The Old Plank Road Prairies – a quick peek at an ongoing drama

Seventeen miles long – once a plank road across the prairie, then a railroad, now a bike and hiking trail. Over all that time, a few patches of original black-soil prairie survived – within the fenced right-of-way – nowhere else over hundreds of square miles.

In the 1970s, the Old Plank Road Prairie Nature Preserves were some of the best black-soil prairies in The Prairie State. The easternmost three miles are owned by the Village of Matteson and Rich Township. Finding nearby owners to care for them was crucial the Openlands’ campaign to save them when the railroad was abandoned. It’s worked, but the local ownership agencies had neither the expertise nor resources needed to care for fragile ecosystems.

For a time, trained volunteers managed them well. But the original staff partnerships that recruited, trained, and supported the volunteers gradually shifted to other focuses, volunteers drifted away, and the prairies spent decades with declining stewardship. Thus, without burns or invasive control, overgrowth by crown vetch, teasel, and brush badly degraded and, in some areas, completely eliminated the prairie.

Coming to the rescue in 2010 were the Orland Grassland Volunteers, working twice a month all year round in cooperation with Nature Preserves staffer Kim Roman and (now) Friends of Illinois Nature Preserves board member Stephen Packard. Much progress has been made, but much more work is needed. This November, Friends and Orland volunteer Bill Fath organized the first burn in two years, with staff help from The Nature Conservancy. Are you possibly interested in prairies? Do you live in the south suburbs? Might you be interested in learning more about – and possibly learn to help care for these gems? If you’re interested, contact the Friends or the Orland Grassland Volunteers

Also, so much more of this is needed at hundreds of sites, so please check out the Friends’ first “Annual Report” (and make a year-end donation, if you can) at Friends of Illinois Nature Preserves. (We need more burn gear, for example.)

Learn more details about the Old Plank Road Prairies.


We, the Friends, need more and better fire tools and protective clothing for all parts of the state … and more staff help for recruiting, training, permits, and troubleshooting. If you would consider donating, check out the Friends’ first Annual Report: click here. (If you give in December 2020, two matching grants would double your donation.)

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