Volunteers help to recreate a prairie at UIC

by: Katerina Fiedler, Sustaianbility Internship Program Summer Student, 2017

When it comes to conservation, many people think about preserving forests or natural wonders such as the Grand Canyon, but what about prairies? Prairies haven been threatened since the settlement of the west began in the United States. Farmers considered these indigenous plants to be weeds and used the rich soil for farming. The overuse of the land eventually led to catastrophic events such as the Dust Bowl. Now, there are better framing practices in place but what about the prairies? Restoration of this significant ecosystem has been taking place in many areas throughout the Midwest. One such restoration is happening on UIC’s west campus.

UIC received the Five Star and Urban Waters Restorations Grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. The goals of this grant is to “develop nation-wide-community stewardship of local natural resources, preserving these resources for future generations and enhancing habitat for local wildlife.” On May 15, UIC used this grant to restore 0.25 acers of prairie behind the School of Public Health and Psychiatric Institute building at 1601 W Taylor St.

With the help of volunteers and a team from FedEx Cares, the area is on its way to becoming a fully restored prairie. “Every spring, FedEx delivers money and muscle in support of urban environmental sustainability projects in numerous cities in which team members live and work,” said Sabiena Foster, head of the FedEx Cares team. “We truly enjoyed the experience and hope to do it again.”

Prairie plants are vital to the Midwest for many reasons. They’re roots go deep, about 10 to 15 feet into the ground. This helps top soil from being blown away as well as water retention when larger storms enter the area. “This particular prairie garden”, says UIC CME graduate student Nick Haas, “should capture about 2,000 gallons of stormwater each year, even without amending the soil.”

The biodiversity of prairie plants also breaks up the monoculture aesthetic of a city such as Chicago. These plants support local insect and animal populations, providing a natural habitat for them to thrive in. “Urban areas like Chicago have seen multiple species of pollinators”, says Alan Molumby, UIC Biological Sciences professor and Bee Campus USA chair, “but it is our job to help attract additional pollinators by creating close-to-natural habitats.”

“The event was great as we had amazing volunteers from FedEx!”, said Amanda Madrigal, a volunteer. “I think the restored area will be great for student research and access to natural space, especially in an urbanized area like Chicago.” The restoration of this prairie will not only contribute to the grant’s goals but also aid achieving the goals of the UIC Climate Commitments. It will take about 3 to 5 years before the restoration is complete. If interested in seeing what a fully restored prairie looks like, head over the James Woodworth Prairie in Glenview, Illinois.

See more photos from the event on the UIC Office of Sustaianbility Facebook page.