Fermilab History and Archives Project

Natural History - Prairie

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Some ecological and environmental notes about NAL Site activities as provided by Robert Hines, Farm Management, and Robert Ebl, Landscape Architect, Site Management:

** 80 acres near the NAL Village have been seeded into oats. Some oats will be used for feeding buffalo; the balance will be a nurse crop for grass seeding in 1972.

** Some 180,000 pounds of blue grass seed have been used since the Fall of 1969. Another 100,000 pounds is on order.

** A crew of seven full-time and two summer period employees is assisting Farm Management's staff. One summer employee is Randy Theis, grandson of a former site tenant in pre-NAL days.

** 200,000 trees will be planted on the NAL site in a program that began May 1 and will end June 30th.

** Continuation of boundary planting, from Eola Road along Butterfield Road to the E.J. & E. Railroad, then along the railroad right-of-way and the utility corridor to Batavia Road, is underway. This is a continuation of the 1970 plantings running from Kautz to Eola Roads. Completion of these plantings will mean that about one-fifth of NAL's site boundary will be planted. Plantings will consist of shrubs and native low and medium trees, about 10,000 separate plantings in all.

** Some 50,000 white pine, red pine, red cedar and northern white cedar will be planted in a 100-foot band on the outside of the Main Ring.

** In and near the NAL Village, mass plantings of pine and hardwood seedlings (12 to 30 inches high) are scheduled for windbreak and natural areas that will not be designated for Laboratory development or for grazing. For example, 20,000 trees will be planted on each side of the East entrance to the site on Batavia Road. Mass planting of pines also will take place near Sauk Circle.

** NAL has purchased a "hydro-mulcher" for planting the berms around the Main Ring, etc. This machine has a 1,000-gallon tank in which seed, fertilizer, wood fiber mulch and water are mixed. The mixture is blown through a hose onto the berms at a high velocity. The wood fiber dries into a mat, providing a micro-climate in which the seed can germinate and grow. This method prevents erosion and also creates a germination bed for seed. It also will be used for Main Ring berm maintenance.

Source: The Village Crier Vol. 3 No. 24, June 17, 1971

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A proposal presented by the Illinois chapter of The Nature Conservancy, to re-establish a native prairie on the 650 acres of land inside the circle comprising the NAL Main Accelerator, has been approved by the Laboratory. The prairie landscape, first viewed by pioneers traveling westward before 1800 and characterized by tall grasses sprinkled with a variety of colorful flowering plants, has almost disappeared from the American scene. Cultivation, grazing, and construction have nearly obliterated prairie vegetation in the Midwest. The essentially-isolated nature of the inside of the NAL Main Ring makes it an ideal setting for a prairie restoration that may well become a world-famous botanical and ecological study ground.

According to Donald R. Getz, NAL Assistant Director, the project must get underway soon in order to be ready for the 1974 planting and growing season. The Laboratory has asked Dr. Robert Betz, professor in the Biology Department of Northeastern Illinois University and a world-famous prairie authority, to head the NAL Prairie Advisory Committee. Dr. Betz and his committee will come to the Laboratory to describe what a prairie is and explain the steps and procedures necessary to develop a prairie. Employees of the Laboratory, members of their families, visiting experimenters and their families, and any other interested people will have an opportunity to hear these leading authorities on prairie culture describe what can be achieved with the project at NAL. Volunteers will be called for at this meeting to assist in this program, in several ways:

A nursery will be started immediately to plant and nurture seeds provided by the Morton Arboretum of some of the 200 varieties of prairie flowers and grasses. The seeds will be planted in ordinary flats in a greenhouse on the NAL site, then transplanted in two stages to a one-acre "nursery" site. Meanwhile, as early as possible this Spring, the Laboratory will have a controlled "burn" over the surface of the land as a major step in eliminating weeds and undesirable vegetation now growing on the site. About one-fourth of the land within the Main Ring circle will be burned early this year, the remainder when it is convenient and again at 2-3 year intervals. The burning is an important facet of prairie culture; fires, both natural and started, were vital factors in determining which plant species survived. The burning at NAL will be accomplished easily and safely because the entire acreage is surrounded by the waters of the cooling ponds of the accelerator.

Another aspect of the prairie plan at NAL is the gathering, from within a 75-mile radius of NAL, of more seeds of authentic prairie species which will in turn be planted in the nursery for further development and replanting in the prairie area. It is expected that ten years' time will be necessary to achieve stabilization of growth in this project, one of the largest of its kind anywhere. A similar project at the University of Wisconsin, started in the 1930's, totals 100 acres. The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, began a 10-acre prairie in 1963.

