Once Upon a Time
Some 14,000 years before European settlers came, the land now occupied by Orland Grassland was shaped by a retreating glacier into meadows, sedge marshes, wet prairie, and oak savannas.
A "wet prairie" is grassland on a flood plain or other lowland. Its soil typically is saturated or even seasonally flooded with water. A "savanna" is rolling grassland scattered with shrubs and isolated trees.
An environmental assessment by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers describes the grassland as typical of lake-border moraine topography. The marshy land is a groundwater source for three streams.
The earliest survey of the area, done about 1837, identitifes the entire site as "prairie." But soil studies and topography confirm the prior existence of other natural features, such as marshes and sloughs.
Settlement and Farming
Settlement of the Orland area began in the 1830s. Once the "best" land for farming was taken, it became necessary to create tillable acreage by draining marshes and wet prairies.
The master site plan prepared by Conservation Design Forum indicates that as the 1900s began, drain tiles were installed throughout the grassland site. This system was not well maintained, causing sinkholes and "blowouts" (ground depressions caused by lost topsoil).
Throughout much of the 20th Century, the grassland was used for farming. Early aerial photos show about two dozen farmsteads once covered the site.
A New Beginning
In the 1960s, the Forest Preserves of Cook County (FPCC) purchased the 960 acres stretching from 167th Street to 179th Street and from LaGrange Road to 104th Avenue in Orland Park and named it "Orland Tract."
The FPCC planted many trees, mostly on the perimeter and some on the interior of the tract, and sowed meadow grasses on the interior. Until 2003, farmers leased the interior grassland for haying, but something else began to happen there: birds native to grassland began colonizing the site and it became an important breeding area.
Local residents recognized the value of this avian population and saw it was under threat by the rapid rate at which the birds' habitat was degrading as more and more acreage was covered by invasive trees and brush. People organized to save and improve the grassland.
In 2002, the FPCC announced plans for one of the largest land restoration programs in the district's history. As planning got underway, private citizens banded together to create the Orland Grassland Volunteers. One of the group's early efforts was to persuade the FPCC to change the site's name from "Orland Tract" to "Orland Grassland."
Openlands, a Chicago-based non-profit conservation corporation, stepped up to help with funding. Aububon-Chicago Region provided a technical analysis and made many important recommendations. Conservation Design Forum, Inc.was engaged to create a master plan for the site.
In 2003, Orland Grassland was designated a Land and Water Reserve by the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers-Chicago Region, supported by pollution mitigation funds awarded in a lawsuit against Material Services Corp., teamed with the FPCC in 2007 to undertake large-scale restoration work. The Corps of Engineers completed a thorough assessment study then got to work in 2009.
The Corps of Engineers conducted major tree and brush control, removed or disabled the old agricultural drainage tile system, controlled invasive species, and planted a "starter matrix" of grassland, wetland, and oak woods understory species. Over seven years, federal assistance amounted to $5 million, with the FPCC and other partners contributing nearly $2.7 million more.
The collaborative effort to restore the grassland removed some 750 acres of woody plants and invasive weeds, and planted more than 100 species of rare prairie plants and some native shrubs and trees. This effort continues today, with much of the labor contributed by volunteers.
Orland Grassland is growing into a healthy ecosystem, offering a dviersity of habitats for viable and growing populations of the region's most threatened bird species. The Sand Hill Crane is just one of several migratory species that use the marsh and wet prairie areas as stopover resting places during their spring and fall migrations. Native amphibians, reptiles, and butterflies also are making new homes in the grassland.
It will be decades before the grassland is fully restored, and, even beyond that, people who care about conservation will safeguard the beautiful natural treasure that is Orland Grassland.