Our Sendoff to Steward Steve Sentoff

By Charlotte Ward

It takes a dedicated volunteer to work outdoors in the cruel conditions of a Chicagoland winter or heavy heat of a scorching summer day. But come rain or shine (or even snow) Steve Sentoff has been a regular fixture at West Chicago Prairie, battling the elements with other volunteers to return the DuPage forest preserve to its natural state.

After 25 years of giving his time, the volunteer steward and president of the West Chicago Prairie Stewardship Group hung up his boots to retire this March. He leaves behind the legacy of a drastically different landscape to the one he first found in the early 1990s.

“When I began almost every workday we were removing big clumps of grey dogwood,” recalls Sentoff. “Dogwood is a native shrub but it had become invasive, growing 10 feet tall and shading out the prairie. You couldn’t see across the preserve, and it didn’t look like a prairie. It just looked like a shrubland. One of the big things I’ve noticed is you can now see across the preserve.”

Growing up in the suburbs of New York City, Steve knew little about nature until he signed up to volunteer under the mentorship of the late Melvern Hoff. Mel, as he was known, founded the West Chicago Prairie Stewardship Group in the early 1980s and was working hard to restore the prairie to its natural state.

The men met at an Earth Day event in 1990 with Mel convincing Steve he should check out the prairie.

“My wife Monica and I both had desk jobs and wanted to do something useful outside, so we took Mel up on his offer of a field trip to the prairie,” Sentoff explains. “I was a computer person who knew nothing about nature, but Mel told me what he was doing and why. I always thought we should watch out for nature and the preserve seemed like a good thing to work on. It was interesting to see how interconnected things were. It’s not so obvious until you’re out there.”

“Mel mostly taught me about the invasive species that had taken over the prairie. For a number of years we worked hard to cut it back and seed prairie grasses back in.”

In the mid-90s Steve joined the board of directors of WCPSG and went on to attend classes at the Morton Arboretum as well as training sessions at the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County. He in turn passed knowledge onto other volunteers at the prairie.

“I always did try to show people things,” he says. “My wife says I tell them more than they want to know!”

In 2001 when Mel passed away at the age of 79, Sentoff stepped up to take the helm. “When Mel died there was a moment where we all thought, ‘Wow, who will take care of the preserve?’ I told the others, ‘If you promise to help me, I think I could run this.’ Thankfully Mel had the place well organized. He’d made a grid of the preserve and used aerial photos to coordinate things. It was my job to keep things organized and move forward. I didn’t have the same background or same amount of time but I got all his old records and organized them to what made sense to me.”

“I used my knowledge of computers to set up a system using a handheld GPS and Google Earth to mark positions of where things were. I shared the files with the Forest Preserve District who we had great coordination with. If a project required a lot of hands, we got on with it while they did the things that needed big equipment.”

When he retired from his job in 2005, Sentoff, who lived 5 miles from the prairie, upped his hours to lead 20 ‒ 25 workdays a year and joined a group of retired gentlemen on a Wednesday to get things done.

“We were a tight group who got to know each other well,” he says. “I made my closest friends because of the prairie.”

The fruits of the group’s labor include a clear vista across the 360-acre preserve and a more inhabitable environment for a number of species.

“We have some Blanding’s turtles that are doing well and we think Sandhill Crane bred on the preserve last year,” Sentoff reveals. “I’ve enjoyed keeping the bad stuff out and letting the good stuff take care of itself.”

Steve and Monica, who herself worked around 900 hours on the prairie over the years, moved to Madison in March and handed the WCPSG reins over to long-time volunteer Scott Hensey.
Sentoff says he is already missing his old stomping ground and now hopes future generations will be inspired to carry on restoring the urban oasis he has grown to love.

“People are so busy and don’t have a lot of free time. But if you want to give back, West Chicago Prairie is a good place to start,” he says. “Prairies enhance the quality of the air and water supply and provide essential habitat for wildlife.”

“If you’re interested in nature and open spaces there is plenty to enjoy about volunteering. It’s good to be out in the fresh air working and getting the muscles going.”

“Steve did phenomenal work for West Chicago Prairie and embodies every sense of a true steward,” says Cindy Hedges, stewardship program coordinator for the District. “He led field exploration trips and bird counts, submitted impeccable management reports and knew every nook and cranny of the preserve. We have been very fortunate that he has shared his energy and talents with us.” 

Editor's Note: The Forest Preserve District thanks Steve Sentoff for his tireless work at the prairie. We are glad to have had such a wonderful partner in stewardship over natural resources in DuPage County. We extend our best wishes for retirement. 

Steward Steve Sentoff (left) has mentored many Scouts about the value of natural resources and their care at the West Chicago Prairie. 
Sentoff leads a group of visitors on a tour at the prairie.
A group of hard-core volunteers bears the winter elements to join Sentoff at a "Volunteer Restoration Workday," which he leads.
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