The largest portion of the labor required for the prairie project at NAL is to be the work of volunteers. The work of volunteers will proceed according to the plans and schedules devised by the Advisory Committee. The Advisory Committee will provide leadership to an NAL Prairie Committee, appointed by the NAL Director from a list of interested volunteers after the information meeting. This committee will supervise the volunteers.

"It is important," said Mr. Getz, "'that everyone realize this is a working volunteer group. It will be interesting, rewarding work, but work nevertheless, involving hand cultivation and weeding and caring for the seedlings. No one should sign up who can't follow through with the project.

"But we need lots of volunteers, from inside and outside the Laboratory. It is a unique program; to the best of our knowledge, nothing like this has been done anywhere in the world, and we would welcome a lot of participation."

Rene Donaldson, of NAL's Technical Publications group, a student of prairie ecology, presents some background information on prairies below. Everyone interested in the NAL prairie project is welcome at the forthcoming meeting, Mr. Getz urges.

Source: The Village Crier Vol. 6 No. 7, February 14, 1974

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Although Illinois is often called the "Prairie State," few realize the true meaning of the native prairie as it existed in the early 1800's. The word "prairie" comes from the French word for extensive meadow. Perennial grasses, such as big bluestem and Indian grass, give the prairie its special character, but the numerous prairie wildflowers (called forbs) are also conspicuous from April through October. These real prairie plants, because of their nonagressive nature, are not adapted to survive the upheaval incurred by settlement.

The question which inevitably follows is: why preserve or reestablish the prairie? Once established, the prairie provides a self-maintaining ground cover while constantly improving the soil. The only measure necessary to insure survival of the long-lived grasses is supervised burning once every two years. Prairie plants, while often extremely delicate in appearance, have deep, well-developed root systems that can withstand the ravages of recurrent fires while the introduced Eurasian weeds, such as those presently inside the NAL Main Ring, could not.

Even if there were no practical application for restoring prairies, their aesthetic appeal - from the ashen tones seen after burning to the lush gold-brown fields silhouetted against an azure sky in autumn - would warrant preservation. Eventually with the restoration of a prairie and its associated plants, wildlife will be attracted to the tall grasses and seeds produced, providing a habitat for nesting birds as well as a resting place for migrating birds.

When one begins to comprehend its living interrelationships, the prairie becomes more than a place of lonely beauty and haunting vistas. It becomes a place to go for peace and solitude, a link with the past amidst encroaching urbanization.

Source: The Village Crier Vol. 6 No. 7, February 14, 1974

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10-acre tract (at arrow) will begin Main Ring prairie

10-acre tract (at arrow) will begin Main Ring prairie

Fermilab's prairie project got underway recently with the planting of seeds donated by the Morton Arboretum for a demonstration plot to be started along Road D opposite the Receiving Area. The 40' x 40' plot will display at close hand the species of plants and the layout that comprise a genuine prairie landscape. The same species, and others, will also be planted in a row-style nursery plot on Eola Road. Seeds from the nursery and from the demonstration plot will be collected in the Fall and saved for sowing in the 650 acres inside the Main Ring as the ground is prepared there for the permanent prairie site.

The prairie project, as announced in the February 14, 1974 issue of THE VILLAGE CRIER, is directed by an Advisory Committee of prairie experts, headed by Dr. Robert Betz of Northeastern Illinois University, Ray Schulenberg of the Morton Arboretum, Ray Taggart of Illinois Chapter of The Nature Conservancy and David Blenz of the Cook County Forest Preserves. The Advisory Committee and the Fermilab administration have laid out a long-range plan and schedule for development of the Main Ring prairie. The plan will begin with the plowing and preparing of a 10-acre plot of land inside the Main Ring in the Fall of 1974. Burning of the existing vegetation in the Main Ring will not be done this year. The 10 acres will be planted as soon as possible and then another portion will be prepared and planted. The entire project will require ten years to complete. It will be the largest prairie restoration in the world and is expected to become a valuable botanical study ground.

George Doyle, Village Services, has been stratifying seeds for the Fermilab prairie
George Doyle, Village Services, has been
stratifying seeds for the Fermilab prairie

Working with the Advisory Committee is the Prairie Committee, interested Lab employees appointed by the Director. Members of the Prairie Committee are: Anne Burwell, Director's Office (Program Planning Office), Dave Cosgrove, Accelerator Division; Tony Donaldson, Accelerator Division; Joan Harris, the wife of Fred Harris, Experiment #155; Margaret Pearson, Public Information; David Sauer, (ex officio) Site Management; Tom Saunders, Village Stock Room. Donaldson serves as chairman of the Prairie Committee. A number of other active volunteers assisted with the seed planting.

