Remnant Chiwaukee Native Prairie is ThrivingJul 31, 2023 ● By Sheryl DeVore
View of a portion of the prairie in late summer (August 2020) showing Blazing Star (purple flowers) and Prairie Dock (tall yellow flowers with large basal leaves). Photo copyright by Dana Garrigan.
Each time Kay McClelland hikes Wisconsin’s Chiwaukee Prairie State Natural Area, just north of
the Illinois border, she knows she will observe something different,
colorful or inspiring. “You might see spectacular displays of gentian from the
road or get out and walk around to see the enormous displays of rough blazing
stars one week in August,” says McClelland, a volunteer naturalist who surveys
plants and leads nature hikes at the prairie. “Another week, you might discover
showy goldenrod in bloom. Another week, you might discover a parasitic plant
called dodder that looks like a bunch of tiny, yellow strings. The complex of
plants just continues to amaze me.”
The nearly 500-acre area is a rare, remnant, virgin prairie adjacent to Lake Michigan, saved in an extraordinary way by ordinary citizens working with conservation groups to purchase small parcels of land for nearly 60 years. The Chiwaukee Prairie Preservation Fund, (CPPF), an all-volunteer nonprofit with a main mission of land acquisition, is intent on purchasing every parcel of land within the prairie. They just signed another contract to purchase a lot from private landowners, according to President Pam Holy. “There are about 45 parcels left, and we will continue until the last piece of land has been preserved,” she says.
The natural area is a key component of a Ramsar-designated Wetland of International Importance known as the Chiwaukee Prairie/Illinois Beach Lake Plain, stretching from Kenosha, Wisconsin, south about 13 miles to the Waukegan power plant. “What is here is very, very special,” Holy says. “For the volunteers who have been working since 1965 to preserve Chiwaukee Prairie, this is really a landmark. The Ramsar designation tells the whole world, not just Wisconsin and Illinois, that this is a really special place.” The natural area has no nature centers, paved trails or buildings; visitors can just walk out into the preserve and enjoy the roughly 400 species of native plants, some of them endangered, along with native insects and birds.
Chiwaukee Prairie State Natural Area is a product of the Devonian age about 400 million years ago, when the area was all a shallow lake. Animal and plant life that lived in the lake included fish and mollusks, and over time, a huge layer of dolomite formed from the compression of fish bones and other calcium deposits. As the lake receded, it left swales, ridges and myriad micro-communities. “When people think of prairie, they often think of an expanse of grassland that all looks the same,” says Dana Garrigan, a biology professor at Carthage College, in Kenosha, Wisconsin. “But because of the topography and underlying geology along the Lake Michigan shoreline, Chiwaukee Prairie is actually a mixture of unique ecological communities such as wet prairie, dry prairie, savanna and fen that are shaped by small differences in environmental conditions.”
Garrigan also serves on the CPPF board, and gives presentations with photographs he’s taken at the natural area. “The diversity is why the natural area contains so many different plants in a relatively small area,” he says. “And, because many plants have specialized relationships with insects that feed on them and pollinate their flowers, the wealth of plants creates a wealth of insects.”
Chiwaukee’s story began in the 1920s when plans were developed to build luxury homes, a golf course and hotel, with train service between Chicago and Milwaukee on land adjacent to Lake Michigan in southern Wisconsin. The Great Depression stopped those plans, but years later, the land was further subdivided and sold in small parcels to hundreds of individuals. Most bought wetland.
Local resident Al Krampert was among the first to recognize the importance of protecting Chiwaukee. One Memorial Day in the early 1960s, he and his wife Karla turned onto a road where the natural area is located. “We saw millions of shooting stars, orange (hoary) puccoon, yellow star grass, lousewort and birdsfoot violets stretching toward the horizon as far as the eye could see,” Krampert wrote in his memoirs. As he and his wife walked through the fields, Krampert noted, “This has to be virgin prairie. I didn’t think any of this existed anymore.”
Protecting the prairie began in earnest when Krampert and other local residents, botanists and educators protested against plans to create a marina, golf course and hotel on the property. A committee decided the only way to save it was to start buying the land, and sought help from the Wisconsin chapter of The Nature Conservancy.
“All day long we had tramped over the prairie, poring over plat maps, checking on who owned what and for how long,” Krampert wrote. “How much had the owners paid for their parcels? What were the possibilities of getting the numerous owners to dispose of their land? Why had they bought it? Why did they hang on to it? What did they want to do with it? Most of all, we wondered how was it possible that this virgin prairie could have survived in a growing metropolitan area in the hands of so many owners. It was a miracle that it was still there. Perhaps another miracle might save it.”
The committee purchased a mile-long strip in the prairie 100 feet wide, which broadened out to 300 feet at one point. Krampert called it “the death knell of the marina.” Since then, volunteers, The Nature Conservancy, the Wisconsin Department of Resources (WDNR) and CPPF have worked to acquire more acreage and manage the land, removing invasive species encroaching on the natural area. In 2019, The Nature Conservancy began working on 160 acres of land west of the original preserve to restore the hydrology of Chiwaukee Prairie. Maintaining the hydrology left when the last glacier retreated will protect the plants and animals living within. Today, Chiwaukee Prairie State Natural Area is owned by WDNR, the University of Wisconsin Regents, the Village of Pleasant Prairie and the CPPF. The Nature Conservancy owns adjacent land.
Local citizens continue to play a critical role in protecting Chiwaukee Prairie through their involvement in the CPPF. They remove invasive species and help burn the prairie to keep it healthy, raise funds to protect land and spread the word to engage more people in caring for this special place.
This botanical gem is among the remaining 1 percent of Wisconsin’s former 2 million acres of virgin prairie. Research has been done on the prairie and papers have been written about grassland birds breeding there and the pollination of shooting stars, among many others. The Lake CountyForest Preserve District, which owns land adjacent to the prairie, has been especially helpful in supporting the preservation fund’s mission, Holy says. “Without the efforts of many citizens over the years, Chiwaukee Prairie simply would not exist.”
Sheryl DeVore has written six books on science, health
and nature, as well as nature, health and environment stories for national and
regional publications. Read more at SherylDeVore.Wordpress.com.
Free Prairie Hikes
The public can attend free hikes led by naturalist Kay McClelland from 9 to 11 a.m., August 5 and September 2, at the Chiwaukee Prairie State Natural Area. Participants should meet at the intersection of 121st Street and Second Avenue, in Pleasant Prairie. Park on Second Avenue. Wear good walking shoes or boots and long pants.
For more information,call 262-658-8336 or email [email protected]
Here’s what’s Blooming in the Chiwaukee Prairie State Natural Area this Month:
Pink flowers dense blazing star, rough blazing star
White flowers mountain mint, cowbane
Yellow flowers Ohio goldenrod, prairie dock
Deep blue flowers fringed gentian, bottle gentian
Purple flowers New England aster