Lake County Forest Preserves restoration projects aim to bring back native plants, grasslands

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From an early age, we are taught that planting trees is good for the environment. So why are we seeing vast tracts of trees being removed from forest reserves, leaving the land temporarily ragged and brown?

The answer is habitat restoration, a series of land management activities that improve the health, productivity and range of species at a particular site, according to ecologists at Lake County Forest Reserves. Sometimes this process involves the removal of non-native and invasive trees and other species.

Almond Marsh after: This is the same view after the buckthorn has been removed and habitat restoration is complete.
– Courtesy of Lake County Forest Preserves

In northeast Illinois, our native habitats, including plants and wildlife, have been impacted by human development.

“Agriculture, roads, residential growth and business parks have fragmented the landscape and introduced invasive species. This has resulted in reduced biodiversity and ecosystem function,” said Matt Ueltzen, Head of Restoration Ecology at Lake County Forest Preserves.

“Illinois lost 99.9% of its native grasslands and Lake County lost over 88% of the remaining oak forests.”

Restoration is important because it helps rebuild what has been lost, Ueltzen said.

“Land restoration helps connect fragmented environments. It provides a place for native plants and wildlife. It increases biodiversity and makes our landscapes sustainable for future generations.”


        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        
        


Common buckthorn.  To help reduce the prevalence of buckthorn, Lake County Forest Preserves have eliminated it from more than 3,679 acres in 25 county reservations since 2014.

Common buckthorn. To help reduce the prevalence of buckthorn, Lake County Forest Preserves have eliminated it from more than 3,679 acres in 25 county reservations since 2014.
– Courtesy of Lake County Forest Preserves

Through restoration, many invasive species — plants that harm plants and wildlife — are removed, said Ken Klick, restoration ecologist at Lake County Forest Preserves.

“Invasive species such as common and glossy buckthorn and autumn olive grow aggressively, blocking sunlight from the floor of the forest reserve.

“When these invasive trees are removed, sunlight can reach the ground, encouraging the reproduction of oak species and promoting the growth of native grasses, sedges and wildflowers,” Klick said.

To help reduce the prevalence of buckthorn, we’ve eliminated it from more than 3,679 acres on 25 county reservations since 2014, Ueltzen reported. When reseeded with native species, these open and diverse lands help reduce the impacts of urban heat islands, improve air quality and mitigate flooding.

When restoration work is underway, you can see drastic differences in the landscape.

“It turns out that restoring habitat is often a lot like destroying it,” said Alex Ty Kovach, executive director of the Lake County Forest Preserves. “It is not. We are custodians of healthy landscapes and proponents of climate resilience. Restoration is at the heart of our mission.”

Rollback occurs in several ways and, depending on the location, will have different effects.



Greenbelt before April: A major restoration project is underway at Greenbelt Forest Preserve in north Chicago.  The land looked bare and brown in April when buckthorn, honeysuckle and aggressive native poplars were cleared away.

Greenbelt before April: A major restoration project is underway at Greenbelt Forest Preserve in north Chicago. The land looked bare and brown in April when buckthorn, honeysuckle and aggressive native poplars were cleared away.
– Courtesy of Lake County Forest Preserves

A large project is currently underway at Greenbelt Forest Preserve in North Chicago. A large amount of buckthorn, honeysuckle and aggressive native cottonwoods were removed from approximately 40 acres on the west side of Green Bay Road. These invasive woody plants were cut back in the winter and a herbicide was then applied to the stumps with sponge-tip applicators.

The Greenbelt was once a large grassland and high quality wetland. By removing invasive species, we found small patches of native plants that were left behind. Experience shows that the natives will grow and spread now that the invasive species are gone.

“We saw shooting stars, yellow star grass and other summer flora returning,” Klick said. “It’s wonderful to reunite with plants and animals that have been here for thousands of years.”



Greenbelt in July.  In July, color returned to the Greenbelt and native plants sprouted.

Greenbelt in July. In July, color returned to the Greenbelt and native plants sprouted.
– Courtesy of Lake County Forest Preserves

A similar restoration project was started on the east side of Green Bay Road five years ago. Today, this side of the road shows what the west side will look like in 5 or 10 years.

“That’s how nature heals. It’s not immediate, but a gradual process. We introduce native seeds to speed up the process a bit,” Klick said.

When the area is restored, it is better able to withstand regular changes in the environment, including heat, drought and cold, Klick added.

“We are bringing him back to health with great success.”



Prescribed burns are a tool for the restoration and management of natural communities.

Prescribed burns are a tool for the restoration and management of natural communities.
– Courtesy of Lake County Forest Preserves

Prescribed burns are another tool for restoring and managing natural communities.

“Every spring and fall, our restoration ecologists conduct controlled burns on hundreds of acres on reservations,” Klick said. They help control invasive shrubs and trees and promote the regeneration of native plants.

The restoration essentially generates a domino effect, Klick said.



Monarch habitat restoration is a series of land management activities that improve the health of a particular site.  Monarch butterflies and other species of plants and animals are better able to survive on restored land.

Monarch habitat restoration is a series of land management activities that improve the health of a particular site. Monarch butterflies and other species of plants and animals are better able to survive on restored land.
– Courtesy of Lake County Forest Preserves

“The more plant diversity you have, the more insects you have. More insects bring more birds to the reserves, and then more birdwatchers and photographers. The number of people visiting the reserves then increases,” said he declared.

“In addition to the biological benefits of restoration, the process makes canning much more appealing,” Klick said.

Ueltzen agrees: “Restoration also provides both aesthetic and recreational opportunities to view and enjoy.”

• Kim Mikus is a communications specialist for Lake County Forest Reserves. She writes a bimonthly column on various aspects of canning. Contact her with ideas or questions at [email protected] Connect with Lake County Forest Reserves on social media @LCFPD.

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