Tucked back a half mile from the road in a grassy thicket near Elgin, sits an unassuming hill that'll soon be part of Cook County's largest restoration project.
At 9 a.m. next Saturday, Oct. 25, volunteers will descend upon the little hill in the 97-acre Bluff Spring Fen Preserve to collect millions of prairie seeds.
Next spring, the seeds will be transported to the 3,910-acre Spring Creek Forest Preserve near Barrington Hills, which is undergoing one of the most ambitious restoration projects in the region. There, they will be replanted.
For the past few years, volunteers at Spring Creek have cut brush and trees like the nonnative, aggressive buckthorn, which choke out native plants.
Now, parts of the preserve are ready for the native seeds that naturalists hope will repopulate the land with native plants. The area, which 200 years ago was part of the vast prairie that once covered Illinois, was farmed and grazed for years before relatively recently it was returned to its more natural state as a Cook County Forest Preserve.
For the seeds, it'll be a homecoming of sorts.
In 1990, an emergency plant rescue was undertaken at a nearby site, the former Healy Road Prairie, at Healy and Higgins roads, when the prairie was about to be plowed under by a gravel mining operation. Preservationists struck a deal that allowed them to go in and lift out the plants and carry them away to Bluff Spring Fen for replanting.
It was an agrarian Dunkirk that still sounds amazing these 18 years later.
At the time, the Healy Road Prairie represented less than 1 percent of the state's tall-grass prairie that had remained largely untouched by humans. It was on a geological formation called a kame, which was created from rocks, gravel and boulders dumped there by a waterfall coming off a glacier during the last ice age, said Doug Taron, curator of biology at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in Chicago and co-steward of the Friends of the Fen.
Kames were perfect for certain kinds of native plants but ill-suited for farming, Taron said, so they were usually left alone. Settlers farmed around the kame, but not directly on it, meaning it remained in its virgin state.
"It was one of the finest prairies in the state," said Stephen Packard, director of Audubon-Chicago region. "It was a crime that is was destroyed."
But about 18 years ago, a gravel mining company, which owned the land, wanted the rich deposits of rocks underneath.
Hundreds of volunteers went to work. Unlike lawn sod, which can be cut into manageable pieces or rolled up due to its short, interlocking root system, prairie grass sod falls apart easily when moved, said Mel Manner, steward of the Friends of the Fen, who helped move the Healy Road Prairie.
So, front-end loaders dug out the prairie grass and soil, dumping it into trucks that then made the six-mile trek to Bluff Spring.
Once at the fen, the trucks dumped the dirt into piles. Nearly 400 volunteers sifted through it, looking for patches of green that were scooped up and replanted on a man-made hill, created just for the Healy plants, Packard said.
"It's almost like if you went to the (Chicago) Art Institute and took all the art and threw it on a truck and dumped it somewhere and then tried to put it all back together again," Packard said.
The transplanted plants have flourished on that hill, which is now completely covered.
The plants are adapted to drier conditions, so not many have strayed too close to the fen, which is an alkaline spring-fed wetland.
All of which leads naturalists to believe the reseeding can be reproduced and that native prairies might make more of a comeback. Packard said that by 2011, it's hoped the Healy plants will provide even more seeds for restoration to other sites.
For details on Saturday's big dig, visit www.springcreekstewards.org. Anyone who would like to join the effort can call Ryan White at (847) 800-3742 or e-mail him at email@example.com.
Once the seeds are collected, volunteers will spend the winter sorting them and putting them into compatible mixes for next spring's planting.