Valerie Blaine, nature programs manager for the Kane County Forest Preserve District, tells visitors about prairie plant life during Saturday's grand opening of Muirhead Springs Forest Preserve in Plato Township. | Andrew A. Nelles~For Sun-Times Media
Updated: January 23, 2012 4:07AM
PLATO TWP. — What’s old is new again as 797 acres of former prairie that was turned into farmland is once again a tall grass prairie known as Muirhead Springs Forest Preserve along Bahr Road .
A crowd gathered Saturday afternoon at the shelter in the new preserve — southwest of Pingree Grove and near Elgin’s far-west border — to celebrate the official opening of the preserve to the public.
The event was attended by Kane County Forest Preserve District officials Monica Meyers, executive director; Jon Duerr and Chuck Siegler, former superintendents; T. R. Smith, Barb Wojnicki, Drew Frasz, and Jeanette Mihalec, commissioners; Drew Ullberg, director of natural resources; and Laurie Metanchuk, director of community affairs.
“I’m proud to have been involved in this project,” said Ullberg. “The Muirhead family farmed this land for a long time. Bob Muirhead and I drove around the property when it was used for growing crops. I made a promise to him to plant prairie here one day. Less than one-tenth of 1 percent of prairie exists in Illinois. This land will now offer habitat for wildlife. We hope to pass it on to future generations.”
The Muirhead family was among the first settlers of Kane County. They established their farmstead in 1860. The new preserve sits on land that was formerly farmed and sold to the district by the Muirhead, Thurow, Rausch and Warner families.
“People should not expect to find playgrounds here because it’s a preserve,” said Smith. “The 2040 Kane County plan has an urban corridor along the Fox River, a transitional suburban corridor from east of Illinois 47 to the county line, and a rural corridor from Randall Road and Illinois 47 to the county line. I want this preserve to reflect what the rural corridor is all about. There are horse farms around here. I love to see horses in this preserve.”
The new preserve’s amenities include over four miles of limestone trail that are suitable for hiking, bicycling and equestrian use. The preserve also includes a picnic shelter with electricity and grill, drinking fountain, restrooms, a paved entrance drive, interpretive signage, and two parking lots with one suitable for equestrian trailer parking.
Valerie Blaine, Kane County nature programs manager, led a group along the trail and talked about the prairie.
“When settlers traveled out here from the eastern United States, land that grew trees was considered good, and land without trees was considered bad,” Blaine said. “It wasn’t until John Deere invented the plow that settlers learned that about the good soil in the Midwest.”
“The prairie is an ecosystem dominated by grasses and maintained by fire and large, grazing herbivores,” Blaine added. “It evolved with the bison that made wallows, fertilized the prairie, and acted as seed dispersal agents. The prairie was a harsh place to live. It’s a place of extremes, but plants and animals adapted. Most prairie plants have deep roots that can go 15 to 20 feet into the soil. Eighty percent of the prairie is underground.”
Blaine showed attendees different prairie plants, such as the state grass known as big bluestem or turkey foot plant, compass plant, indigo plant, and rattle snake master. She said native prairie mammals include fox, coyote, whitetail deer, weasels, voles and elk.
Plants that are not native to the prairie include sweet clover, thistle, and Queen Anne’s lace. In Illinois, prairie restoration started during the 1970s. One attendee noted that pure prairie seeds today are worth $1,000 an ounce.
Blaine said it has been phenomenal how grassland birds have flocked to the new preserve.
“If you build it, they will come,” Blaine said. “There are strong signs of a resurgence of prairie wildlife. The one mammal that won’t come back is the bison, which was a key element of the prairie.”
Michael Hernandez, 9, came on the prairie walk with his mother, Nancy; siblings Esther, 7, and Jacob, 5; and his aunt and uncle, Jesse and Yesi Stutler of Burbank.
“I have been learning about prairie plants in school,” Michael said. “My class visited the prairie at Fermilab.”
Frasz’s wife, Gail, brought their large Anatolian shepherd, Turk, on the prairie walk. Pets are welcome at the preserve as long as they are leashed.
Volunteers who would like to get involved with prairie restoration can attend activities such as Seed Mixing Day at 10 a.m. on Friday, Nov. 18, at the Aurora West Forest Preserve, 40W244 Hankes Road. Blaine said seeds are harvested and put into different mixes for woodlands, wetlands, wet and dry prairies.
More information is available from the at 630-232-5980 or at www.kaneforest.com.