The Prairie Committee is sending out an urgent appeal for help from other interested people in a project that has just developed. A remnant of prairie is being destroyed at Calumet City, Illinois, about 50 miles southeast of the Laboratory. Before the ground is bulldozed for a development project there, permission has been given to move many of the rare prairie plants to the Fermilab nursery site. This is work that needs many hands -- some to go to Calumet City on the morning of Saturday May 25, others to plant at the Laboratory in the afternoon of the same day. Volunteers, at least 50 working persons able to distinguish and identify plants and to do the hand digging, are needed.

Volunteers will be needed continuously in the prairie project. The seeds just planted will be transplanted in late June. A great deal of hand weeding will follow. The Prairie Committee is now studying a structure for scheduling volunteer work on prairie projects in the summer of '74. If you cannot help on May 25 but could help another time, volunteer now. A general meeting soliciting volunteers from the surrounding community will be held as soon as the committee has firmed the organization plans. The Fermilab prairie project is an interesting, rewarding project - a link between the untouched landscape of the past and concern for the world of the future.

Source: The Village Crier Vol. 6 No. 25, May 23, 1974

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Fermilab acres turned to grain production in 1975

Fermilab acres turned to grain production in 1975

Responding to President Ford's policy of maximum food production in the United States, Fermilab recently signed contracts with three area farmers to place 1,383 acres of the Laboratory site into row crop use in the 1975 crop season. Mr. William Muetze of Batavia, Illinois, has a contract to cultivate 630 acres of corn; Wayne Knight of Sandwich, Illinois, 610 acres, and John Frieden, Batavia, 143 acres.

Figuring a modest 100-bushel per acre production return, the contribution to the world food supply may be calculated as supplying over 6,000 yearly diets of 2,000 calories per day.

In terms of the local economy of the Fermilab area, the addition of the sale of the seed and fertilizer to be used, the transportation and handling of the crop, the storage and initial marketing of the 1/6 million bushels of corn may represent over $400,000 in new money flowing into the local area. The impact on employment and sales in the area is apparent.

The decision to convert these large tracts of Fermilab land into agricultural use is part of a continuing program of good land management. The Fermilab site contains some of the most potentially productive corn/soybean land in the world. Historically, the land has been used as farm land since settlement in the early 1800's. The return of the 1,300 acres to farm use integrates into the present land use of much of the land surrounding the Laboratory. Such use also offers habitat for wild life normal to this area.

The decision to plant corn rather than soybeans came after careful study by the Laboratory administrators. According to Dave Sauer, Manager of Site Services, it was decided that the benefit to soil tilth of corn stalks and the opportunity for weed control afforded by the cultivation of corn were important considerations in the decision. The current world food situation, the demand for grain, and the favorable price of corn on the market also promoted the feasibility of the new program.

Long-range, the Laboratory requires full use of the 6,800 acres of the total Fermilab site for possible future scientific activities. In the immediate future, however, some of this land can be usefully put under cultivation. On the remaining land, the Laboratory seeks to keep site maintenance costs at a minimum while maintaining esthetic appearances and ecological standards. Maintenance of the buffalo herd and the Scottish Highland cattle and support of the prairie restoration inside the Main Ring are facets of this goal.

Source: The Village Crier Vol. 7 No. 9, February 27, 1975

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Planting in center of Main Accelerator
Planting in center of Main Accelerator
R. Schulenberg (L), R. Betz operate seed drill
R. Schulenberg (L), R. Betz operate seed drill
Fermilab's Grounds Crew: (L-R) G. Pipkin, M. Roubideaux, R. Hall, G. Provancial, R. Kraft
Fermilab's Grounds Crew: (L-R) G. Pipkin, M. Roubideaux, R. Hall, G. Provancial, R. Kraft
Volunteers harvesting prairie seeds last October at Markham
Volunteers harvesting prairie seeds last October at Markham
Bringing home the harvest
Bringing home the harvest
R. Betz prepares precious prairie seeds for storage
R. Betz prepares precious prairie seeds for storage

The first 13 acres of a prairie restoration, on 668 acres in the center of the Fermilab main accelerator, were planted in early June. Dr. Robert F. Betz, chairman of the Advisory Committee and a world-famous prairie authority and professor of biology at Northeastern Illinois University, directed the planting with Ray Schulenberg, curator of the herbarium at the Morton Arboretum, and members of the Fermilab Prairie Committee, headed by Tony Donaldson.

