’s a goal shared by Rock Island County Board Member Kai Swanson who serves as president of the forest preserve commission.

“The strategic vision of the district comes down to four imperatives: Restore, Conserve, Learn, and Play,” Mr. Swanson said. That’s why the commission, Rock Island County Forest Preserve Director Jeff Craver and Mr. Petersen began looking for grants to create opportunities like the one that made the newest district possible, he added.

“From a strictly conservation point of view, having connected corridors dramatically accelerates species stabilization and restoration – think of the preserves up and down the Mississippi River flyway and how important those are to our bird populations,” Mr. Swanson said. “Taking all four of our imperatives in mind, I’m confident the professional team will stay on the lookout for opportunities, and I’m hopeful we elected officials will continue to empower, rather than inhibit, their fulfillment of the mission with which we’ve charged them.”

The county’s latest forest reserve consists of two forested properties with a strip of currently unavailable land in between. It overlooks the Rock River Valley and is about two miles south of the Mississippi River, two miles north of the Rock River and a half mile west of the Interstate 80 and 88 intersection.

During the QCBJ’s recent visit, the sites were serene despite the roadways’ proximity and wildlife, including a fox and a trio of bullfrogs, were unaffected by highway noises. 

Significant cleanup work had been completed on both the newly acquired Miller and Erie Holdings properties. Several old structures were demolished. Piles of junk were carted away and work is progressing to clear invasive species that choke out more desirable plants, flowers and trees. Miller Excavation has lent a hand with some of the heavy lifting, Mr. Petersen. Others also are chipping in.

“Living Lands and Waters is proud to help Mike and his team with the Forest Preserve District of Rock Island County with their work in restoring our land back to its native prairie state,” Dan Breidenstein, the environmental nonprofit’s vice president, told the QCBJ. The LL&W organization, led by Chad Pregracke, had earlier pledged to support the prairie reclamation effort.

“So far we’ve taken a few groups of local students and volunteers out to their new property to help in the removal of invasive species, specifically bush honeysuckle,” Mr. Breidenstein said. “It doesn’t take long before you can see the positive impact you can make on the world around us. Focusing on bringing back the native species and removing the invasives that are taking over helps strengthen our ecosystem at the beginning stages.”

Quad Citians will have a front-row seat for every stage of that redevelopment, including creation of a native, sustainable prairie in a large, flat, but furrowed field that was once where Deere & Co. tested some of its massive farming machinery.

Mr. Petersen said that the next key step – spraying the area to discourage unwanted species – has begun. And in the fall, he hopes to begin planting a 50-variety, high-diversity native flowering plant seed mixture to create a pollinator-friendly perennial habitat. 

Among the commonly recognizable wildflowers in the mix are Bergamot, false sunflower, milkweed and purple cone flowers. The goal is to create a sea of wildflowers in bloom “from spring to fall,” Mr. Petersen said. In addition, a fire break will be created around the planted area to protect the forest during the controlled burns required to rejuvenate the prairie.

Those and other changes will be apparent to returning visitors at a preserve that is meant to be enjoyed and shared. But the park is not a recreational area, Mr. Petersen said. There will be no campgrounds or playgrounds. The acreage will be managed for conservation, he said. The preserve will, however, be visitor-friendly: Parking lots, bathrooms and, later, trails will help visitors explore the prairie.

The new preserve and prairie also will provide protection for endangered and threatened species such as the Rusty Patched Bumblebee and the Indiana Bat.

“We’re starting to see endangered, threatened, and absent species come back to spaces that were their home long before this community was our home,” Mr. Swanson said. “That’s exciting on a lot of levels. I remember as a child learning about the extinction of the passenger pigeon and thinking how sad it was to think of creatures leaving, never to return. Extinctions are still happening today, of course, but I find it a particular form of heroism when our species finds ways to save others.”

In addition to telling the story of our prairie past and protecting its future, leaders hope the preserve will help people connect to the land, the community and one another.

“The new park’s importance to the Quad Cities is evidenced by the way places like Illiniwek and Loud Thunder are part of the stories of so many of us lucky enough to grow up here,” Mr. Swanson said of two of the busiest forest preserves owned and managed by the county.

“These are spaces where memories are made and connections are strengthened between people and with nature,” he said. “Personally, Loud Thunder is where my dad taught me to canoe. It’s where I hid out with my buddies on senior skip day in high school. It’s where I taught the kid I was in Big Brothers/Big Sisters with how to bait a hook and get a fish back into the water.”

And Mr. Swanson continues to make forest preserve memories with his own family and he hopes others will, too.

 “My son and I just spent the night at Illiniwek and I gained a deeper sense of awe at the man he’s become,” Mr. Swanson said. “While we were hiking the South Loop we came upon a beautiful young whitetail buck whose antlers were just starting to bud. Long after I’m gone, I hope that memory comes to him when he’s enjoying nature with his children and grandchildren.”

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