The prairie opening in the middle of Cap Sauers Holdings is the most beautiful place in the state of Illinois. I suppose some people will argue with an assertion that unequivocal, but those people are wrong, and I can prove it.

Most of our beauty spots are vistas for the one-eyed. You have to direct your glance very carefully to see the good things and miss the highways, billboards, high-tension lines, golden arches, mini-marts, auto graveyards, and chemically soaked cornfields that occupy most of the state. On the Cap Sauers prairie you will see airplanes passing over–those you cannot escape–but otherwise you can look up, down, and 360 degrees around and see nothing but the bright yellow flowers of stiff goldenrod and prairie dock, the tall flowering stalks of big bluestem grass, and the gray-green leaves and black seedpods of wild false indigo standing against a background of tall oaks.

The prairie is hilly, a trait not often met with in Illinois. You can’t see all of it at once. Walk the trail that winds through it, and new vistas will be revealed to you as you go. When I visited last week, a flock of cedar waxwings kept me company as I strolled along. They were flycatching, sallying out from perches on the few small trees remaining on the prairie to nab flying insects in midair.

A major part of the beauty of the place is the distance you have to walk to get to it. It does not abut a parking lot. In fact, it sits in the middle of what is both the largest roadless area and the most varied landscape in Cook County.

I came in from the south end of the holdings. I left my car by the roadside and followed a footpath that has been created by the steps of volunteer workers over the past four years. I walked downhill through a couple of clearings and then into deep woods. The trail dropped into a ravine and crossed a small creek–amazingly still flowing in the middle of this dry August–and then climbed out of the ravine and passed through an open oak woods. The woods had obviously been burned last fall or this spring. The ground was bare, completely devoid of leaf litter, and the shrubs and small trees of the understory were all leafless and dead. In time their dead trunks will fall, leaving the forest floor open to wildflowers. The woods were quiet. Somewhere in the distance blue jays were crying, but the only sound nearby was the gentle tapping of a downy woodpecker searching for bugs on a dead trunk.

By and by the path joined one of the major trails through the holdings. The occasional piles of dung showed that equestrians use the trail regularly. I followed this big trail for a few hundred yards and then turned off on another narrow path that led uphill through more open oak woods. And then the trail entered a thicket of shrubs so dense I couldn’t see ten feet to either side. Branches arching just over my head turned the trail into a winding tunnel. Some of this thicket was the alien European buckthorn, but much of it was native stuff: gray dogwood, viburnum, and hawthorn. It made me feel like I was approaching Sleeping Beauty’s castle.

Coming out of the shrubs, I entered another open woodland. The bristle-tipped flowering stalks of bottle-brush grass surrounded me. And then I was at the top of the hill looking out over that beautiful prairie.

Cap Sauers Holdings is named for Charles Sauers, the first general superintendent of the Cook County Forest Preserve District. Brought in from the Indiana parks system to clean up a scandal-ridden operation in the early 30s, he presided over a tremendous expansion and development of the preserves before retiring in the early 60s.

The holdings are one part of the vast Palos preserves that occupy thousands of acres in the southwestern corner of the county. They sit on a piece of the terminal moraine of the Wisconsin Glacier, the last ice sheet (so far) to invade the midwest. They have the hilly terrain and undeveloped drainage typical of moraines. Pothole marshes are scattered through the holdings, some of them on hilltops. The small stream I had crossed on my way in winds through ravines and then ends in such a pothole. The most notable glacial feature is the Visitation Esker, a sinuous ridge of sand and gravel that marks the course of a meltwater stream that flowed under the ice front 15,000 years ago. The varied terrain makes for varied vegetation. Cap Sauers has cattail marshes, sedge meadows, oak savannas, prairies, and oak-hickory forests.

I hadn’t been there since a spring morning four years ago, when I helped out on a workday conducted by volunteers with the Palos Restoration Project. The prairie was smaller then, and lots more brush was growing on it. Four years of brush cutting combined with controlled burning have expanded the prairie boundaries and eliminated the islands of shrubs.

