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Urban Ecology Takes Hold at ISU Sugar Creek Savanna

Michele Steinbacher
Graduate student Jesse Smith looks at an invasive honeysuckle growth, on the grounds of the Sugar Creek Savanna restoration project, Monday, Jan. 25, 2021

A savanna restoration just off Normal’s Main Street could transform a long-forgotten space into an urban ecology showcase for Illinois State University.

Researchers, like ISU graduate student Jesse Smith, say the work at the Sugar Creek Savanna restoration has potential for a broader impact: It may show people which native plants work best, to harness the prairie legacy of Illinois. 

On a recent snowy day, Smith stood near a creek east of ISU’s Cardinal Court apartments. From a tangle of trees and vines, he surveyed progress at the 4-acre site. Once a 1970s outdoor environmental lab at ISU, it’s been unused for decades.

Smith described how he and others on the project have worked more than a year to clean litter, assess the current conditions, and painstakingly remove invasive plants.

“So, we have the northernmost chunk, and that’s where we’ve been clearing for about the last year,” he said, pointing up to an open snow-covered field. Next, the team will sow native prairie grass seeds in two dozen experimental plots.

This spring, he hopes to see sprouts of tallgrasses -- the type that once covered most of McLean County.

Credit Ben Wodika
Cutleaf Toothwort, in the Sugar Creek Savanna restoration area.

Eventually plans call for scattered, native trees like hickory and oak. Closer to the Sugar Creek tributary, Pheasant Creek, there will be more native woodland flowers: White snakeroot. Trillium. Virginia Bluebell.

Before European settlement, about 22 million acres of tallgrass prairie covered what is now Illinois. Today, less than .01 of 1% remains.

ISU’s savanna committee expects modest progress this spring, but the most striking differences should develop about 3 to 5 years from now, said committee member Ben Wodika, an ISU biology faculty member. He has big visions for the project. But they've been taking baby steps the first couple of years.

The trained restoration ecologist says it's too early for any significant results. Rebuilding a savanna is measured in decades, he says.

The Sugar Creek savanna site is unique: It’s tiny, as far as preserves go. And it’s not in the countryside. That makes the project ripe for the newer field of urban ecology, according to Matt Dugas, an ISU biologist who, along with Smith, Wodika, and their colleague Vickie Borowicz, lead the restoration committee.

He said the ISU site’s concentrated diversity provides faculty and student scholars research opportunities, and opens doors to hands-on lessons in natural sciences. It’s an outdoor classroom students can walk to, and through.

In just a few weeks, Dugas plans to bring an ISU ecology class to the preserve. He said he’s taking advantage of both the pandemic-friendly social distancing outdoors provides, as well as the rich landscape for students to see firsthand how to study ecology.

Credit Ecology + Vision site assessment
This map shows a rough outline of the restoration area in Normal.

At the lot, Smith explored a wooded area Dugas might use for class: “The ecology class could come out here. The students would overturn logs, and look at the insects and things that are living underneath.”

Smith’s focus on building pollinator diversity also has a role in the Sugar Creek project. When he first explored the site, he found a good number of different bee species. That really motivated him, as he’s been monitoring the decline of on-campus bee species. 

As an undergraduate, Smith was part of the Ohio Bee Atlas Project, in his home state.

“We need to pay attention to the bees because without (them), our plants will decline. And then the things that rely on those plants will also decline,” he said.

Invasive honeysuckle

Wodika says the shade-throwing Amur or “bush” honeysuckle has taken over most of the site. Its vines sometimes reach 20-feet, blocking sunlight for lower native plants. Honeysuckle is tough to remove.

Credit Provided by Ben Wodika
Invasive honeysuckle stump, Sugar Creek Savanna restoration area.

Smith recruited student and community volunteers through the restoration project’s Facebook page to help. But the pandemic put a stop to the large groups, sometimes numbering 25. The committee and ISU grounds staff continued the work, in small socially-distanced work sessions, though. Some days Smith or Wodika went alone with hand tools, and just kept cutting the honeysuckle.

“Impenetrable, invasive jungle is what it was, out there previously,” said Wodika. The team counted the rings on the trunk of one honeysuckle stump -- and it showed it had been there about three decades, he said.

The hard work has already shown changes though: “This is now an area that has large trees that are scattered and allows a diversity of other plants,” said Wodika.

The honeysuckle does offer a lesson, in the research of whether using native plants versus nonnative ones in Central Illinois yards. Biologist Matt Dugas says the question boils down to: If you want to plant pretty flowers in your garden, are there certain ones that might be bad for this environment?