Fermilab's Grounds Crew joined the small army of people who have already contributed to the project, expected to produce the world's largest restored prairie and to become an important center of botanical research. Applying their experience with the rich soil found on the Fermilab site, Fermilab's Grounds Crew carried out two plowings of the prairie ground last fall and several discings this spring. With the assistance of Dave Sauer, head of Site Services, and Rudy Dorner, Site Manager, the historic planting schedule was finalized several weeks ago.

More than 400 pounds of seeds including four grasses and fourteen flowers were sown. Representing species typical of this region of Illinois, the seeds were gathered by hand during three weekends last October. More than 200 people from the Chicago suburbs and from Fermilab traveled to the prairie remnant at Markham, Illinois, and to the restoration at the Morton Arboretum to harvest ripe seeds of the plants known to have grown on the Illinois prairie of pre-settlement days.

A "thrashing bee" followed to remove chaff and foreign matter from the seeds, which were then bagged and stored in a closet in the Central Laboratory. In April the precious seeds were "stratified" - mixed with vermiculite and placed in the cooler of the old cafeteria in the Fermilab Village to simulate the normal effects of winter.

"We are speeding up a process that takes natural forces hundreds of years to complete," Dr. Betz notes. If the first segment of the project is successful, with satisfactory germination and enough growth so that new plants become established this year, another 10-15 acres can be planted in 1976. These two plots, when mature, could furnish seeds for much larger tracts, perhaps 100-200 acres each, and in ten years the project will be complete.

To the uninitiated, "prairie" is the name attributed to grassy, treeless fields, generally associated with the flat open spaces of Midwestern United States from Ohio to Kansas. "Prairie," (from the French, meaning "meadow") is actually the descriptive name given by the Europeans who first came to the end of Lake Michigan and found the seemingly endless grasslands of Illinois.

To the biologist, however, the prairie is a complicated ecosystem. It consists of grasses, with roots sometimes twenty feet long, growing six feet tall, sprinkled with a wide variety of flowering species which bring a constantly shifting pattern of beautiful color to the expanse where it grows, as each variety comes into bloom. Birds, insects, and wildlife accompany this pattern.

The inter-relationship of the plant life, the animal and insect life, and the survival of the ecosystem through fires and natural hazards, has become the basis of a field of biology similar to the study of forests. Its preservation is viewed by biologists much as is the survival of endangered animal species. Professionals like Betz and Schulenberg miss no opportunity to preserve small prairie remnants, such as in pioneer cemeteries and along long-established railroad tracks. Working with representatives of The Nature Conservancy, they bring to Fermilab's restoration the sum of all that is known about a vanished biological era on the North American continent.

The first pioneer settlers ignored the prairie, thinking it poor soil because it bore no trees. They settled instead near water and in groves of trees. But the rich soil produced by the prairie ecology, once it was discovered, was soon brought under agricultural subjection. The steel plow was invented to subdue the dense root structure of prairie growth. By the time of the Civil War, the prairie had nearly vanished. What grows now are weeds, imported from Europe with settlers' seeds, seen by biologists as aggressive, dominating, undesirable plants, often referred to as "old world weeds."

The rectangular area recently planted in the center of the Fermilab main accelerator is clearly visible from the upper floors of the Central Laboratory. The volunteers also maintain a small plot just off Road D (see map below) in which a sampling of the same species in the Main Ring tract were planted last summer for viewing and study by the public. In another plot, south of Eola Road, a "nursery" plot, adjacent to the Laboratory nursery, contains other rare species, planted in rows for cultivation, from which seeds can be harvested for sowing in the Main Ring over the next few years.

Anyone interested in participating in or learning more about the Fermilab restoration is urged to contact members of the Fermilab Prairie committee.

Work assignments are mailed out regularly to volunteers for planting, weeding, and other special projects. They report as they are able, but more hands are always needed. Volunteers range from students and other men and women of all ages. Everyone is welcome.

Prairie project locations
Prairie project locations

Source: The Village Crier Vol. 7 No. 25, June 19, 1975

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For the second year, Fermilab is seeking volunteers to collect seeds to be sown on the 660 acres in the center of the Fermilab main accelerator to reconstruct there the plant community that existed in the Midwest before westward settlement in the 1800's. Now, all but vanished in the U.S., the prairie represents an important ecological community. Those who support and work with the Fermilab prairie restoration see the prairie as a heritage that should be passed down to succeeding generations while the few remaining remnants exist.

In 1974 about 200 volunteers from the surrounding communities worked for the Fermilab prairie project on three weekends. They collected about 400 pounds of seeds of the rare prairie species from the remnant prairie at Markham, Illinois, and from the prairie restoration at the Morton Arboretum. The seeds were cleaned, bagged, and stored at Fermilab for the winter. In June, 1975, they were planted on eight acres in the center of the Fermilab Main Ring.

