November 20, 2012
by Ashley Wolfgang '14
Taking their Knox College education beyond the classroom, students in Professor Stuart Allison's Conservation Biology class had the opportunity to visit the Nachusa Grasslands, a 3,000-acre prairie restoration project in northern Illinois.
Concentrating on factors that influence both the diversity and scarcity of species, students enrolled in the class have been learning about the growing field of conservation biology, which is the applied science of maintaining the earth's diversity.
"The main thing is to look at the science of conservation -- why would you conserve things, etc.," said Allison, professor of biology and director of Knox College's Green Oaks Biological Field Station. "A lot of it is the science of how you would conserve a species, environment, and population size. So we really try to look at it from an ecological science perspective. "
There is no lab component to the course, so Allison chose the Nachusa Grasslands as a field site for students to gain a better understanding of what they were studying.
"It's really important to go out and see conservation in action," he said. (Photo at top: Knox College Conservation Biology students learn about prairie restoration at the Nachusa Grasslands from restorationist Jay Stacy, who is wearing an orange hat. Photo at right: Golden asters at the Nachusa Grasslands.)
The Nachusa Grasslands is owned by The Nature Conservancy and consists of more than 3,000 acres of prairie remnants, restorations, and reconstructions. Starting in 1986 with the purchase of 250 acres, The Nature Conservancy has gradually re-created about 1,800 acres of Illinois prairie, savanna, and wetlands.
"It's just really well done. They have really high diversity, and the restoration there is almost done completely by volunteers," Allison explained. "It's a good place to see citizen-volunteer generated restoration, so I think it's a really good place for students to go visit, and it ties in nicely with Green Oaks."
"We have these restoration projects at Green Oaks, about 40 acres," he added. "It's nice to go see a bigger one."
Traveling to Nachusa allows students to build a bridge between classroom theory and the real world.
"In class, we talk about a lot of theory, and what conservation biology is," said biology major Danica Lewis, a Knox senior from Logan, Utah.
"Each environment has its own problems and sorts of challenges, so it was really cool after talking about lots of broad general principles, to see something really specific. It was just neat to see, in detail, how you actually go about doing it, not just the theories in that aspect."
In their restoration work, volunteers at Nachusa collect seeds from healthy areas of the prairie and mix them with a medley of more than 100 types of seed.
"The idea is that over a couple of years, you can get up to four different kinds of soil," said Knox senior James Lichtenstein, a biology major from Portland, Oregon. "And that with the different types of seeds, eventually you'll get (the prairie) to where you want it to be."
Since its opening, Nachusa has seen a growth in rare plants and an increase in species diversity with birds and insects, said Allison.
"It was just inspiring to see an actual success story," said Lichtenstein. "In a super long-term view, eventually you're going to start to rely on places like this to preserve these environments into the far future."