“You know the answer could be, ‘No, it’s fine. This plant is fine and it works just as well as the one that is here.’ But I think the honeysuckle is a good example of somewhere that goes wrong,” he said.

Local, young scholars take part

The project aims to benefit the ecology of Normal, and Sugar Creek. And long-term goals include possible collaborations with the Town of Normal and local nonprofits. But, the savanna restoration already has included some area scholars in the project.

Wodika serves as a mentor for NexSTEM. That’s a fairly new collaboration among ISU, Illinois Wesleyan University and Heartland Community College. With its $4.6 million National Science Foundation grant, NexSTEM recruits local high school students from underrepresented groups, to study the STEM programs specifically at the three campuses.

Besides financial scholarships, those students also are assigned a faculty mentor and access to research projects. 

NexSTEM director Sheri Glowinski said the Sugar Creek Savanna restoration has been a great opportunity for all three schools to work on one project. It's also allowed the students to work on research directly affecting their hometowns.

Kathleen Nguyen, an IWU student from Bloomington; and Benedicte Kazigwa, a Normal resident from HCC, are both now sophomores with NexSTEM. They’ve worked with Wodika since 2019.

Kaziga said they helped remove the invasive honeysuckle, and tracked some native plant growth, such as snakeroot. Learning about the importance of helping bee populations was a highlight for Nguyen, she said. 

“We went out and collected pollinators with nets, and then we identified what pollinators they were, and then we released them,” she said.

Glowinski said the group is recruiting this month for next year’s cohort. People interested in the program can learn more on the NexSTEM website.

History of the natural space, tucked away

Just how the 4-acre site sat vacant for decades remains unclear.

The ISU botany program's Loren Mentzer hatched the idea for the Campus Environmental Lab and Nature Trail in 1969, according to Illinois State’s sustainability page.

Julie Neville, with the campus' Dr. Jo Ann Rayfield Archives, says the earliest mention of the Gregory site's use was in a 1974 article from The Vidette, ISU's student newspaper. That offered details about plants and education stations along the trail.  The sustainability webpage, also shows a reproduction of a 1970s-era trail guide from the site.

But from the 80s on, the forgotten patch grew into a wild Secret Garden of sorts.

Credit Michele Steinbacher
Sugar Creek Savanna restoration area, looking north from Gregory Street.

When a student discovered the trail in 1989, now-retired ISU biologist Angelo Capparella says it started him on a nearly 30-year crusade. He says he tried in vain to get the university and his department to prioritize revitalization.

In 2012, Capparella helped student environmentalists land a grant-funded assessment for the Gregory Street lot. Leland-based Ecology + Vision did the study, and two years later also created a restoration plan. But Capparella said, again, red tape throttled the nature preserve.

In fall 2019 as he was set to retire, he passed the savanna restoration idea to his student Jesse Smith, whose gusto launched the current project that year. Capparella calls it a combination of good timing, changes in administrators, and Smith's interest to make the project succees.

Those two documents are on the sustainability webpage.

Smith says, despite the restoration project’s tiny, contained location, it’s a jewel of natural space.

“It is overgrown with an invasive species. It is sandwiched between a parking lot, a residence hall and ground facilities. But this is still a natural space, and it has plenty of value.”

Sugar Creek Savanna’s future wide open

Though entering its second year, in terms of this type of project, the Sugar Creek savanna is very young. Wodika, trained as a restoration ecologist, says this field plays the long-game -- years upon years. This isn’t simply creating a carbon copy of a native landscape, he said. It’s complicated.

“Our best work takes decades, at minimum, in order to get something that is still not the equivalent of what was lost,” said Wodika.

Credit Ecology + Vision site assessment
These images show potential before-and-after scenes for the restoration area.

McLean County’s true native prairie has all but vanished. But one 5-acre site off U.S. 24 remains.

The tiny Weston Cemetery Prairie Nature Preserve, owned by Yates Township and the Parklands Foundation, does have centuries of supporting a thriving prairie ecosystem. Nearly 100 native plant species have been on that prairie remnant, according to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources website. Perhaps the Weston preserve has lessons for ISU’s similar sized natural area.

Wodika said there's plenty of work to do on the Gregory Street lot. But he does have a grand vision for success on the ISU campus site being replicated throughout the area.

He wonders whether ISU’s work could show public and private stakeholders the benefits of sustainable prairie, in smaller landscaping formats.

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Michele Steinbacher is a WGLT correspondent. She joined the staff in 2020.