Collaborating with The Nature Conservancy, a national conservation organization, Fermilab has been advised by Robert F. Betz, professor of biology at Northeastern Illinois University, and Ray Schulenberg, curator of the herbarium of the Morton Arboretum. The men, both well-known authorities on prairie ecology, supervised the planting at Fermilab last June. Betz reports, "The seeds collected by the volunteers and sown at the beginning of June produced tens of thousands of prairie plants. From the size and vigor we see in the plants this fall it appears that the 1975 planting is a success. Without the interest and help of the volunteers this could not have been possible."

Plans now call for gathering seeds for a 20-acre segment to be planted in the spring of 1976. On Saturdays October 11, October 18, and October 25 groups of people are needed again at the Markham prairie and at the Morton Arboretum prairie. Led by Betz and Schulenberg, the harvest will continue all day on those dates, but volunteers are welcome for whatever portion of the day they can give to the harvest.

A bus to the Markham prairie will be provided, leaving the Fermilab Central Laboratory at 8:00 a.m. on each harvest date and returning about 5:00 p.m. Volunteers should bring gloves, shears, twine, a pail or grocery bags, sack lunch and beverage. There is no charge for the bus service. There is no bus service to the Morton Arboretum but transportation will be provided for anyone needing it.

For further information about the Fermilab restoration project and about the seed harvest, contact the Office of Public Affairs.

Source: The Village Crier Vol. 7 No. 39, October 9, 1975

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R. Betz examines seeds before planting in center of main accelerator
R. Betz examines seeds before planting in center of main accelerator
Tony Donaldson describes prairie demonstration plot
Tony Donaldson describes prairie demonstration plot
Demonstration plot provides close up look at prairie restoration
Demonstration plot provides close up look at prairie restoration
Nancy Tweedie (R) (Guest Office) and other volunteers clean seeds for storage
Nancy Tweedie (R) (Guest Office) and other volunteers clean seeds for storage
Bagged seeds prepared for storage
Bagged seeds prepared for storage

Fermilab will participate in observance of "Illinois Prairie Day" on Saturday, September 25. This day has been set aside by Illinois Governor Walker to honor the remaining prairies and prairie restoration projects in the state, and a number of these sites will be open to the public on Prairie Day. Special tours and programs will be offered under the sponsorship of the Illinois Department of Conservation.

At Fermilab Robert F. Betz, a prairie expert who heads the Advisory Committee for Fermilab's prairie restoration project, and Anthony R. Donaldson, chairman of the Fermilab Prairie Restoration Committee, will present a special program, "Prairie Panorama," at 8 p.m. in the Auditorium. Admission is free and the public is invited.

An exhibit of prairie photographs by Donaldson, prints by Bobbie Lively, Roberta Simonds, and Henrietta Tweedie, and ceramics by Ruth Duckworth will be on display in the Central Laboratory Building, second floor lounge area, through October 25.

Betz brings to Fermilab a vast reservoir of knowledge about the prairie. A professor of biology at Northeastern Illinois University, he is the author of several well-known prairie-related references. He travels throughout the state identifying and organizing the preservation of the few remaining prairie remnants in Illinois. His enthusiasm and respect for the real prairie as an important ecological system are reflected in his dynamic lectures.

Donaldson, an engineer in the Accelerator Division, and his wife, Rene, of Technical Information, have been the leaders of the prairie restoration committee's work at Fermilab for nearly three years. Under Betz's guidance they have organized the seed harvesting, the planting preparations, and the weeding and maintenance vital to the success of the project.

Fermilab's prairie restoration project is on its way to becoming the largest prairie restoration in the United States. Sixteen of the 660 acres in the center of the Laboratory's Main Accelerator have now been planted with seeds from two of the area's outstanding prairies - the 10-acre restoration at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle and at the Gensberg-Markham Prairie in Markham, Illinois, as well as at scattered prairie remnants.

Since the prairie planting in the Main Ring is for the time being inaccessible for viewing, a small sample patch - a demonstration plot - has been planted alongside Road D, opposite the buffalo pasture. The demonstration plot, surrounded by a rail fence clearly visible from the road, is a mini version of the prairie that will eventually emerge inside the Main Ring. The small plot can be kept weed-free and the plants there thrive more generously than the large tracts in the Main Ring where the emerging prairie species must battle the Eurasian weeds that have taken over since the land was put under cultivation in the 1800's.

Once the prairie inside the Main Ring is established, the only measure necessary to insure survival of the long-lived prairie grasses is a supervised "burn" every other spring. Prairie plants, which are perennials with long, well-developed root systems, can withstand recurrent fires which the Eurasian weeds cannot. It requires at least two years after planting a restoration before there is enough vegetation to sustain a good fire.

