Volunteers Make Huge Impact Restoring COD Prairie, Natural Areas

Prairie Workday Icon

By Mike McKissack

Students, faculty, staff and community members have put in an average of nearly 160 hours per month on the natural areas at College of DuPage over the last two years. Their efforts continue this fall with a number of work days scheduled through November.

Prairie workdays are scheduled from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Wednesdays, Sept. 12, 19 and 26, Oct. 3, 10, 17, 24 and 31, and Nov 7, 14 and 28; and Thursdays, Sept. 13 and 27, Oct. 11 and 25, and Nov. 8. Additional outdoor work events are 10 a.m. to noon Saturdays, Sept. 15, Oct. 6 and 27. Seed processing events will be held from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Fridays, Nov. 9 and 16.

According to Prairie Manager Remic Ensweiler, volunteer hours are spent on a variety of tasks including small brush cutting, prescribed burn preparation, planting seedling plugs, seed collection and processing, and removing non-native invasive weeds, such as purple loosestrife and yellow sweet clover.

“At least 10 truckloads of each species have been removed to a secluded area to be burned at a later date,” he said. “This is done so that the plants are not able to go to seed, thus creating an exponentially worse problem in the years to come. The areas saw several years of neglect and non-management, so there is a lot of work to be done yet removing these weeds just to get back to neutral.”

While last year was a slow year for seed collection, students and volunteers were still able to collect 35 species. This year, 25 species have been collected and Ensweiler expects that number to reach more than 50 by season’s end.

“We collect as much as 75 percent of the seed produced in the prairies to supplement the areas that have been infested and/or treated for weeds,” he said. “In addition, we trade seed with local agencies like the DuPage County Forest Preserve and The Morton Arboretum in order to increase quality and diversity of our native plants.”

First planted in 1985, Kirt Prairie comprises approximately six acres of marsh, a one-acre retention pond, 11 acres of reconstructed prairie and savanna, and a quarter mile of seed production beds. Over a half mile of trails, including a 1/6-mile wheelchair accessible stretch, allows easy access for non-consumptive recreational use.

The Glen Ellyn campus is also home to the B.J. Hoddinott Wildlife Sanctuary, which includes a nine-acre marsh and wetland area, as well as a 15-acre Ecological Study Area comprising three acres of marsh, four acres of successional woodland and eight acres of reconstructed prairie. The Ecological Study area also includes more than a half mile of trails available for non-consumptive recreational use.

Wheaton resident Bern Okler began volunteering for prairie workdays in early summer 2017, attending most Wednesday Workdays that season, several over the winter, and nearly every Workday Wednesday through spring and summer of 2018.

“The prairie at COD is a wonderful asset to both the College and the community in many different ways,” he said. “As with anything worthwhile, it requires a little looking after to keep it improving year after year. I also enjoy the people I meet and work with there, such as Remic, who is doing a very good job of bringing this prairie back to life again. I want to help support the energy, leadership, and vision that Remic brings to restoring and improving this prairie.”

Okler, who worked at Bell Labs in Lisle for 31 years, spent the seven following years as a seasonal ranger at Grand Portage National Monument in northern Minnesota. Since 2000, he has volunteered at The Morton Arboretum, often working on the prairie there. He said helping to maintain the prairie provides the opportunity to preserve Illinois history so future generations can enjoy it.

“I met a student a few days ago who was enjoying a slow walk through the prairie on the way to class,” he said. “This student wondered why more people were not out enjoying it and thought that perhaps it was because life gets so busy that we miss the beauty all around us. It is easy to miss the subtle beauty found in nature that surrounds us.”

Okler added that he enjoys experiencing the ever-changing character of the prairie and that visitors will get the most out of their experience on return visits.

“In seeing it just once you miss a lot,” he said. “The prairie is always changing from week to week, season to season, and year to year. Just getting to know the names of a few of the many plants, birds, insects and animals on the prairie helps change your attitude for what first looks to be just a field of weeds into neighborhoods with old friends that you recognize and enjoy seeing each time you visit.”

For more information on Prairie Workdays, click here or contact Outdoor Lab/Prairie Manager Remic Ensweiler at ensweilerr@cod.edu.

Read more about the natural restoration areas at College of DuPage.

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