GPF was formed in 1984, when a group of citizens from Champaign-Urbana, IL, joined together with a commitment to preserve and restore tallgrass prairie in East-Central Illinois. That year GPF purchased the Shortline Railroad Prairie, 6-acres of prairie along an abandoned railroad right-of-way in Champaign County. Shortline contains a 1 mile trail that is open for walking and nature observation.
In 1992, GPF purchased 10.5 acres of high quality sand prairie and wetland in Iroquois County, naming it Bonnie's Prairie. The prairie contains a variety of plants common to sand prairies including little bluestem, panic grass, hairy puccoon, goat's rue, and sand milkweed, while the sand pond is brimming with wetland plants such as cordgrass, fowl manna grass, small-flowered water plaintain, pickerel weed, burreed, and yellow pond lily. The area harbors several extremely rare insect species that are found in only a handful of other locations in Illinois.
Since its formation, GPF has been actively involved in preserving and managing about a dozen natural prairie remnants, totaling approximately 70 acres of natural prairies. Many of these areas are registered Illinois Nature Preserves, giving these natural areas permanent legal protection. For most of these prairies, GPF provides a volunteer steward who is responsible for managing the site. These stewards lead volunteer workdays, conduct prescribed burns, and control invasive species.
In addition to preservation, GPF has been actively involved in several prairie plantings. We help manage 3 prairie plantings, totaling about 40 acres.
GPF's first reconstruction project was a long-term agreement with the Champaign County Forest Preserve District to restore a 30-acre prairie-savanna-wetland complex at the Middle Fork Forest Preserve. In 1990, the underground field tiles were broken allowing the return of natural hydrology and wetland vegetation. While the wetland plants returned on their own, the prairie plants did not, so GPF was responsible for planting the surrounding upland areas with locally collected native prairie and savanna species, and managing those areas using prescribed burns and exotic species control.
The Middle Fork restoration was so successful, in 1999 the Champaign County Forest Preserve District again teamed with GPF to begin another prairie planting. Called the Dowell Trails, this 279 acre section of the Lake of the Woods Forest Preserve is laced with over 3 miles of pedestrian and bicycle trails. With GPF providing a diverse mixture of native seeds, and the Forest Preserve District providing the equipment, we planted the first 4 acres in the spring of 2000. We hope to plant more prairie little-by-little until the entire 279 acres is completely restored.
Each year, GPF conducts several community education projects. Volunteers lead field trips to our prairie preserves. We also sponsors lectures and workshops on such topics as propagation of prairie plants, landscape gardening with prairie plants, prairie wildlife, and origin of the prairie. Occasionally, GPF sponsors workshops to allow members to become certified for conducting prescribed burns. Recently, GPF has held day-long, hands-on workshops on prairie ecology and plant propagation for local teachers. Participants are given "prairie kits" to use in their classrooms. The workshops were developed with funds from a grant provided by the Illinois Department of Conservation.
In 1994, GPF launched an ambitious project to propagate and sell native plants in order to provide funding for an internship program. Every spring and summer, we hold several native plant sales, selling hundreds of native prairie plants to the community, which provides citizens with plants for their prairie gardens, and promotes the use of native plants in landscaping. Unsold plants are donated to local schools for prairie plantings, or used in GPF's own prairie plantings. All proceeds from the plant sales are used to fund two summer internship positions. The summer interns meet with several local biologists and restorationists to learn the local natural history and techniques of natural lands management. Then, the interns work closely with stewards and volunteers in managing our prairie remnants and reconstructions. Both the plant sales and the internships have been extremely successful.
GPF was the main organizer and sponsor of the Central Illinois Prairie Conference. This event, once held about every five years starting in 1985, included two days of technical and non-technical presentations on prairie ecology, management, natural area stewardship, and culture. The last conference was held in September 2003 at Parkland College in Champaign and included a wealth of knowledgeable speakers, a delicious banquet, and several field trips to prairies and other natural areas throughout the region. This event is currently on indefinite hiatus awaiting perceived need and the right person with the energy and enthusiasm to lead.