When the Cook County Forest Preserve District acquired the Poplar Creek Preserve near Hoffman Estates, most of the property was old cornfields growing up to weeds. The preserve is a big piece of land. It measures about 3.5 miles east to west and about 2.5 miles north to south. Only four roads run through it, two from north to south and two from east to west.

It had one high-quality natural area, a small hilltop prairie, Shoe Factory Road Prairie, which is an Illinois State Nature Preserve. And it had a grove of large oaks thickly infested with European buckthorn shrubs. Both of these features are near the western end of the preserve.

Poplar Creek Preserve first attracted attention in 1984, when a consortium of suburbs tried to get the County Board to approve the construction of a garbage dump on the land. The board refused, but the battle did get conservationists thinking about the preserve.

Two years ago, the Cook County Forest Preserve District and the Nature Conservancy put together a joint-management proposal that called for a major restoration affecting the 600 acres of the preserve that lie west of Route 59. Both Shoe Factory Road Prairie and the oak grove are on this land.

Work began in the summer of 1989, when two interns paid by the Nature Conservancy began clearing the invading buckthorn out of the grove. Volunteers were solicited from neighboring towns to carry on the work on a long-term basis. Today more than 100 people are regularly involved with various aspects of the project.

I took a look at Poplar Creek a few weeks ago. It was my first visit since 1989. Significant changes are already visible there, although parts of it look like weed patches that only a real prairie zealot could love. However, I know that the weedy look is only temporary–an unavoidable awkward stage, like adolescence, that will soon pass.

The cleared areas under the huge old spreading oaks are still open, and substantial growths of savanna grasses and wildflowers are filling in the spaces left by the removal of the buckthorn. Bottle-brush grass was in flower when I was there, and woodland brome and silky rye grasses are also thriving.

On the open grasslands, the places that will be prairie someday, I could see some signs of the prairie future peeking through the weeds. In the past, prairie restorations have followed one of two patterns. Some, like the restoration at Fermilab, have started from bare ground. The soil is plowed and disked and then seeded with a mixture of prairie plants. Emphasis is on the more aggressive species, things like big bluestem grass and Indian grass.

The other method, called successional restoration, has been used on the North Branch prairies. With successional restoration you scatter seeds or plant individual seedlings on an existing grassland.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both. With successional restoration, you can establish populations of conservative prairie species without waiting for big bluestem or Indian grass to get big enough to provide a prairie matrix. It is difficult to use successional restoration on large sites, however, because the work all has to be done by hand. Beginning from bare ground allows you to use tractors and other mechanized equipment and plant substantial acreage.

At Poplar Creek, they have decided to combine the two methods. Long narrow strips have been plowed and seeded. These strips are separated by unplowed land where seeding and planting were done by hand.

Right now, the plowed strips are some of the ugliest places you’ll ever see. The dominant species on the strips are Queen Anne’s lace and white sweet clover. Both of these are aggressive, weedy aliens that have moved in to take advantage of the disturbance created by the plowing. Fortunately, we know that time is on the side of the prairie. Prairie plants take a very cautious approach to growth. A big bluestem a few centimeters tall may have roots extending a couple of feet into the soil. Only after the plant has a root system substantial enough to ride out an Illinois drought will it expand its holdings aboveground. The root system is also the part of the plant that survives the winter. You can burn a prairie in late fall or early spring when everything aboveground is dead and do no damage at all to the native plants. Aliens, accustomed to longer growing seasons, don’t do as well. Fire and competition will eventually squeeze out aliens like Queen Anne’s lace and leave the prairie species in control of the field.

Keeping track of the changes that restoration brings to Poplar Creek is the job of a crew of plant monitors led by John Navin, a mailman from Roselle. Navin was recruited for the project by an appeal to Nature Conservancy members mailed out two years ago. He came out to the first few workdays, and that got him hooked. “I started with a blank page,” he says now. “I could recognize dandelions and that was about it.” With some help from professionals working on the project and a lot of study on his own, he has turned himself into the man the monitors consult when trying to identify the difficult species. The monitoring crew, which has 15 to 18 regulars, will be keeping track of all the plants growing in one-meter-square plots scattered across the 600-acre restoration site.

A project like Poplar Creek provides a focus for many people with an interest in nature. Judy Mellin was a casual birder for several years until she took on the job of monitoring bird populations at Poplar Creek. Working with Duane Heaton, an active birder with long experience, she compiled a list of 69 species as confirmed or probable nesters at the site this year.

The list includes such prairie specialties as eastern meadowlark, bobolink, and savanna sparrow, wetland birds like the sedge wren, and in the oaks, the blue-gray gnatcatcher. Poplar Creek is also the only known nesting site in Cook County for the common snipe.

Judy Mellin now birds every week at Poplar Creek, and her casual interest has expanded into a passionate study of bird behavior. “I want to know why they do the things they do,” she told me.

Involvement in projects like Poplar Creek changes people’s lives. Coming to work again and again on the same ground, noticing tiny changes in plant life, the appearance of a new bird species, or the arrival of a butterfly never seen at the site before, creates an intimate attachment to the natural world. The science of applied ecology is giving late-20th-century Americans a way to touch nature without trying to pretend that we are Pottawatomis. The project can also foster other kinds of intimate attachment. A couple who met on Poplar Creek workdays will be married at the site later this month.

Poplar Creek, the North Branch Prairie Project, and the extensive ecosystem management now under way in the Palos preserves are helping return the Cook County Forest Preserve District to a leadership position in the administration of natural areas. So it seems an appropriate time to say something nice about Arthur Janura. After 30-some years as general superintendent of the district, he announced his plans to retire at the end of this year. Richard Phelan, the new County Board president, decided to give him the ax at midsummer. Since then we have been reading stories about eccentric administrative procedures Janura carried on for reasons known only to him. And the Sun-Times revived the old story about patronage drones on the forest-preserve staff living free–or nearly free–in houses on preserve property. Stories like this are as much a tradition of Chicago journalism as photos of polar bears at the zoos trying to stay cool on the hottest day of the summer.

Janura made all the decisions about who got to live in those houses, and his choices seem to have been almost as quirky as his administrative procedures. I’m sure there are patronage drones in some of those houses, but running down the list of lucky employees that the Sun-Times published, I also find staff naturalists I know to be highly qualified and dedicated. I’m sure that their presence in houses near the nature centers they run does help maintain security and improve service to the public.

So, like Janura himself, the issue is complicated. He seemed to feel perfectly comfortable operating in a system where patronage was a fact of life, but he also tried to do some good. He could be very difficult. The first words he ever spoke to me were not “Hello, how are you?” but “Why are you trying to destroy the forest preserves?”

Despite all that, he did decide to let the North Branch Prairie Project use volunteers to carry out a management plan that included both cutting down trees and setting fire to preserves. And he decided to let similar groups of volunteers play major roles in the Poplar Creek restoration and the management of the Palos preserves. Not many bureaucrats would have that much nerve. We owe him some thanks.