In the context of Chicagoland’s urban development, building yet another townhouse subdivision on a small piece of open land in Westchester should be matter of course. It’s only 15 acres, and sprawl has long ruled. 

But stop already! That parcel is integral to a vitally necessary buffer zone that shields Wolf Road Prairie, an Illinois Nature Preserve, from nearby development’s negative effects, while itself providing valuable ecosystem services. 

Wolf Road Prairie is one of the last remaining examples of undisturbed black-soil grassland on earth. Its unusually intact ecosystem supports a large, interdependent community of wild animal, plant and other species. A legacy of the indigenous nations that formerly held sway, it is now protected for future generations. 

Scientists, students, and tourists visit from all over to admire and study this beautiful place. An unspoiled landscape like this would be unusual in a wilderness area; that it exists in Cook County makes it even more remarkable. It’s so special, it’s shocking that anyone would consider doing anything to jeopardize its well-being.

To help guard the prairie, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Cook County Forest Preserves and the Save the Prairie Society created the buffer zone by buying and restoring adjacent acreage. This particular parcel, apparently unavailable, borders 31st Street and forms part of an oak savanna full of 200-year-old trees. (Savannas, themselves, are among our region’s rarest ecosystems.)

Besides sheltering myriad non-human species, this key parcel enables the buffer zone and prairie together to function as naturally-occurring green infrastructure that — through the interaction of plants and soil — cleans the air, manages storm water, prevents flooding, and stores carbon. It’s also key to mitigating water and soil pollution from 31st Street and the closed Chicago Highlands Landfill. 

In 1985, the buffer-zone land was included on the IEPA Site Remedial Priority Action list, owing to dangerous levels of carcinogenic and neurotoxic chemicals. In 1996, the land was de-listed on condition that it remain undisturbed. There is no evidence the ruling has changed.

Clearing, excavating and paving over much of this site would lead to newly released toxins, diminished biodiversity and shattered ecosystem functions. Flooding could increase, overwhelming Wolf Road Prairie’s wetlands, leading to further ecological degradation. And gray infrastructure along 31st Street might need modification, at taxpayer expense.

Furthermore, solving the twin crises of climate change and environmental destruction requires “nature-based solutions,” i.e., conservation, restoration and management of open lands. 

Not only do they offer refuge to wild species, but they are such potent carbon sinks that the federal government has pledged to conserve 30 percent of U.S. land by 2030, in support of its goal to reduce U.S. emissions 50 percent below 2005 levels by then. In Cook County we clearly should be redeveloping, not breaking, new ground.

Wolf Road Prairie with its buffer zone intact offers vast, tangible benefits — to the wild species living there and to the citizens of Cook County and beyond. Let’s not pave paradise. Let’s understand and keep what we’ve got before it’s gone.

Adrian Ayres Fisher is on the board of West Cook Wild Ones and serves as volunteer steward of National Grove Forest Preserve in North Riverside.