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1993 Proceedings of the Midwest Oak Savanna Conferences

1993 Proceedings of the Midwest Oak Savanna Conferences


Steven Byers
Illinois Nature Preserves Commission
676 Lavoie
Elgin, IL 60120
Tel: (815) 385-9074

Don McFall
Illinois Department of Conservation 
524 S. 2nd Street
Springfield, IL 62706 
Tel: (217) 782-6297

Launched in the early 1970's, the Illinois Natural Areas Inventory identified 14 forest and 7 savanna communities. Statewide, the seven savanna communities, consisting of dry-mesic, mesic, dry sand, and dry-mesic sand savannas; and dry, dry-mesic, and mesic barrens totaled only 1299 acres. The vast majority of these savannas (1232 acres or nearly 95% of the total) were associated with sandy soils. Only 11.2 acres of high quality dry-mesic and mesic savannas occurring on loamy soils were identified. Since the Inventory's publication in 1978, renewed interest and additional knowledge about savanna communities have allowed a number of savannas to be added to the Inventory. Several savannas recognized by the Inventory have been dedicated as Illinois Nature Preserves, thereby conferring the highest level of protection available under state law. The Nature Preserves Commission recognizes that savannas are dynamic systems, dependent in part upon natural disturbance regimes such as fire. As such, the Commission's flexible approach to savanna management reflects the growing amount of information about savannas.



The State of Illinois has been a leader in identifying, protecting, and managing important elements of its natural heritage. Although one purpose of the Midwest Oak Savanna Conference was to develop a consensus on the definition of a savanna, and the topographic, edaphic, climatic, landscape features, and even cultural factors that favored savannas, that is not the purpose of this paper. This article was written to illustrate how the State of Illinois provides leadership and forms partnerships to identify, protect, and manage high-quality natural areas, including savannas.



The State of Illinois has been a pioneer in gathering information on the distribution and extant of undisturbed or high-quality natural areas, including savannas. For example, the classification system "Natural Divisions of Illinois" developed twenty years ago (Schwegman, 1973) provided the framework for describing 14 different natural division in the state. These natural divisions, which were further delineated into 33 sections, are distinguished by differences in bedrock, glacial history, soils, topography, and associated flora and fauna. The Illinois Natural Areas Inventory (INAI), initiated in the early 1970's (White 1978), is a vitally important source of information on the State's natural heritage. One goal of the INAI was to describe and document extant, high-quality, plant communities in Illinois. The initial INAI identified 610 high-quality sites (White 1978), and that number has increased slightly as additional sites are approved by the Illinois Natural Areas Committee. The INAI also tracks the occurrence of State listed endangered or threatened species. The original INAI survey notes and important element occurrences for each of these sites and State listed species are maintained by the Illinois Department of Conservation (IDOC) Biological Conservation Database (BCD). Savannas were identified and surveyed at 48 sites during the initial INAI (Madany 1981). Madany (1981) defined savannas as two-layered communities with 10-80 percent canopy coverage of trees and a nearly continuous groundlayer of herbaceous species. He prefaced his remarks, however, with the caveat, "Classifying savannas is difficult." In fact, seven types of savannas were recognized by the INAI (White, 1978). These included dry-mesic, mesic, dry sand, and dry-mesic sand savannas and dry, dry-mesic, and mesic barrens, totaling 1299 acres statewide. Of this amount, only 11.2 acres of high-quality savanna occurred on loamy soils, the balance were recorded on sandy soils.



The State of Illinois has sought to protect high-quality natural areas, including savannas, through fee-title acquisition, encouragement of dedication of both publicly- and privately-owned high quality natural areas as Illinois Nature Preserves, and through consultation of projects that affect state-listed endangered or threatened species and most recently consultation of projects that could affect high-quality natural areas. 