Volunteers will be needed again this Fall to harvest seeds for next year's planting. Under the Donaldsons' leadership, these people will go out on October 2, 9 and 16, 1976 with pails and grocery bags, trying to bring back several hundred pounds of the precious seeds. "We can plant as much seed as we can collect," Donaldson says. "and we would like next year to double the acreage already planted." Eventually, the prairie planting at Fermilab will furnish its own seeds to complete the project, and a modified agricultural combine can be used for the harvesting.

Several hundred volunteers have been associated with the seed harvest in the past two autumns. Their vision of returning the land to the unique and beautiful ecosystem which the true prairie represents clearly motivates all of the hard work it involves.

To many people the word "prairie" brings to mind visions of flat or slightly-rolling farm land dotted with houses and trees, and covered by neat rows of corn, wheat, and soybeans. Many are unaware that "prairie" actually refers to a vegetation type which covered much of the United States for thousands of years, and which has nearly disappeared since the time of European settlement. The true prairie was called a "sea of grass" in early accounts, and it extended from western Indiana to the Rocky Mountains with little interruption. Lewis and Clark described it as "good land, covered with grass...void of timber."

While dominance by grasses is one of the most distinctive features of prairie, it also contains many wildflowers and broad-leaved plants which add to its beauty and diversity. The "summer prairie" has a different look than the "autumn prairie." Both evoke the praise and admiration of those who study the unusual ecosystem. In Illinois there are three main types of prairie: tall grass prairie, which is characterized by grasses such as big bluestem and Indian grass that reach heights of seven feet or more; sand prairie, which contains grasses and broad-leaved species that are adapted to dry conditions, and hill prairies, containing mid-height grasses such as little bluestem and side oats gramma which reach heights to 2 to 3 feet. The tall grass was once one of the most remarkable features of Illinois. It extended across most of the central part of the state and created the rich, dark soils that make some of the best cropland in the world. The sand prairies are restricted primarily to the large sand deposits along the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers, and hill prairies occupy the south and west facing bluffs along most major streams in the state.

Source: The Village Crier Vol. 8 No. 35, September 16, 1976

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Evanston Boy Scouts, leaders, clean Rattlesnake Master flower seeds
Evanston Boy Scouts, leaders, clean Rattlesnake Master flower seeds
R. Schulenberg (L) and York H.S. student separate seeds from debris
R. Schulenberg (L) and York H.S. student separate seeds from debris
Indian grass seeds get bagged for stratification by Evanston scouts
Indian grass seeds get bagged for stratification by Evanston scouts
T. Donaldson (L), project director, demonstrates his technique for a fellow worker
T. Donaldson (L), project director, demonstrates his technique for a fellow worker
Surprised by a photographer were E. Lundy (second from left) and friends
Surprised by a photographer were E. Lundy (second from left) and friends
Cleaned seeds await bagging by R Betz (L), volunteers
Cleaned seeds await bagging by R Betz (L), volunteers

Fooling Mother Nature may not be nice, but for her own sake, a Fermilab ecology project will do it anyway.

While most seeds are readying for spring sprouting Fermilab staffers and helpers have put some "special" seeds into hibernation for a few months. VSS (Very Special Seed) treatment is being accorded selected prairie plant seeds-grasses and flower varieties-planned for planting here in June. Seeds were sorted, separated from foreign materials and put to bed during Fermilab's third annual seed cleaning day Feb. 26.

Tony Donaldson, an Accelerator Division engineer and chairman of Fermilab's Prairie Restoration Committee directed the project. He reported that 50 volunteers contributed over 200 hours in cleaning and stratifying seeds collected last fall. In October, 150 volunteer gleaners stalked the Morton Arboretum at Lisle, Gensberg-Markham (IL) Prairie and other scattered prairie plots for the precious seeds, seed pods and clusters.

A near-record 390 pounds were collected and bagged in the field. The paper bags were stored on site until cleaning day.

Collected were about 290 pounds of grass seed and 100 pounds of flower seeds. Of the grasses, Donaldson said, Big Blue Stem seeds totaled about 150 pounds, with Indian Grass totaling 130 pounds and 10 pounds of Switch Grass. Among the 20 varieties of flowers represented were Bottle Gentian, Blazing Stars, Compass Plant, Prairie Dock and Yellow Cone Flower. (In 1975, the harvest yielded about 250 pounds of seed: 190 pounds of grasses, 60 in flower seeds. Weather conditions-high winds blew seeds off stalks-a late harvest and fewer volunteers reduced the effort's effectiveness.)

