SHEFFIELD, Ill. | In a narrow strip of ground between the railroad tracks and U.S. 6 lay a rare piece of ground.
This soil had never been plowed or otherwise disturbed since pioneer days. It was a remnant of original prairie, the state's namesake.
At first glance the brown strip of vegetation seemed to fall short of its reputation. But a few steps closer and wild rose hips became apparent.
"It's a pretty good quality native prairie remnant," said Bill Handel, a plant ecologist and botanist with Illinois Natural History Survey's Prairie Research Institute.
Handel was just west of Sheffield in Bureau County. He is surveying railroad right-of-ways for the Illinois Department of Transportation. This particular patch of prairie, only a few hundred yards long and about 30 feet wide, was found by Handel back in 2003 doing a similar survey.
"This one here is one of the best left," he said.
Handel pointed out more prairie gems: rigid goldenrod, Missouri goldenrod, boneset, dropseed, leadplant, green milkweed, pale purple coneflower, prairie coreopsis, heath aster and prairie dock.
The only thing that saved this prairie, ironically, was the highway and railroad tracks. Saved it from what? Farming.
"Because most of the state is converted to agriculture, (the prairie) is wedged between the railroad tracks and the road," Handel said.
Other grassland shielded from the plow by the railroad along U.S. 6 contains some of the best, albeit tiny, remnants of prairie left, Handel said.
Handel pointed to one of the prairie's last bloomers — prairie, or downy gentian. Its short stature is made up for by deep blue flowers, one of the most striking plants on the fall prairie. There are other kinds of gentians; this one grows "in the high, dry prairies," Handel said.
In the Illinois Department of Transportation's nine-county area of District 3, there are only 10 populations left of prairie gentian, Handel said.
"This plant you'll find in a 100-mile stretch and then none for miles," Handel said.
Handel's survey goes into a database that helps planners protect prairie when planning changes to roads and railroads, said Kathy Cindrich, landscape architect with IDOT's District 3.
It also helps IDOT road crews, Cindrich said.
"We have to refer back to these maps when we do our roadside spraying," Cindrich said.
Handel said misdirected spraying or drift of agricultural spray threatens these prairies. And Cindrich and Handel said there is little manpower or funding in their agencies or even within the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to restore or protect prairies like this.
Prairie does best when managed with fire, but this can't be done next to roads and railroads, so mowing is the next best option, Cindrich and Handel said.
"Some mowing can be good if done at the right time," Handel said.
Separately, IDOT has restored native vegetation in some areas. Planting prairie vegetation along IDOT roadsides began in the late 1970s in response to the fuel crisis. Native plants require less mowing, saving fuel, Cindrich said.
IDOT currently uses native seed mixes in some areas to reduce maintenance costs, she said. Most of this is along the Interstate highways.
"There is no set budget for planting prairie species," Cindrich said. "Usually installation goes along with roadway contracts. Emphasis is on roadside beautification, reduction of maintenance and environmental enhancement."