Fee-title Acquisition

To date, the IDOC owns approximately 253,000 acres of land statewide (IDOC 1992) Other natural resource agencies, including the U.S. Forest Service (265,000 acres), and the County Conservation and Forest Preserve Districts (131,000 acres) have also acquired land. Despite this, the State of Illinois currently ranks 48th out of 50 states in the proportion of land held in public ownership. Given the continuing threat to high-quality natural areas, the 86th General Assembly passed into law in 1989 the Open Space Lands Acquisition and Development Act (Ill. Rev Stat. Chap. 120, para. 1003). The Act created the Natural Areas Acquisition Fund (NAAF) from the proceeds of a Real Estate Transfer Tax program.

The Act specifies that NAAF be used by the IDOC for "...the acquisition, preservation and stewardship of natural areas, including habitats for endangered and threatened species, high quality natural communities, wetlands and other areas with unique or unusual natural heritage qualities." Acquisition, of course, means purchase of the land, but it can also include acquisition of conservation easements or other less-than-fee agreements. Preservation specifically refers to dedication of newly acquired lands as State Nature Preserves. Stewardship infers the long term land management that is required to maintain or enhance elements of natural heritage. Nearly 10% of the funds available each year will be earmarked for stewardship, and include such activities as wetland restoration, prairie recreation, and reforestation projects.

The NAAF will be phased in over a period of five years, and the projected dollars available for use in 1995 will total 4.8 million dollars . To date, such ecologically significant sites as Redwing Slough, the Cache River, and Barton-Summers Timbers (a rare example of the original savanna) have been acquired under the auspices of the NAAF by the IDOC.

Illinois Nature Preserves Commission

The Illinois Nature Preserves Commission (INPC) was created in 1963 by the Illinois Natural Areas Preservation Act (Ill. Rev. Stat. Chap. 105, para 701). That act stated, "Natural lands and waters together with the plants and animals ... in natural communities are part of the heritage of the people...are of value as habitats for rare and vanishing species, places of natural interest and scenic beauty, and as living museums of the native landscape. The act goes on to state, "... it is therefore the public policy of the State of Illinois to secure for the people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of natural areas by establishing and protecting a system of nature preserves."

INPC staff assist private individuals and public agencies in protecting high quality natural areas and habitats of endangered and threatened species in perpetuity, through voluntary dedication of such lands into the Illinois Nature Preserves System. Dedication is a legal process whereby the owner voluntarily restricts future uses of land for the purpose of preserving the land, in perpetuity, in its natural state. Dedication as a state Nature Preserve confers the strongest legal protection given land in Illinois.

Today, 230 sites, encompassing over 30,000 acres of the finest, surviving examples of presettlement Illinois, have been dedicated as State Nature Preserves. The preserves support native plant communities that are as diverse as the Illinois landscape, ranging from bogs in the north to cypress swamps in the south, and include a wide array of wetlands, prairies, and forest communities. One goal of INPC is to include within the Nature Preserves System representative types of plant communities (including savannas) from each of the 33 sections of the 14 natural divisions in Illinois.


The Illinois Endangered Species Protection Act (Ill. Rev. Stat., Chap. 8, para. 314) requires the IDOC to actively plan and implement a program for the conservation of endangered and threatened species. The IDOC has adopted the following administrative rule "Consultation Procedures for Assessing Impacts of Agency Actions on Endangered and Threatened Species (Ill. Register Title, Chap I, pt. 1075) that became effective 3 December 1990. The purpose of this administrative rule is to establish a consultation process between IDOC and agencies of State and local governments concerning impacts on State listed species, and to promote their conservation by avoidance of adverse impacts; when avoidance is not practical, adverse impacts should be minimized. 

The consultation process consists of identification of a proposed action prior to approval of a preliminary plat, design, permit, or plan. IDOC staff reviews the proposed action and determines whether a valid record for a State listed species occurs within the vicinity. If no listed species or essential habitat is present, no further consultation is necessary. If, however, a listed species or essential habitat is present, further information regarding the proposed action will be required. If no adverse impacts are anticipated, the consultation process ends. If a listed species is impacted by the proposed action, however, IDOC will provide recommendations for avoiding those impacts. The consultation process is completed when the petitioners accept all or part of the proposed recommendations and submit this decision in writing to the IDOC. To date, over 2000 consultations have been conducted by IDOC.

