Railroad buffers and pioneer cemeteries help restore prairies at Fermilab

What stories can the land tell us about our ecological impact? Poignant stories, in fact. Humans have the ability to change environments rapidly, and with that, natural environments of the past can be glossed over or forgotten to history. What we see today can deceive modern viewers as to how our surroundings may have looked centuries ago, particularly with regard to our native prairies.

The irreplaceable value of remnant prairies

A prairie flower grows amid prairie grass.

Shooting Star, an example of a native prairie plant on-site at Fermilab. Photo: Paul Gordon

As settlers made their way west to find fortune and frontier, plows tore up millions of acres of prairie to put in cash crops. Of the 60% of Illinois that was once prairie, only 0.01% remains as a remnant. Much of that prairie is next to railroads and in pioneer cemeteries as these were often unplowed areas.

Once the prairie is plowed, it will never be the same. Land development and agriculture changed Midwestern prairie lands so dramatically that the diversity-rich prairie disappeared at a rate that caused irreversible damage. The vestiges of pre-settlement prairies play a vital role in creating habitat for native plant and wildlife species, and the ecology department at Fermilab is tapping into the diversity of its own remnant prairies.

Using land surveys from the present and past, it is possible to see where the remnant prairies are to preserve them and collect from their seed bank to increase diversity elsewhere. These small pockets of unplowed land are an invaluable resource to restore prairies and support plant and wildlife diversity.


A delicate balance, disrupted

Until the early 19th century, Illinois had a vast prairie, so vast that when it was time for Illinois to join the union, it adopted the nickname the “Prairie State.” Like any ecosystem manipulated by humans, if it is not respected, fostered and replenished, the landscape will change, and its ecosystem becomes out of balance. Such was the fate for many of Illinois’ soil-rich prairies that were plowed into oblivion. As the land was reshaped, corn and soybeans shot up, and unmanaged land grew back with new species carried in from European settlers.

Once an invasive species is introduced, there is almost no going back to an untouched wilderness. At the same time, it’s been many thousands of years since the landscape was truly pristine. Long before Europeans arrived, Native Americans had been shaping the land for millennia. Indigenous groups certainly did not move species to the same degree that European settlers did, but they did burn prairies, hunt and farm.

Today, it is often assumed that if it’s not paved, it’s natural, but that is not always the case. The Ecology Department at Fermilab looks at historical ecosystems, compares them to our current situation, and uses that data to create management plans to preserve species diversity for the future.

Remnants seed restoration

The purple flowers stand in the foreground amid prairie grass, set against a blue sky dotted with clouds.

Purple Prairie Clover. Photo: Paul Gordon

Each year, some prairies become richer in diversity as more native plants take root, but others are threatened by invasive species, which will likely always be a problem. As the prairies were being destroyed, wildlife adapted, migrated, had its range limited or extirpated. Restoring the prairies using remnant prairies at Fermilab increases suitable habitat to species, such as the federally endangered rusty-patched bumble bee, which is present on-site. This bumble bee coevolved with the species in the remnant prairies, and sowing remnant seed creates an ideal habitat for it.

At Fermilab, people have been working with the natural areas and restoring prairies for decades, adding to a collective knowledge of how to best manage the land. Robert F. Betz, a visionary of the prairie restoration at Fermilab, recognized the value in remnant prairies. He would take his family to survey rail sides and cemeteries around Illinois on weekends. His findings laid some of the groundwork for how prairies are restored in the Midwest.

Surveying remnant prairies and taking stock of what seed is on-site and native is the first step to knowing the area’s ecological parameters. Borrowing the plant diversity from the remnant prairie, the seed can be collected and put in mixes to spread to other prairies that are being restored. Reseeding a prairie is an ongoing experiment where sometimes the seed takes right away, while other times, it takes years, if at all. Each plant has its own environmental requirements. Each year, we survey and take note of what is and isn’t working, but planting is just one dimension of restoring healthy prairies. A large part of almost any land management is the continual dance between removing invasive plants and fostering native ones.

So, why are we spending time trying to increase plant and wildlife diversity on-site, besides federal requirements? There are biological and ethical arguments that can be made for conservation and restoration.

The first is that wildlife and, especially important for humans, pollinators have adapted to certain species. When keystone prairie species are not present, wildlife populations drop, and the ecological balance is tilted, potentially threatening the food systems of many animals, including humans’.

The second reason calls upon one’s conscience, and it is simple. Do we want to live in a world where there isn’t, for example, a rusty-patched bumble bee or any number of endangered species? I would argue no. Diversity makes the world beautiful, colorful, unique and interesting and remnant prairies are helping to feed that richness.


  • Prairie flower: A native rose
    A native rose. Photo: Paul Gordon