Thursday, August 30, 2007

Loda Cemetery Prairie a Jewel Worth Saving and Expanding

Loda Cemetery Prairie a Jewel Worth Saving and Expanding

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By the time many people began to recognize the value of preserving intact natural ecosystems, the tallgrass prairie that had characterized the landscape of east central Illinois for more than eight thousand years had already been destroyed.

As recently as 1820, approximately 60 percent of the state—some 22 million acres—was covered by prairie. By 1900, nearly all of that land had been converted to agriculture or developed for other purposes. Currently, less than one tenth of one percent of the original prairie remains in Illinois—so little that most of us have never seen a bit.

As Jamie Ellis, board president of the Urbana-based conservation group Grand Prairie Friends puts it, “We live in the Prairie State, and we still live in a prairie landscape, but the unique vegetation that we call prairie is virtually nonexistent.”

The extreme scarcity of prairie in Illinois makes it all the more important that we value the places where it remains.

One such place is the Loda Cemetery Prairie, just 30 miles north of Champaign, off of Interstate 57. Prior to its purchase by the Nature Conservancy and official dedication as an Illinois Nature Preserve in 1983, this site was slated to be used for burial as the need for space at the cemetery grew. Because it had never plowed or used for pasture, the native plant community there had remained extraordinarily strong. In the initial study of the vegetation at the site, researchers catalogued more than 130 species of prairie plants, which was, in their words, “As many as one can ever hope to find in a single prairie community.”

Since 1983, the Loda Cemetery Prairie has been maintained by the Grand Prairie Friends, who took ownership of the site in 2004. Their mission is to preserve and restore natural communities in east-central Illinois and to promote an understanding and appreciation of natural resources.

At the Loda site, local stewards promote the ecological integrity of the prairie by removing nonnative weeds and cutting or pulling woody brush. Stewards also maintain the quality of the prairie by conducting prescribed burns on a limited basis. Compared to restoration projects where prairie is reestablished on land that has been used for agriculture, remnants of original prairie such as the one at Loda are fairly easy to take care of, since their long established plant communities are inhospitable to invaders.

People, however, are welcome to visit the Loda Cemetery Prairie, which can be seen in its full glory at this time of year.

Right now there is also a historic opportunity to enhance the Loda Prairie, as Grand Prairie Friends has entered an agreement to buy about nine acres adjoining the site. This purchase will allow the group to introduce native plants on additional land, and will serve to buffer the existing prairie from disturbances on its edges.

You can help make this purchase happen and bring back a little bit of prairie by donating to the effort with a tax-deductible gift. Checks should be directed to Grand Prairie Friends, P.O. Box 36, Urbana, Illinois, 61803.

[Would you like to learn more about the tallgrass prairie in Illinois? Click here to see web pages by Ken Robertson, who is a botanist with the Illinois Natural History Survey.]