Recently, the Illinois General Assembly approved legislation to extend consultation to high quality natural areas that do not already contain protected species. Consultation of INAI sites will become effective 1 January 1994, and the process will be similar to that described for State listed endangered and threatened species.



Both the IDOC and the INPC have begun to address the growing problems associated with managing high-quality natural areas. Frequently, natural areas survive as islands in a landscape dominated by man. Species that are either habitat- or size-restricted are particularly at risk from fragmentation; while other species may be vulnerable to increased nest parasitism or predation, or even displaced by exotic or native aggressive species that are frequently associated with an edge. Noss (1987) provides recommendations for protecting natural areas in fragmented landscapes; including protecting large sites, and maintaining landscape linkages. 

The IDOC has already begun to identify several large sites that may best support viable populations of habitat- or size-restricted species. Important components of these large sites include core areas with high-quality natural areas that can serve as a template, as well as seed source, for restoration or creation of native landscapes on adjacent or nearby sites. In addition, IDOC Natural Heritage Biologists manage state-owned high-quality natural areas, and work cooperatively with other public agencies.

Once a site is dedicated as an Illinois Nature Preserve, Commission staff also work with the owner to manage and protect the preserve. In addition, the INPC is also responsible for gathering and disseminating information about nature preserves and providing for their appropriate use, including scientific research. Nature preserves offer valuable locations from which to establish baseline information on the effects of surrounding land use changes on plant or animal communities.

Both the IDOC and INPC have begun to address the growing amount of information available concerning management of natural areas by adopting flexible 3-year management schedules (INPC 1993). The management schedule consists of a labeled map and a chart delineating the natural communities on site, the location of listed species, and specific management objectives paired with specific management activities. Management activities (e.g., prescribed burning, treatment with an approved herbicide, seeding, keep out off-road vehicles) on nature preserves can now be approved by Commission staff. 

The focus of this conference, in part, was to develop some consensus on savannas and their management. Therein lies the paradox, if we can't reach a consensus on savannas communities and the factors that shaped them, how can we ever reach a consensus on how to management them or other woodland communities?

Case History: Management at Cap Sauer's Holdings Nature Preserve

This paradox is illustrated by two different opinions on management of Cap Sauer's Holdings (CSH), a dedicated nature preserve. CSH is a 1520 acre tract of woods and adjacent uplands that has been at least partially grazed and fire suppressed until only recently, a brief description of CSH is provided by Byers (1993). One view on management appeared as a critique by Mendelson et al. (1992). Another view is offered by Packard (1993).

The first set of dichotomies actually represent differences in philosophy and the role of humans in managing natural areas. Mendelson et al. (1992) view restoration as merely a set of ideas about how nature should look or behave and that those ideas dictate management strategies. Mendelson et al. (1992) suggest we should abandon our human preconceptions and "watch the panorama of successional change unfold naturally." Packard (1993) suggests that nature is no longer free of present-day human influence, and that places like CSH, although once expected to return to a state of nature "naturally", have failed to do so. There are other dichotomies as well. Mendelson et al (1992) report that savannas represent merely one point on a continuum, rather than a clearly defined community. They suggest there is little scientific evidence of savanna composition. Packard (1993) responds by stating that a clearly defined assemblage of plants is found within savannas, and that restorations of woodlands using these specific seed mixes have been most successful in establishing savanna communities. 

Mendelson et al. (1992) report that fire is frequently used inappropriately at CSH; noting burns on north-facing slopes and burns set during dry periods that top kill young oaks, damage canopy oaks, or sterilize the ground. Yet, these types of fires undoubtedly occurred (albeit at unknown frequencies) since the most recent glaciations, nearly 12,000 years ago. For example, a traveler (Wilhelm, 1938) in the midwest wrote: "The Indians living to the east of the river set the prairie on fire, ... the fire moved forward with giant strides and consumed the timber with terrible crackling ... The boldest imagination would seek in vain to depict it in true and vivid colors. The forest are in part wholly destroyed... In many places one now sees only stunted bushes and charred stumps of former forest giants."

