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Bringing Nature Back
by Sarah Marcheschi - July 2015

If you don’t have a prairie, you can make one. That’s what they did with acres of fallow land at Fermilab in Batavia.


If you’re planning to visit the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois, the only U.S. Department of Energy site open to the public, you’ll need to have a photo ID ready. But once you clear the security checkpoint, pick up your map and pass through the gates, one of the region’s largest natural areas restoration projects awaits you.

The vision of Northeastern Illinois University professor Robert Betz, the reconstruction of Fermilab’s native tallgrass prairie began as a 9-acre planting in 1975 and now comprises almost 1,000 on-site acres, with more planted every year. Mowed paths cut through thick swaths of grasses and wildflowers, and trails for bicycling wind throughout the property past lakes, ponds and laboratories. The outdoor spaces teem with wildlife such as birds, deer, geese, amphibians and reptiles, even a herd of buffalo, brought in to acknowledge Fermilab’s connection to its prairie heritage.

When Robert Wilson, the first director of the laboratory, approached Betz for advice on what to do with all of the fallow land on the site, he was intrigued by Betz’s vision for a large-scale restoration that would return thousands of acres to tallgrass prairie, an almost extinct ecosystem in Illinois. According to Fermilab ecologist Ryan Campbell, planting originally began inside the accelerator ring, then spread outward. (The miles-long accelerator ring is used to conduct particle physics research, essentially speeding particles such as proton beams and neutrino beams through the ring and smashing them into each other to see what happens.) Seeds came from within a 50-mile radius, all of them hand-collected by Betz and his volunteers. “Betz was very enthusiastic. He was good at getting people interested, good at recruiting help,” says Campbell. Before beginning work on the prairie restoration at Fermilab, Betz had worked with noted ecologist Ray Shulenberg in the 1950s and 1960s to understand exactly what a prairie was. “For years Betz and Shulenberg surveyed the areas along railroad tracks and pioneer cemeteries,” notes Campbell. “There are no remnant prairies at Fermilab at all. Everything is a reconstructed prairie.”

There are several different types of prairie depending on the kind of soil present and the moisture gradient. Fermilab, like most glaciated areas of Illinois, is a black soil prairie, which has a high nutrient capacity and is rich in the organic matter that promotes abundant growth of grasses, sedges and wildflowers. There is very little elevation change on the site, and the silty clay loam soil is mostly mesic, or moderately moist, but it ranges all the way from wet prairie to wetlands.

The ground is prepared for planting through plowing and disc harrowing. Volunteers collect seeds, clean and prepare them for germination, then broadcast them over the field. Maintenance of the prairie may sometimes require overseeding to increase seed to soil contact, as well as regular annual prescribed burns.

Burning contributes to the health of a prairie ecosystem by keeping invasive species in check and encouraging growth of native plants, which evolved to withstand the fires caused by dry conditions and lightning strikes. During a burn, non-native plants are removed, which allows more nutrients and room for natives to grow. At Fermilab, burning typically takes place at two peak times: first in the spring, from mid-March into April, then again in late fall after all the vegetation goes dormant. The key, says Campbell, is waiting for the right conditions. “We’ve burned in January before. If it’s a warm winter and there are perfect wind conditions, we’ll burn.” Factors such as moisture, weather, and wind are crucial to ensure dry plant material can be burned safely and that flames can be controlled.

Fermilab now boasts oak savannas, sedge meadows, woodlands, and wetlands, among others. “All of these connected habitats really form a nice mosaic of uncommon plant communities,” says Campbell. With these plant communities have come the insects such as butterflies and bees, as well as birds like the endangered upland sandpiper, the bobolink, and the grasshopper sparrow to round out the ecosystem. Fermilab is now a favorite destination for Chicago area birdwatchers, thanks to the varying habitats found on the property. Over 270 bird species have been seen there, drawn by the upland forest, flood plain woods, grasslands, and the many streams, lakes, and wetlands. The site is especially notable for its shore birds, owls, shrikes, and unusual geese.

According to Campbell, ecologists at Fermilab are trying to add species that are appropriate for this prairie habitat. “In the last decade, we’ve seen a lot more regulations about controlling invasive species. Fermilab adopted this practice before that type of activity was really popular among our colleagues in the ecological field,” he says. Indeed, lab director Wilson was a visionary – not only a physicist, but a sculptor and artist as well. “He wanted to create an aesthetic, culturally pleasing place. The prairie enhances the appearance of the lab and adds beauty to the landscape,” says Campbell.

Today Fermilab is known not only for innovations in particle physics, but for its ecological endeavors as well. The dream Wilson and Betz had 40 years ago of creating a landscape of rich open prairie and native grassland continues to be realized. It’s a place where physicists, neighbors, and nature lovers can hike on the trails, watch birds and butterflies, fish in the ponds or just enjoy a picnic on the grounds. And there is plenty of opportunity for volunteers to get involved, from plant and wildlife monitoring to surveying aquatic invasive species.  

What are the Flowering Plants?

Thanks to the work of volunteers, ecologists, and grounds crews over the past 40 years, the natural areas restoration project is responsible for the presence of many native species that weren’t growing there before. Plants such as big bluestem, prairie dropseed, compass plant, prairie dock, Indian grass, shooting star, gayfeather, false indigo, wild quinine, golden alexander, yellow and purple coneflowers, rosinweed, wild bergamot, lead plant, rattlesnake master and butterfly weed are all commonly found in the Fermilab prairie. Additional native habitats are being restored.

The thousand-acre restored prairie at Fermilab is open to the public.


A version of this article appeared in Chicagoland Gardening Volume XXI Issue IV. Photos Courtesy of The Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory.



Sarah Marcheschi is a Chicago-area Master Gardener who writes for the Kane County Chronicle and The Daily Herald. She cooks, writes, and tends to her veggie patch at a little cottage outside the city.


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