Stems, sticks, stones and other debris were sifted from the seeds during the cleaning operation. It got underway at 9 a.m. in Kuhn's Barn, near the swimming pool. Fermilabbers working were Rene Donaldson, Technical Publications; Nancy Tweedie, Guest Office; Maury Goodman, E-401; John Nagy, E-95; and Dave Snyder, E-288; and Mrs. Richard Lundy and Mrs. Polly Cosgrove, whose husbands hold Neutrino and Accelerator assignments.

Other volunteers included students from York High School, Glenbard East High School, and Bryan Jr. High School (Elmhurst). Also, a half-dozen Boy Scouts came from Evanston and numerous area residents were drawn from surrounding towns. They were notified in advance through a mailing list maintained by Rene Donaldson.

Technical advice is provided by Ray Schulenberg, curator of the herbarium at Morton Arboretum and Robert Betz, Northeastern Illinois biology professor and a prairie authority. He heads an advisory committee guiding prairie restoration efforts at Fermilab.

1977 seed-cleaners needed little direction, Donaldson said. "Most were veterans; they knew exactly what to do."

After cleaning, seeds were settled down for a late winter's nap by stratification. The process will insure dormancy until planting in June. In a nutshell, stratifying consists of: 1) bagging seeds in cloth sacks, 2) soaking the sacks in water (in Fermilab's case, a discarded bathtub was used), 3) soaked sacks are individually rebagged in plastic utility bags, and 4) bundles are refrigerated at 38 degrees F.

Spring for these seeds will arrive in June. They will be defrosted, then dried by being spread out two to three inches deep on a concrete floor for four or five days.

Preceding planting will be a second biennial field burnoff supervised by the Fermilab fire protection unit. . The measure is necessary to give prairie grasses an edge against competing weeds. "Prairie plants are perennials with long, well-developed root systems," Donaldson said., "they can withstand fires which the weeds cannot."

The seeds will be used to plant from 16 to 20 acres on the northwest quarter of the main accelerator ring. Rudy Dorner's site operations crew will tackle the assignment with a special planting machine on loan from the Arboretum. About 16 acres of the 660 in the ring have been planted since 1974.

That year marked the launching of a Fermilab project to restore vanishing Illinois prairie on the high-energy physics research site. A demonstration plot adjoins Road D, opposite the buffalo pasture. Surrounded by a rail fence, the plot is a mini-version of the prairie intended for inside the main ring.

With man's help, the sample plot is kept virtually free of weeds. Plants there thrive more vigorously than in the large tracts within the main ring where nature's law -- survival of the fittest -- reigns.

Eventually, perhaps next year, Donaldson predicted, prairie plantings at Fermilab will yield seeds to complete the project.

Source: The Village Crier Vol. 9 No. 10, March 10, 1977

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Fermilab's annual prairie seed planting--a project to restore 660 acres with wild grasses and flowers--achieved a milestone recently.

A record 40 acres were seeded June 16-17 in a third annual planting. Nine acres were planted last year and eight in 1975. Four volunteers working were: Tony Donaldson, Accelerator Division engineer, and chairman of Fermilab's Prairie Restoration Committee; Richard Kujath, farm crew member; John Sandberg, son of Burt Sandberg (Accelerator); and Dr. Robert F. Betz, professor of biology, Northeastern Illinois University and one of the originators of the project.

According to Dr. Betz, about 450 pounds of seeds from about 30 varieties of prairie grass and 24 wildflowers were sowed.

Main varieties of seeds set in the ground were Indian grass, big and little bluestem, switch grass, purple prairie clover, compass plant, purple dock, Indian quinine, and purple and yellow cone flower.

A special tractor-drawn planting machine--a Nisbet Seed Drill--was loaned by Morton Arboretum. The machine enabled planters to fill 10 furrows simultaneously.

The seeds had been collected at Morton Arboretum, Lisle, at the Gensberg-Markham (Ill.) prairie and other plots, in October by 150 volunteers. After winter storage of the seeds, volunteers were again enlisted in February to clean and stratify the grain, removing stems, sticks, stones and other debris at an all-day "seed-cleaning bee" in the Kuhn barn. Kernels were then bagged, dampened and refrigerated until "spring" planting. Preceding the planting was an April controlled burnoff of previously planted areas and plowing of areas to be seeded to eliminate weeds.

Another project milestone is in the making, Betz said. For the first time, plans are to harvest seeds from the Fermilab plot--by hand--this fall. Also, volunteers will again collect kernels at the arboretum and Markham. This summer, a combine is being adapted so that seeds may be mechanically harvested in the fall of 1978. Tentatively, a fall planting will also follow an autumn seed harvest Betz said.

