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Oak Lawn Park District celebrates development of nature preserve

  • Written by Joe Boyle

louis mule speaks photo 9-15

Photo by Joe Boyle

Louis Mule, principal ecologist for Tallgrass Associates, discusses the development of the Chicago Ridge Prairie at 105th and Menard during a tour of the area on Monday night.

In a battle that dates back to the 1970s, the Chicago Ridge Prairie defeated the odds and became a reality as a nature preserve that borders Oak Lawn and Chicago Ridge.

The ribbon-cutting ceremonies took place Monday evening at the Chicago Ridge Prairie location at 105th and Menard Avenue. The nature preserve is actually located in Chicago Ridge but was purchased by the Oak Lawn Park District with the intention of developing the land.

Louis Mule, the principal ecologist with Tallgrass Associates in Orland Park, said it was a long time coming and took a lot of hard work to accomplish.

“The Oak Lawn Park District deserves a lot of credit,” said Mule. “They have stuck with us. This is a real success story.”

Maddie Kelly, director of the Oak Lawn Park District, said plans to develop this land into a nature preserve prairie have been a long process. She said that the owner of a nearby apartment complex had been using the prairie as a dumping site. Soil and other materials from the construction of the apartment were dumped into the prairie. Kelly said that he had repeatedly been asked to clean up the area. Kelly said that he continually said he would but never did.

“We have been trying to stop the dumping since the 1970s,” said Kelly. “We finally went to the DNR (Department of Natural Resources) and they saved us. Specialized equipment had to be used to clean up the land.”

Kelly said that $400,000 overall was used to develop the land into a prairie, with $200,000 coming from the Department of Natural Resources. The department was able to clean up the fill and restore 4.5 acres that were destroyed.

While plans were stalled in the courts for years, the actual construction began about four years ago. A gravel pathway just less than a mile has been developed to allow youth groups from the Oak Lawn Park District and residents to walk along and see rare plants and insects. The Chicago Ridge Prairie is one of only two remaining gravel prairies surviving on the old lake bottom (the other is the Santa Fe Prairie in Hodgkins).

A 15 minute tour of the Chicago Ridge Prairie took place after the ribbon-cutting ceremonies. Members of the Oak Lawn Park District Board of Commissioners, Oak Lawn Trustee Terry Vorderer (4th) and Village Clerk Jane Quinlan were also on hand. During the tour, Mule mentioned that 43 specialized insects are present in the prairie. Three species of native snakes – the plans garter, DeKay’s brown and the smooth green snakes – can be found in the prairie.

Mule added that high quality “burning” takes place at the prairie as a means to stimulate plants and act as fertilizer. About 50 percent of the site is carefully burned each year, conditions permitting. Grasses such as the Big Blue Stem and Prairie Dropseed grow more vigorously and most other maintain species diversity. Several signs are posted along the path to describe what can be found in the prairie.

The restored section was seeded in late 2013 with species found in the original section. The rest of the prairie is natural and original – similar to what the first settlers in Worth Township found growing there, Mule said.

In the restored unit of the prairie, bio-swales were created and designed to collect and hold water for the wet-mesic plant species planted within them. The new trails in the restoration area include a shelter with lights powered by solar energy. The rain barrels also collect run-off from the roof of the shelter. This slows the run-off in the prairie and the water can be used as a controlled source of water as needed for restoration.

In 1994, all 12.9 acres of the Chicago Ridge Prairie was designated as an Illinois State Nature Preserve by the Illinois Preserves Commission to recognize and protect this unique native prairie wetland.

Mule also pointed out that the larger rock formations that can be found along the prairie date back to 10,000 years ago.

“This is a special place,” said Mule.