Standing guard along the western shore of Lake Michigan, the ravines are a naturally engineered filtration system from land to water.
Curving up from the flat lands of Illinois and arching alongside the coast into Wisconsin, their hills and valleys are filled with an abundance of foliage, plants, and animal life unlike any other ecosystem in the Chicago Wilderness region. Among other benefits, they help to filter rainwater. Rare plants, migratory birds, remnant woodlands, and fish are a part of this shadowed world that has long been entrenched in mystery for local residents and scientists alike.
As urbanization, erosion, increasingly intense weather events, and invasive plants begin to peel away at the perimeter of the ravines, it has become increasingly urgent for us to unwrap those mysteries and help protect the system that has long protected us.
“The ravines are one of Illinois’s last natural drainage systems to the lake,” said Rachel Goad, manager of the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Plants of Concern program. “They are delicate landscapes. It can be challenging to get in to them. It can be challenging to move around on the steep slopes.” Those challenges have not deterred Goad and a team of citizen scientists from digging in to look for solutions.
For 15 years, the many contributors to Plants of Concern have been collecting data in the ravines, with a particular focus on the rare plant species that can be found there. The data, now quite valuable due to its longevity, is a treasure chest for land managers and others who are trying to better understand the system and how to save it.
Goad and her team are now in the final stages of testing a vegetation assessment connected to a virtual field guide for the ravines. She hopes it will be completed by the end of this year. Its purpose is to serve as a resource for ravine restoration and management long term. The plant-focused sampling method, called a rapid assessment, is the third piece of a larger ravine-management toolkit that includes a way to evaluate erosion and stream invertebrates considered to be indicator species. The toolkit has been assembled by Plants of Concern and partner organizations in recent years.
“The idea is that a land manager or landowner could pull these tools off of the Internet—there would be data sheets and an explanation for how to use them, and these resources would provide a practical, tangible way for people to better understand the ravines,” explained Goad. She and her volunteers will test the protocol this summer, as they meander through the ravines with their notebooks, cameras, and GPS mapping equipment in hand. What they learn could benefit managers trying to determine whether to focus on vegetation management or restoring the stability of a ravine, for example. The toolkit, according to Goad, “is complementary to restoration and understanding these plant communities.”
The data, however, is only one piece of the solution. Goad believes the connections people make when monitoring the ravines are what will impress upon them the significance and urgency of the issue. Her goals are to create connections between people and their local natural communities, and to engage a more diverse representation of volunteers in the program.
“What Plants of Concern is doing is engaging local citizens, introducing them to ravines, and getting them interested in what’s happening in these mysterious V-shaped valleys around them,” said Goad.
Goad hopes that by growing connections between these ravines and those who live nearby, she can increase the chances that this system will continue to protect rare plant species and one of the largest sources of drinking water in the world. As a recent recipient of a Toyota TogetherGreen Fellowship, administered by Audubon, Goad is intent on better understanding how to build such connections.
“We are working to make connections between monitoring and stewardship,” she said. “Monitoring can be a transformative experience.” Once a volunteer is in the field, navigating the terrain and gaining familiarity, they learn to see existing threats, such as encroachment by invasive species. Documenting these threats is important, but can feel disempowering if they’re not being addressed. Goad wants to show volunteers that there is something that can be done about the problems they encounter, and build a proactive understanding of conservation. “I believe in citizen science, which is the idea that anybody can do science and get involved in research,” she said.
Goad stepped in as manager of Plants of Concern just last year, after earning her master’s degree. It was like returning home in some ways, as she had previously helped to manage natural areas at the Garden.
In part because of that initial experience, “I knew I wanted to work in plant conservation,” she said. “It felt pretty perfect to get to come back and work with Plants of Concern. It’s an amazing experience to live in Chicago and to be able to work in some of the most beautiful natural areas in the region.”
Plants of Concern has been a mainstay at the Garden for 15 years, dispatching committed volunteers to the ravines and other key locations across the Chicago Wilderness region to monitor and collect data on endangered, threatened, and rare species. The mounting data collected by the program is often used as baseline information for shifting or struggling species, and is shared with land managers. Through special projects, such as with one of the Garden’s recent REU interns, they have also contributed to habitat suitability modeling for rare species.