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Travis Kuntzelman, a restoration manager with The Nature Conservancy, leads a tour for a group from the Institute for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern University. (Morgan Levey/ Medill)

By Morgan Levey, Aug. 10, 2017 –

“You could get lost out here,” laughed Vivien Rivera. Big bluestem grass growing nearly 10 feet high towered over Rivera’s head as she walked through Markham Prairie North, part of Indian Boundary Prairies near Markham. The dense, prairie landscape is filled with sweet blackeyed susan, bergamot, blue vervain, marsh blazingstar and other native grasses that survived decades of industrialization.

“Big bluestem [grass] is just a rainbow of colors,” says Travis Kuntzelman, a restoration manager with The Nature Conservancy. “That’s its namesake, the blue part of the stem there,” continues Kuntzelman as he points to a small segment of the grass shoot. “But it’s just full of colors.”

Indian Boundary Prairies, a world away from Chicago though just 20 miles south, encompass the largest remaining remnant prairie in the state of Illinois. The nearly 500 acres of open land, owned by Northeastern Illinois University and The Nature Conservancy and managed by The Nature Conservancy, escaped the plow as well as development and remains one of the most biodiverse places in the Midwest.


William Miller, professor of chemical and biological engineering at Northwestern University, walks through big bluestem grasses at Markham Prairie North, bordered by I-294 to the east. (Morgan Levey/ Medill)

“The Chicago wilderness has a whole series of intact small remnant habitats that hold a lot of the biodiversity — the rare biodiversity — that was here at the time of European finding of this area,” says Karl Gnaedinger, project manager for Indiana Boundary Prairies for The Nature Conservancy. IBP consists of five prairies separated by housing developments and roads. Despite highway borders, the prairie is considered a reference ecosystem — a biological standard for other restoration initiatives.

“Our prairie sites are an opportunity to help especially [our] urban community better understand that biodiversity isn’t just something that’s off in the Amazon, or in coral reefs, but that there’s really significant biodiversity around us,” says John Legge, Chicago Conservation Director for The Nature Conservancy.

Rivera, a second-year Ph.D. student at Northwestern University toured some of the high-quality areas of Indian Boundary Prairie in late July with her research team from the Institute for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern and members of The Nature Conservancy, the organization that manages the prairie.

Rivera and the team from ISEN have been analyzing environmental samples from Gensburg Markham Prairie for the past year. They installed 24 sensors, capturing everything from soil moisture and water levels to light, humidity and air quality. Their goal is to assess the health of the entire Indian Boundary Prairies and collect data that shows how prairies, with their deep web of roots, help purify water, prevent flooding and control soil erosion.  

Native prairie plant marsh blazingstar (Liatris spicata) grows in Markham Prairie North. (Morgan Levey/ Medill)

“The aim of our study at IBP is to evaluate both the benefits of urban green space to the surrounding community and the impacts that urbanization has on the prairie,” says Rivera, one of the project’s leads.

Prairies are ecologically essential because they have the ability to store water both on their surface and underground. Indian Boundary Prairies help manage Chicago’s stormwater runoff and alleviates flooding in the surrounding area.

“Flooding is an enormous concern in the Chicago area. Low lying city, rivers running through it, right by the lake, so generally speaking, flood prone.” says Aaron Packman, professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Northwestern University and director of the university’s Center for Water Research. “We are hoping to use the information we gain from GMP and our other sites to be able to predict the behavior of urban green spaces and design networks of green spaces to achieve objectives like flood control,” continues Packman.

Some of the technology that the ISEN team is deploying in the field was developed by Argonne National Laboratory for their “Array of Things” sensor project conducted in collaboration with the University of Chicago. Their sensor nodes have the ability to measure and then collect real-time data on air quality, light, temperature and an array of other environmental factors.

We are “using information we know about the site like soil types, and where water has historically been to try and figure out A, why it is that way, and B, where water will be in the future,” Rivera says. The team also wants to know how much water gets stored and how much gets transmitted in and out of the prairie. Rivera says they are using the data to begin developing a groundwater model for Gensburg Markham.

The built environment has radically impacted biodiversity and ecology across the world. Prairie landscapes are essential in the Midwest to flora and fauna that aren’t able to adapt to human habitats. “We think of IBP as a sanctuary for plants and animals that need help now, and that definition of what needs help now will change over time,” says Gnaedinger.

Indian Boundary Prairies, a world away though only 20 miles south of Chicago. (HerbertSsegane/Argonne National Laboratory)

“For the last few years, there’s [been] a substantial concern of increasing flooding related to climate change,” says Packman. The Midwest has endured a 37 percent increase from 1958-2012 in precipitation falling in very heavy events – the heaviest one percent of all daily events, according to a 2013 report by NOAA’s National Climate and Development Advisory Committee.

“Under climate change and changes with how the surrounding areas are being managed, these sites are getting new inputs and outputs that didn’t exist. We might need to make some changes within the prairie to make them behave more like they used with changes with inputs and outputs,” says Rivera.

Prairie grasslands once covered much of Illinois as a habitat for bison, deer and countless other animals. But now it takes a huge amount of management and maintenance to keep native plant and animal species thriving. “The prairies are islands, subject to edge effect and invasive species moving in, [We] have changed the hydrology radically. All these things make great impacts,” says Gnaedinger.

Conrolled burns are one of the methods for maintaining prairie health by killing invasive species and promoting regrowth. Burns occur every two to three years, according to Kuntzelman, “We have rotating patterns so it’s not all at once. Some areas need it more than others and those get burned every year.”

To the researchers the burns exemplify the vigor of the prairie’s productive ecology. “You should see it when we’re out here in the winter,” says Rivera as she wades through waist-deep vegetation. “Everything freezes and dies and it’s all open fields.” But for now, the prairie is thriving with an ocean of grasses.

See related story: Sensors Give a Deeper Glimpse into Illinois Prairie Health and Human Impact

Photo at top: A tour of Paintbrush Prairie at Indian Boundary Prairies south of Chicago. (Morgan Levey/Medill)

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