The Morton Arboretum includes more than 900 acres that are managed as natural areas. On these lands, staff and trained volunteers work to restore and conserve plant and animal communities that naturally occur in the upper Midwest: oak-dominated woodlands, grasslands, and wetlands.
The land is home to magnificent oaks and other native species that have been here for centuries, but none of it is undisturbed. The Arboretum was created in 1922 from farmland and wood lots. For nearly 100 years, it had been used to raise wheat, corn, and hay; for cattle grazing; for lumber; and to harvest firewood. Prairies and some woodlandshad been cleared and plowed, and wetlands had been artificially drained to create farm fields.Today, the goal for the Arboretum’s natural areas is to recover healthy populations of native plant and animal communities on this land and to foster as much native biodiversity as possible.
Although management strategies are informed by historic land use records as well as by current research and monitoring, they do not aim to recreate the earlier ecosystems of a specific era, such as the period before this area was settled in the 1830s and 1840s. Conditions have changed too much and the future is too uncertain.
Ecological restoration at the Arboretum now aims to assist the recovery of the native ecosystems while remaining alert and adaptable in the face of new challenges such as ongoing climate change, surrounding development, and invasive plants, pests, and pathogens.
Restoration means adjusting conditions and processes to allow native species to recover. In some places it means removing plant species that are considered harmful to native biodiversity, or opening up shady woodlands to allow more sunlight. It may mean allowing water to flow naturally through the site, reintroducing fire into communities that depend on it, or recreating prairies from farm fields.
In the more than 50 years since the Arboretum’s Schulenberg Prairie became one of the first efforts to return farmland to a prairie ecosystem, restoration work at the Arboretum has informed and inspired conservation efforts throughout the Midwest and the world.