Refuge in the Kankakee

As a printer and a book publisher, Gaylord Donnelley loved libraries. He would have particularly loved the one in Pembroke Township. In 1992, a young high school dropout led the charge to establish the library in this historic African-American farming community, located about an hour straight south of Chicago. A few years later, his community voted unanimously – not a single nay vote – to launch the Pembroke Township Public Library.

The library serves as a vital community hub, and currently hosts an exhibition that celebrates that community. Rooted: The Richness of Land and Culture – curated by local residents with assistance from the Field Museum – includes several displays that reveal long, strong ties to the land.

And what a land it is. According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the sandy soils – a relict of glacial meltwaters from the last ice age – supports the “most significant concentration of black-oak savannas in the Midwest.” These sand savannas are transition communities – not quite prairies and not quite forested lands – and support a unique assemblage of plants and animals. Among the 22 rare plants species in these areas is yellow false indigo – the only place in all of Illinois to see this shrubby bunch of sunshine.

So rare and special are the natural lands of Pembroke Township that on May 25, the US Fish and Wildlife Service established the Kankakee National Wildlife Refuge and Conservation Area. The purpose of the refuge is to provide habitat for waterfowl and other kinds of birds, including bobolinks, described by Henry David Thoreau as “flashing, tinkling meteors” that spend the winter as far south as Argentina before returning to the Chicago region for the breeding season.

The refuge launched with 66 acres donated by the Friends of the Kankakee, but there are plans to expand it to 21,500 acres on the Illinois side of the state line. In time, the hope is that the refuge will expand into Indiana, restoring parts of a vast former wetlands once known as the “Everglades of the North.”

But the exhibition in the Pembroke Library reminds all of us that the people of Pembroke have deep but varied ties to the land. And that efforts to protect the land for rare plants and animals likewise must take into account the needs and desires of the people who live there. For this reason, the Foundation supports the efforts of the Field Museum and others to further engage with the community to develop shared goals for the future of Pembroke and the entire Kankakee region.

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