Finally, Mendelson et al. (1992) suggest that cutting, burning, or poisoning our woodlands prevents nature from doing what it does best; evolving. It may be, however, that our forested preserves (average size 200 acres, and even CSH at 1520 acres) are too fragmented and therefore vulnerable to edge effects. Small, isolated fragments are noticeably vulnerable to invasion of weedy or non-native species. In fact, the INPC has published Vegetation Management Guidelines (INPC 1990) for 29 such species that frequently do include the use of herbicides. 

Dr. Brian Anderson, Director INPC (person. comm.) nicely summarized the divergent views on savannas in a letter to a fellow scientist and steward of a woodland in northeastern Illinois, "I find the argument whether "savanna" is an ecotonal entity, or a widespread self-sustaining community type in its own right, fascinating. Of course the argument hinges to a great degree on the savanna definition you embrace, and is confounded by a glacial landscape that is structurally very diverse due to topography, edaphic, climactic, and hydrological variation. This is, of course, the "stuff" that ecotones are born of. Throw in cultural fire practices, and I think we might be having the same argument if we were standing on the ramparts of old Fort Dearborn."



The IDOC and INPC have been recognized for its leadership in identifying, protecting, and managing surviving elements of our natural heritage. The ILDOC has used the INAI to prioritize fee-title acquisition of high-quality natural areas, while INPC has worked closely with public and private natural resource agencies and private individuals to secure preservation of high-quality natural areas. 

The flexible approaches demonstrated by both agencies to savanna or woodland management, that includes burning, physical removal of shrubs and trees, and that allows seed reintroduction reflects the growing interest and the growing amount of information available on management of savannas. Dr. Anderson concluded his remarks on management of savannas in Illinois in this fashion, "While we may not know in all cases we are restoring the 'original' - we can monitor the degree that restorations support our remaining native biodiversity." 

Preservation and management of savannas, an important component of our midwestern landscape, is critical if we subscribe to Leopold's clarion call to "save every cog and wheel."



Byers, S. M. Cap Sauer's holdings nature preserve - a brief description. Restoration and Management Notes, 11: (No. 2), 1993.

Illinois Department of Conservation. Land and water conservation report. Springfield, Illinois, 1992.

Illinois Nature Preserves Commission. Vegetation management guidelines. Vol. 1, Nos. 1-29., Springfield, Illinois, 1990.

Management schedules publication. Springfield, Illinois, 1993.

Madany, M. H. A floristic survey of savannas in Illinois. Ohio Biol. Surv. Biol. Notes, No. 15: 177-181, 1981.

Mendelson, J., S. P. Aultz, and J. D. Mendelson. Carving up the woods: savanna restoration in northeastern Illinois. Restoration and Management Notes, 11:127-131, 1993.

Noss, R. F. Protecting natural areas in fragmented landscapes. Natural Areas Journal, 7:2-13, 1987.

Packard, S. Restoring oak ecosystems - a response to Mendelson et al. Restoration and Management Notes, 11: (No. 2), 1993.

Schwegman, J. E. Comprehensive plan for the Illinois Nature Preserves System. Part 2. The Natural Divisions of Illinois. Illinois Nature Preserves Commission, Springfield, Illinois, 1973.

White, J. Technical report, Illinois natural areas inventory. Department of Landscape Architecture, Univ. of Illinois, Champaign, and Natural Land Institute, Rockford, Illinois, 1978.

Wilhelm, P. (Duke of Wurttemberg). First Journey to North America in the Years 1822 to 1824. W. G. Bek, transl. S.D. Hist. Collect. 19:7-462. in K. Higgins. Interpretation and compendium of historical fire accounts in the northern Great Plains. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Resource Publ. 161, 1938.


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