That early workday attracted only about a dozen volunteers, but they were the vanguard of an army that is now at work on four sites within the Palos preserves and on the Santa Fe Prairie, which is located nearby along the Des Plaines River south of 67th Street. I have often thought that the Illinois Historical Society ought to erect a bronze plaque at the Santa Fe Prairie to mark it as the location of an event of some historic importance. Just over 30 years ago Dr. Robert Betz got his first look at the tall-grass prairies of Illinois on a field trip to the Santa Fe Prairie led by Floyd Swink of the Morton Arboretum. Betz, a professor at Northeastern Illinois, was transformed by his experience at Santa Fe. He became a tireless advocate of our native prairies, and his work led to the preservation of the Gensberg-Markham Prairie, the last prairie remnant on the Chicago lake plain. He created the Fermilab restoration project, the first attempt to restore a prairie big enough to function as an ecosystem, and he inspired many other tall-grass enthusiasts who are working on the North Branch prairies, at Poplar Creek, Palos, and many other locations.

The Santa Fe Prairie is still unprotected. The railroad owns it and is willing to sell it, but the asking price is somewhere in the six-figure range, so raising the money is going to take some doing. The volunteer stewards who are managing the site with the railroad’s permission are going to offer tours of the prairie between noon and 4 PM on Saturday, September 21. They are planning a major event, including music and speakers, and they are hoping to erect a plaque to commemorate the meeting of Betz and Swink on this prairie. If you would like to see the Santa Fe Prairie, go to Theodore Stone Woods on 67th Street east of U.S. 45 (LaGrange Road) on September 21, and stewards from Santa Fe will guide you.

Meanwhile, work on the Palos preserves is expanding. Both volunteers and forest-preserve staff directed by naturalist Ralph Thornton are expanding the burning program at Cap Sauers Holdings. The goal is to put the preserve on a four-year burn cycle. It will take a large number of people to carry out safe fires of the size needed to maintain that cycle.

Last year two interns hired by the Nature Conservancy compiled an elaborate ecological portrait of the Palos preserves. Using both their own fieldwork and reports from forest-preserve staff and interested outsiders, they cataloged plant communities, animal populations, and the state of health of the ecosystems represented in the vast preserves. The Palos preserves occupy substantial portions of an area that measures 12 miles north to south and 5 miles east to west. Their total area is about 10,000 acres. Just about every ecosystem in northeastern Illinois–with the exception of Lake Michigan shoreline–is represented in the preserves. And the wonderful part is that many of them are in pretty good shape. This is not the sort of restoration project that starts from scratch. Using the report as a guide, the Forest Preserve District has developed a coordinated plan for managing this whole area.

Following the recommendations of this plan, volunteers and staff are now at work on several sites beside Cap Sauers Holdings. Regular workdays are now conducted at Spears Woods, which lies north of 95th Street and west of LaGrange Road; at Paddock Woods, off 86th Avenue between Route 83 and 119th Street; and at Cranberry Slough, east of LaGrange Road between 95th and 107th streets.

For the more than 100 volunteers currently donating some of their free time to the preservation and reconstruction of the natural landscape in the Palos preserves, the work is a chance to develop a relationship with the land that few modern American city dwellers experience. You can take a stroll through a preserve and see lots of things, but spending a morning cutting brush or scattering the seeds of prairie plants gives you an emotional and spiritual attachment to nature that you can’t get by just taking a hike.

For the Cook County Forest Preserve District, those volunteers are important for a number of reasons. The district has set aside $50,000 in this year’s budget to buy tools and equipment and to provide training for volunteer workers. At that price, the thousands of hours of volunteer labor the district receives are a real bargain. And there is an added bonus. These volunteers–at Palos, at Poplar Creek, on the North Branch–are a vocal constituency for the preservation and restoration of native ecosystems. They will write letters to county commissioners, testify at meetings, and write letters to editors on behalf of the Forest Preserve District. They can help get the funding to pay for ecologically beneficial projects.

The Palos Restoration Project has openings for volunteers to cut brush, collect seeds, and monitor populations of birds, butterflies, snakes, frogs, and salamanders. If you would like to help, call Julie Sacco at 247-2606.