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Chicago's Man On The Prairie Finds His Calling At Nachusa Grasslands

By Justin Breen | April 24, 2017 5:48am

CHICAGO — For the last 21 years, Jay Stacy's heart has found comfort in the deafening silence of the Nachusa Grasslands, a growing ecological wonder two hours west of Chicago.

Stacy in 1996 departed Chicago in a 13-foot trailer for the then-few-hundred-acre grassland. Stacy, who turns 70 on June 29, has remained in Nachusa ever since, volunteering for more than two decades at the site, which now has 4,000 acres filled with weasels, badgers, bald eagles, cranes, foxes, bobcats, beavers, mink, turtles, snakes and 100-plus bison. The bison were introduced with 30 animals in 2014 and will be adding to their numbers soon as it's calving season.

For Stacy, the bison represent another sign that if you give wildlife a puncher's chance, it will thrive.

 Jay Stacy at Nachusa with bison in the background
Jay Stacy at Nachusa with bison in the background
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TNC/Bill Kleiman

"If you like North American wildlife and if you like the natural world, you quickly come to the realization that the problem is habitat," Stacy said. "That’s why species are disappearing and that’s why they’re on [threatened and endangered] watch lists. It’s almost hopeless. ... But it's not like that at Nachusa. If you give Mother Nature half a chance, she'll come storming back."

Growing up, Stacy lived a block from Sauganash in suburban Lincolnwood and attended Chicago's Queen of All Saints School through eighth grade. He sold clothes in Water Tower Place on Michigan Avenue before ditching that work to head to Nachusa, which advertised in a small The Nature Conservancy pamphlet that it was going to buy and restore farmland to its original prairie state.

According to the Illinois Natural History Survey, prairie used to cover more than 60 percent of the state, but only a few thousands acres remain today.

Bit by bit, the Nachusa Grasslands have grown due to the restorations led by Nature Conservancy staff, plus Stacy and a handful of other dedicated volunteers. Stacy himself has done 10 complicated restorations, which take cornfields and transform them into prairies.

"The amazing work by our staff is impressive, but the support, passion and knowledge of volunteers like Jay goes far beyond a helping hand," said Michelle Carr, the Nature Conservancy’s Illinois State Director. "He’s been a steward of the prairie for over 20 years and what he gives to the prairie and to the Conservancy in Illinois can’t be measured."

In the late fall after corn is harvested, Stacy mows the stalks down and then burns, rakes and drags the land with a device similar to the one that drags the infield dirt at Wrigley Field. Stacy will then use wildflower and grass seeds collected from previous years and sprinkle them across the barren field in 10-foot-wide swaths. He saves seeds from rare flowers in a bucket, which he'll carefully place in the field.

"It's a lot of work, but it's very satisfying," said Stacy, who spends winters chainsawing trees and removing invasive species.

Stacy does not miss Chicago, where two of his sisters — Barb Rieckhoff and Mary Lee Calihan — still live. Rieckhoff, a College of Education professor at DePaul, said her brother's work on the prairie "combines his love of nature, God and his fellow man."

"As a steward of the land he is able to teach others and help them discover all that nature has to offer," she said.

Calihan, a former education professor at Loyola and elementary school principal in the South Loop, said Stacy found "his life's calling when he encountered the community of the Nachusa Grasslands."

Stacy had enough saved into his late 40s to serve as a full-time volunteer in the preserve. Stacy doesn't own a computer or cellphone, and he rents the upper floor of a home in Oregon, Ill., a city of 3,625 that's a two-stoplight, 11-minute drive from Nachusa.

Stacy, who never married or had children, said he always had an interest in the natural world. When he worked in Chicago, his vacations were spent in Grand Teton National Park and other camping hotspots.

He finds true comfort in the peace and quiet of Nachusa.

"The silence is deafening," he said.