According to Betz, an estimated 100 pounds of seed per acre may be gleaned mechanically. "This will enable us to plant 100 acres at a crack," Betz said. He added that as the Fermilab plot becomes more self-sustaining volunteers will be tapped to collect more exotic species of plants.

Source: The Village Crier Vol. 9 No. 25, June 30, 1977

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Robert Wilson, Director Emeritus and the original stimulus behind the Fermilab prairie restoration, watches Tony Donaldson (left), former Prairie Committee chairman gesticulate about the height of the prairie grasses in the Main Ring in June 1982

Robert Wilson, Director Emeritus and the original stimulus behind the Fermilab prairie restoration, watches Tony Donaldson (left), former Prairie Committee chairman gesticulate about the height of the prairie grasses in the Main Ring in June 1982, compared to the 6 to 8 feet height of big bluestem grass in September 1981 (photo on right).

Big bluestem is one of the most important and tallest of the prairie grasses and the species is well represented in the Main Ring plantings.

6 to 8 feet high big bluestem grass in September 1981

by Steve Bracker

The Fermilab Prairie Project took another big step backward last year. Sixty more acres of land inside the Main Ring were started on their way back to prairie, the community of grasses, wildflowers, and animals that flourished here before European settlement began. Over half of the land in the Main Ring has been planted in prairie grass already; in just three or four years prairie grasses will have "recaptured the ground" throughout the Main Ring.

Prairie grasses are amazing plants. If you visit the prairie in August or September, you will understand why the pioneers were impressed as they tried to wind their way through thick stands of big bluestem grass and Indian grass towering over their heads. Prairie grasses are also tough plants; they do well against weedy competitors, weakening them and driving them out. They also produce lots of fuel for roaring prairie fires which stimulate prairie plants but stunt and kill most weedy annuals, trees, and brush.

But prairie is more than just grasses. Prairies in this area probably had about 150 species of wildflowers. In the spring, the prairie violet and the shooting star carpeted the ground. A bit later, spider-worts, cream wild indigos, wild quinines, and purple coneflowers bloom. As fall approaches and the grasses tower overhead, the prairie docks and compass plants, with their bright yellow flowers at the top of ten- or twelve-foot stalks, will be visible even above the grasses. Finally, late in the fall, gentians and other late bloomers appear.

A few vigorous wildflowers are planted alongside the grasses. They too are hardy and thrive against weeds. Many other prairie plants are more finicky about where they will grow; they do well only after the basic prairie matrix is already established. Each year additional wildflowers are planted. Some seeds are scratched into open areas, some are grown into young plants in greenhouse flats and transplanted. Some species do well; some are notoriously hard to start.

If you visit the prairie during June and early July, before the grasses have grown so tall that they obscure everything else, you can see over twenty kinds of prairie wildflowers growing in the earliest prairie planting, which was sowed in 1975. Later plots have fewer species; prairie plants are almost all perennials and may take years to bloom. 'Last year's planting looks like a catalog of horrible weeds, but underneath, the prairie plants are emerging. In a few years, they will vanquish the weeds and furnish a prairie-like environment into which more species can be added. Every year we make an effort to improve every plot. It's a long road backward to a fully restored prairie.

Plants are only part of the story; the prairie also had its own animals. Some return by themselves as the habitat becomes more like prairie; several kinds of birds have become much more common in recent years, and some prairie insects are showing up. Some animals, almost extinct in this area through excessive hunting and destruction of living space, must be reintroduced. In 1982, trumpeter swans were in the marshes inside the prairie; these birds were captive, but their young were free-flying wild birds.

As the years have passed, new planting techniques have been tried. Some have been successful, others have failed. We are still studying the best methods to use in restoring such enormous areas. Some areas are thoroughly plowed and disked; in others minimal tillage or none at all is necessary. Some planting has been done with a modified grain drill, some with a hydroseeder, and some using the salt spreader used for salting Fermilab roads in the winter. One thing that remains constant is our need for volunteers to pick wildflower seeds, plant them in our plots, and help with the combining and planting of grass seed in the fall.

The best way to get a feeling for the Fermilab prairie is surely a visit; any prairie committee member will be glad to give you a guided tour. Visitors should be warned of prairie fever, an incurable progressive disease that afflicts even an occasional casual visitor. Symptoms are various sorts of seemingly bizarre behavior - incessant plucking of dried seed heads, searching for rare plants in old cemeteries and along railroad tracks, planting funny-looking seeds in big open fields, and walking around through prairie tracts talking in a strange mixture of English and Latin. It's a great disease once you get used to it!

Source: FermiNews, July 8, 1982

See below for more information on the prairie: