Nachusa Grasslands

By Nature Conservancy Illinois Chapter Staff

Preserve description:

Steep sandstone outcrops descending into rocky meadows and streams made Nachusa Grasslands difficult to farm and saved large pieces of native prairie from the plow. Nachusa's rolling landscape is a mosaic of eleven different natural community types including dry prairie, tallgrass prairie, bur oak savanna, sand savanna, fen, sedge meadow, and streamside marsh. Scattered like a broken string of pearls among old corn and soybean fields, these high quality natural areas provide a unique opportunity to restore Illinois' original landscape on a large scale.

Much of the grandeur and ecological significance of Nachusa Grasslands derives from its large size. A recent land acquisition brought the total number of protected acres at Nachusa to over 1,000. The Conservancy's long-term goal is to protect an area several thousand acres in size. By replanting and restoring the old fields that separate the pearls - of healthy prairie, the Conservancy will restore to the greatest possible extent the original dynamics and integrity of the landscape.

The majority of the prairies preserved in Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin are small, some as tiny as half an acre. They have been dubbed "postage stamp" preserves. Ecologist Dan Janzen calls sites like these "the living dead." The small populations of animals and plants they harbor are vulnerable to disease and drought. They support only a fraction of those species that truly make up a healthy ecosystem. On such sites, species that are not part of viably sized populations live out their life spans and gradually die off. At Nachusa. however, by restoring the fullest possible complement of original species and natural processes, we can sustain a dynamic functioning ecosystem through time.

A big, diverse preserve like Nachusa can support large populations that need a lot of room to survive such as many grassland bird species, butterfly species. and large animals such as badgers. The Conservancy plans to reintroduce buffalo as soon as enough acreage has been protected and restored.

History and Protection:

In the 1960's, longtime prairie enthusiasts Doug and Dorothy Wade heard the call of the upland plover and searched surrounding pastures for its likely habitat. They found the bits of native prairie that are now protected in Nachusa Grasslands. In 1986, recognizing that Nachusa offered the best opportunity in the state to restore a large and diverse grassland, The Nature Conservancy purchased the core of the preserve fifteen minutes before the start of an auction that would have sold off the prairie into five acre home sites.

So far, 1,020 acres have been protected at Nachusa Grasslands through acquisition or conservation easements. Our goal is to raise funds to protect additional high-priority lands, and eventually to create a link with nearby Franklin Creek State Park (515 acres), thereby maximizing the amount of contiguous wildlife habitat.

Stewardship:

In the eastern part of the tallgrass prairie region with rich soils and ample rainfall, the grassland ecosystem rapidly dies without fire. It once burned through prairies, savannas, woodlands, and wetlands. Reintroducing fire is an important part of the stewardship effort at Nachusa.

Much of the ecological restoration work at Nachusa is accomplished with the help of a growing volunteer group that is actively helping to manage Nachusa. Volunteers participate in many activities. They gather rare prairie and savanna seed and sow it into degraded areas, monitor breeding bird populations, and conduct public educational activities. Volunteers hold an annual prairie festival at Nachusa, "Autumn on the Prairie," which draws several hundred people each year.

Scientist Ron Panzer has conducted one of the world's first successful reintroductions of a rare insect at Nachusa, the gorgone checkerspot butterfly. The butterflies are rescued from prairie fragments that are being lost to development and transported to Nachusa where they have a greatly improved chance of long-term survival.

Hiking The Preserve:

Nachusa Grasslands is open to the public for hiking, bird-watching, and other activities that do not harm the natural landscape. The grasslands are in bloom from April through October, but the ruddy color of little bluestem grass in winter makes Nachusa's rolling landscape beautiful year round. Interpretive brochures to guide you to areas of particular interest can be found at the main entrance to the preserve in the large mailbox.

Volunteers at Nachusa conduct periodic tours, bird walks, and other special events. Call The Nature Conservancy for further information on volunteer activities and events.

Natural Quality:

Upland sandpipers migrate all the way from the Pampas of Argentina to nest at Nachusa Grasslands. Grasshopper sparrows, dickcissels and Henslow's sparrows can be seen perched in the colorful prairie grasses. Badgers and other "Prairie State" wildlife that need a lot of space abound at Nachusa Grasslands. One of the world's largest populations of federally threatened prairie bush clover (Lespedeza leptostachya) has managed to survive here. Four other plant species at Nachusa are candidates for federal listing: fame flower (Talinum rugospermum), Hill's thistle (Cirsium hillii), kittentails (Besseya bullii), and forked aster (Aster furcatus). Many other plants that are rare in Illinois survive at Nachusa such as downy yellow painted cup and prairie lion's tooth.

Scientists have mounting evidence that only large preserves can sustain healthy ecosystems over the long run. Nachusa Grasslands gives us the rare chance to protect a place where our grandchildren's children will be able to stand on a grassy knoll and look out into the distance across a living landscape that is their heritage.

County: Lee and Ogle
Size: 1,020 acres
Nearby cities or towns: Dixon, Oregon, Rochelle, and Franklin Grove

Directions:
From Oregon, go east on Route 64 to Daysville Road which is just past the Rock River on your way out of Oregon. Turn south onto Daysville Road. After 2.5 miles, the road splits, with Daysville Road jogging to the left and Lowden Road leading off diagonally to the right. Take Lowsden Road. The preserve will be on your right (west) about 1/2 mile south of Stone Barn Road. There is a large wooden sign which marks the main entrance.

From Rochelle, take 251 north to Flagg Road. Turn west onto Flagg Road and continue approximately 16 miles west to Lowden Road. Turn south onto Lowden Road and continue past Stone Barn Road. The preserve will be on your right.

For more information on volunteering membership, contributions, and the preserve, contact: The Nature Conservancy, 2055 Lowden Road, Franklin Grove, IL 61031, (815)456-2340.

Copyright 1998, The Nature Conservancy