Ecosystems can be microscopic or cover thousands of acres. Regardless of size, every ecosystem is constantly in flux. Preserving an ecosystem requires continuous efforts to fight the forces that create an imbalance. To put this into context, we can look at a specific ecosystem: Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. It is always easiest to start with an already existing ecosystem rather than trying to create one from scratch. For example, if you wanted to re-create Midewin in an old soccer field, you would have to plant seeds of hundreds of different species of native plants and wait several generations for their seeds to become dominant in the seed bank. Even then it would take more time for all those species to establish themselves and outcompete the turf grass and weeds that already existed there. More than anything, it takes time to create an ecosystem. It takes time for the insects to move in and feed on the native vegetation that they have been evolved to eat; it takes time for the birds to find the insects they use to feed their young; and it takes time for birds and small mammals to eat and spread the seeds of the plants so more will grow next season.

Along with time, it is necessary to use the seeds of local plants because their genetic makeup has proven successful in this niche. This is why the concept of remnant prairies are such a big deal. This past year, the Rockford Airport and the stewards of Bell Bowl prairie clashed over a proposed airport extension. Bell Bowl prairie was a remnant prairie, one of the few of its kind left in Illinois. A remnant prairie has never been used for agriculture or development and contains the plants, fungi, and animals that have evolved and existed there for thousands of years.

As stated earlier, preserving a healthy ecosystem is a continuous process. Returning to the ecosystem example of Midewin, we see many strategies of preservation taking place. In the spring and fall, the Midewin Hotshots carry out prescribed burns to control invasive species, return nutrients back into the soil, and remove dead plant material to make room for new growth. The native prairie plants of Midewin have evolved with fire. Fire does not affect them the same way it affects invasive species, many of which have not evolved with fire and cannot survive with their shallow roots or thin bark.

In the dead of winter, when prairie plants are dormant, the opportunity to battle invasive woody plants presents itself. Invasive species like buckthorn can grow incredibly fast and create dense thickets, shading out all other plant species. Buckthorn is also allelopathic, meaning that the roots of buckthorn secrete a substance that is toxic to any other plant that grows near it. Fortunately, these large stands of buckthorn are easy to find in the open prairie. Using chainsaws, brushcutters, or even loppers, buckthorn can be cut at the base of the stem and dabbed with herbicide. This helps prevent the buckthorn from resprouting in the spring, making all the effort to cut it worthless.

While there is work to be done year-round, the real effort to preserve an ecosystem like Midewin happens in the growing season. As soon as the weather warms, there is a mad dash of growth as plants compete to access the sunlight and limited nutrients. During this time, methods like hand pulling, mowing, and herbicide application are vital. All these methods are used to prevent invasive species from flowering and producing more seed. At the same time, it is imperative that the native prairie plants grow, flower, and produce seed. Without this, the existence of the prairie is uncertain. It takes all the strategies at every time of year to preserve an ecosystem like Midewin.