A recent Saturday morning began with birdsong, a cloudy sky, and a buzz of excitement at Oakton’s Des Plaines campus as a group of individuals gathered as part of an ecological field site visit organized by the Forest Preserves of Cook County. Attendees included staff from the two organizations, stewards of regional restoration sites, and site volunteers who joined together in an effort to learn more about the partnership between the FPCC and Oakton Community College.
For over 25 years, Oakton and the FPCC have been working closely with each other to understand, manage, and restore the natural areas within this 250 some acre plot along the Des Plaines River. It is near impossible to determine where Oakton land starts and Forest Preserve land begins, the only indicators being scattered stone markers along the borders. And that’s probably the way it should be. The lack of constructed barriers and fences allow the land to flow naturally from ecosystem to ecosystem, which include woodlands, prairies, and ephemeral ponds. FPCC purchased the land which is now Kloempken Prairie in the mid 40’s while Oakton’s land was purchased from the Catholic Church three decades later (though much of the area had been used for local agriculture as evidenced by the multiple drainage ditches).
Craig Billington, a resource ecologist with the FPCC, described the partnership as a “unique synergy between these two areas” and Raquel García-Álvarez (Stewardship Program Coordinator) was quick to point out the excellent work of all forest preserve stewards and volunteers who take their time to maintain these precious spaces. Ken Schaefer (Naturalist for Oakton, FPCC Steward and volunteer) and Bob Hostettler (steward of Kloempken Prairie) provided their own perspectives on the history and management of the natural areas. If it weren’t for them, the areas would likely not be in the brilliant state they are today.
Ken discussed the way he and his team manage the 100+ acres of natural space, including work days with community and student volunteers, paid staff commitment to the effort, and contractual services. Most of these efforts involve removal of invasive species (the biggest offender being buckthorn) through manual removal, brush cutting, and burning with the remnant swamp white oak and Northern Flatwoods holding priority. Traversing through these areas is easy and the absence of buckthorn is noticeable when compared to other regional, less-managed sites, allowing for lots of light and plant diversity. While Ken closely follows the FPCC’s guidelines on restoration and management, he also has more control on Oakton’s land in terms of maintenance and propagation of key species. All of these efforts provide a unique opportunity to engage students in field work and observation skills.
The woods soon open up to the sweeping Kloempken Priarie and it is hard to believe that the area ever looked abandoned. As Bob characteristically described–he was out for a bike ride along the Des Plaines River Trail when he noticed blazing star growing in the space under the power lines and was hit by a burst of inspiration. He organized the first Kloempken Prairie work day in 1991 and has been guiding its restoration ever since. As beautiful as it looks now, Bob was quick to mention that it is “not perfect”. Cattails and purple loosestrife have been coming in throughout the years and establishing. Because they colonize rapidly, they often prevent other native species from being successful and can restrict the diversity of plants to an area. The cattails also affect the amount of water within the space. While maintaining a site’s ecology and restoring it to pre-agricultural periods is a daunting task, involving hours of weeding, seeding, and monitoring, it also comes with many benefits.
Walking through the prairie is restorative, surrounded by the sounds of insects, the scent of mountain mint, and the variety of colors and textures. Areas like Kloempken can be used not only to showcase nature at its best, but also as a way to help preserve species which are quickly fading out elsewhere as a result of roads, new construction, and other aspects of city sprawl. As an example, Bob shared that he discovered sneezeweed and obedient plant growing in the river flood pllane across from the College at Golf Road and brought seed from them in to populate the prairie. Now, due to years of flooding, these plants have completely disappeared from the tracks but have a solid foundation in the prairie and Oakton’s property.
This visit was certainly a testament to the hard work and hundreds of hours individuals put in to caring for natural areas. If you are interested in learning more about volunteer options with the Forest Preserves of Cook County, visit the this website to learn more about the wealth of opportunities in your area! Oakton students have a unique opportunity not only to explore vast (and diverse) natural areas while on campus, but we also encourage them to help maintain the areas as part of our Ecology Club and to become more involved with our Sustainability Initiatives. This Fall, Oakton is launching a new Environmental Studies Concentration which will provide students with any major the opportunity to delve deeper into environmental topics through hands-on learning across disciplines. We hope you will join us!
These areas are open to the public and can be accessed by parking in the C lot of Oakton Community College’s Des Plaines Campus. We just ask that you remove any trash you bring in, be aware of insects and poison ivy, and be respectful of the space.