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Chicago-area family turns a little block of farmland into a legacy of conservati

Big Rewards with Habitat Restoration on Small Acreage
by Jill Rees, USDA-NRCS Public Affairs Specialist

 “This project is for my family and the community,” says Harry Rossett of his 80-acre habitat restoration in rural Kane County.

A little more than a year ago, this was a flat cropfield. Standing in the center, one could see pretty much all there was to see: a lot of corn stubble. It is on this site that Harry and wife Wendy plan to spend much of their free time, and in the future, an active retirement enjoying nature with their family.

While a field of corn stubble may not sound like a bustling natural community to most, Harry and Wendy had a vision. They saw prairie grasses leaning in the breeze, native oaks and hickories taking root near a wetland sanctuary for migratory birds, and a pond to enjoy year-round. But they wanted to do it right, so they contacted the local District Conservationist with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS, Tom Ryterske, for more information.

Ryterske’s job is to help local landowners and farmers protect the quality of the soil, water, plants, and other natural resources on their land. In Chicago’s collar counties, this means working with all sorts of landowners. Ryterske’s clients include farmers who need large scale agricultural conservation systems that protect wildlife habitat, prevent soil erosion, and meet requirements of local, state and federal environmental standards. In addition, he works with growing communities to identify alternatives for smart growth and to promote urban construction methods that protect water quality. Yet another facet of his conservation work focuses on landowners with smaller tracts of land, like the Rossetts.

“In areas surrounding Chicago, many people have small acreage in the country,” said Ryterske. “They want to protect and restore natural habitats, but need technical information on the soils, drainage, and native plant and animal communities. They need to know what will and will not work on their land,” he said.

Conservation Planning for Wildlife and Recreation
The Rossetts were eligible for assistance for their project through the NRCS Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program, or WHIP. Through the program, they received financial support for a wetland restoration, prairie restoration, woodland restoration, stream buffer, and a small windbreak.

Ryterske provided conservation planning assistance for the project using detailed soils information compiled by NRCS over the past 70 years, the latest conservation planning software and imaging technology, and Ryterske’s own 26 years of experience working on the land in northeastern Illinois. An NRCS archaeologist and biologist, along with biologists with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR), helped inventory resources on the site, analyze the potential for restoration, and develop alternatives to meet the Rossett’s goals for the land.

Biology assistance included seeding recommendations to establish healthy stands of wildlife-friendly grasses on both upland areas and wetlands. In addition, IDNR biologists provided suggested maintenance activities, including the use of prescribed fire, to help the plantings out-compete non-native and less desirable vegetation. An IDNR fisheries biologist also provided assistance with the design of the pond and helped Harry develop a stocking plan.

The archeological review revealed two sites on the Rossett’s property. A prehistoric site from the Middle Archaic Period was evidenced by stone dart points that date from 5,000 to 8,000 years ago, according to the NRCS Archaeologist. In addition, a concentration of tableware and crockery fragments confirmed the existence of an historic farmstead dating to the early 1800s.

Putting a Vision on the Ground
Thanks to a carefully crafted conservation plan that captured Harry and Wendy’s vision and that suited the natural and cultural characteristics of the land, the site underwent a dramatic transformation in just a year. The changes make the spot seem larger and more alive.

Today, Harry drives down a winding lane along the periphery, pointing out design details and noting specifics about the soils that he picked up during the process. Seventeen acres of trees have been planted, a thirteen-acre wetland constructed, and several grassy expanses seeded to recall a memory of Illinois’ native prairies. The heavy work involved excavating the pond and molding the spoil into a grassy hillside. Earth-moving activities were conducted according to NRCS specifications and in a manner that preserved the integrity of both archaeological sites.

“Conservation planning is much more complicated than planting a few trees and not mowing your grass,” said Ryterske. “My role is to help people set realistic objectives to meet their land use goals in consideration of the suitabilities and limitations of the land and water resources they have to work with,” he said.

The Rossetts plan to share their haven with their grandchildren and with local school groups interested in monitoring water quality and the establishment of plant and animal communities.

“There is so much you can learn from this piece of land and the soils, plants and animals on it,” Harry said. “We can’t wait to see how it develops year by year!”
 

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