Skip to main content

To Protect and Preserve

A man wearing glasses, a well-worn Nature Conservancy T-shirt, and a faded IU baseball hat, kneels amidst the grasses and blooms of the prairie to pull weeds. He is surrounded by plant life.
Spencer Cortwright, a biology professor at IU Northwest, has taken it largely upon himself to transform what was once a weed patch into the Little Calumet River Prairie and Wetland Preserve. Photo by Ben Meraz.

Along a highway about 30 miles outside of Chicago, you can find IU Northwest biology professor Spencer Cortwright weaving through eye-high prairie grass, picking up trash.

If he’s not doing that, he’ll be spraying herbicide to kill off the invasive weeds. Or he’ll be collecting and scattering native plant seeds, giving future generations the promise of ox-eye sunflowers and wild hibiscuses.

In the spring, he checks the weather constantly. He needs 72 hours without rain, culminating in a sunny day with a slight southerly breeze. When the perfect day comes, he sets fire to the grassland, clearing away dead vegetation and warming the soil to boost native-plant growth.

Amy and Suzana kneel amid dead grasses, transplanting healthy prairie plants into the ground.
IU Northwest students Amy Aponte (front) and Suzana Rodriguez work on the prairie to earn class credit and gain research experience. Photo by Ben Meraz.

This is land restoration and preservation: a constant battle between good (native species) and evil (invasive species). It’s a battle Cortwright has gladly been fighting since the 1990s, when he took charge of the Little Calumet River Prairie and Wetland Preserve next to the IU Northwest campus. Cortwright estimates that he’s out there working about 100 days a year, sometimes with students from his classes, sometimes on his own. Over the years, he’s transformed 11 acres of the land from an overgrown weed patch into a thriving tallgrass prairie.

Tallgrass prairies like this once covered millions of acres in North America. Now they’ve been reduced to less than one percent of their original area. That makes “Spencer’s Prairie,” as folks at IU Northwest fondly call it, one of the rarest, most-endangered ecosystems in the world.

A close-up shot of the plant rattlesnake master, which has a pale greenish-white coloring and thick hearty stems that culminate in conical heads, each comprised of dozens of small buds surrounded on either side by tiny, spiky leaf-like pieces.
An abundance of native prairie plants like Eryngium yuccifolium, commonly known as rattlesnake master, make for a healthy ecosystem. Photo by Ben Meraz.

Beyond the 11 acres of prairie that Cortwright maintains, he estimates there are about 30 more acres that are desperately in need of attention, ripe for restoration as a healthy wetland.

“I’m just talking about the acreage that is immediately associated with IU Northwest,” he says. “If you take the amount of floodplain in Little Calumet, it might be 1,000 acres. If we had the right funding, we could have a proper, full-scale nature preserve right next to campus.”

A restoration like that would bring more than beauty to northwest Indiana. Wetlands are powerhouse ecosystems, right up there with rain forests and coral reefs in their ability to sustain a diversity of life, filter toxins out of the environment, and store carbon.

“They’re the richest systems on Earth as far as energy for the food web,” Cortwright says.

So what do you do when there is already too much work and yet more work to be done? You do what you can.

A shot of the prairie at sunset, with a cacophony of plant life filling the bottom two-thirds of the frame. There is an abundance of lush green from the plant stems; warm yellow flowers with their petals popped open; and wispy, pale-purple flowers that have long, thin, antennae-like extensions emanating from the center of their down-turned petals. Clouds fill the sky as the last bits of warmth from the sun fade away at the horizon.
Cortwright says most prairie flowers are yellow or gold, in part because bees are attracted to that color, so they’ve set up prairies to feature their favorite color as an evolutionary benefit. Photo by Ben Meraz.

Wild seeds can survive 100 years in the soil before they finally take root and make themselves known to our eyes. So, today, Cortwright will scatter seeds. Tomorrow he’ll take on the weeds.

He’ll assess the land’s biodiversity by trying to remember all the different butterflies he sees in a summer, and be glad when he loses track.

He’ll think of the song “God Bless America” and how we get teary-eyed when we hear “from the mountains, to the prairies, to the oceans white with foam”—even though most of us don’t fully understand what a prairie is and how stunning it can be. And then he’ll think: I can show them.

One day, if the right resources come along, he’ll start working on the expansive wetlands adjacent to his site.

And a century from now, a seed planted today will begin to grow.

To join Cortwright’s efforts to restore and preserve these precious ecosystems at IU Northwest, use the button below, or contact Vice Chancellor Jeri Patricia Gabbert at or 219-981-4242.

Give Now

This article was originally published in the fall 2017 issue of Imagine magazine.

Written By

Andrea Alumbaugh

A native Hoosier, Andrea Alumbaugh is a graduate of IU (BAJ’08) and a senior writer at the IU Foundation.

Related stories

Tim Scales, wearing a suit and blue tie while seated behind his desk, overlaps a chalkboard illustration of a business plan that features the words "marketing," "strategy," "plan," "product," "success," and "idea."

Educating Entrepreneurs Like Nobody’s Business

Start a new business without a business plan? That often spells disaster. The Business Opportunities for Self-Starters program at IU East (BOSS for short) imparts this fundamental lesson to local…

J.C. Barnett III, who has medium-brown skin and a dark-brown beard, wears clear-frame glasses and a black fedora, and a white T-shirt that says "Little Artists" on it. A young buy with medium-brown skin and wearing a blue polo shirt places a painted canvas on a table along with several other bright, colorful paintings.

A Little Artist Goes a Long Way

When J.C. Barnett III was a kid, he would watch his grandmother doodle on the backs of envelopes and inside phone books. This early artistic influence inspired Barnett’s lifelong pursuit…

A bronze sculpture of fish shooting a stream of water from its mouth.

5 Campus Critters Hiding in Plain Sight

You’d expect a campus of IU Bloomington’s size to have ample creature comforts. But actual creatures? It has plenty of those too—and we’re not just talking about squirrels. Take a…

"Big Red 200" is emblazoned in huge letters on the front of a set of vertical cabinets stacked side-by-side in a room stretching the length of the photo and out of frame.

8 Innovative Learning Spaces

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, IU was forced to reconceive its learning experiences to limit face-to-face instruction. While this transition represented a massive feat of innovation in and of itself,…