Eisenberg: Cutting down trees can create a forest preserve
By Paul Eisenberg Citizen Journalistemail@example.com April 5, 2012 1:12PM
Updated: May 9, 2012 8:05AM
One of the reasons I moved to Steger back in 2002 was that I found a nice large lot, nearly an acre in size, with a small, affordable house at the very front of it. As an avid gardener, I’ve enjoyed installing flower beds and maintain a couple of herb gardens along with a large veggie plot. At the very back of my long, narrow lot, I wanted to conduct an experiment: I allowed a small area to “go wild.” I did put down some wildflower seeds, and one spring early in the process I recruited some friends to help with a controlled burn of what I’ve come to call my “prairie restoration,” but other than that, I’ve let nature take its course.
I’ve been rewarded by watching the “prairie” evolve on its own, taking on a new personality each spring, it seems. The year after I burned it, some actual prairie plants, such as big bluestem grass, popped up, seemingly activated by the fire. Another year, alfalfa plants took over, reasserting themselves from seeds laid down decades previously, when my land, and that of my neighbors, was a pasture. In other years, the area, which is more appropriately called a meadow than an actual prairie, has rewarded me in fall with waves of bright goldenrod heads swaying together in the breeze. Wandering through, I’ve discovered a stand of wild mountain mint, and an area where tiger lilies are trying to establish a colony.
This spring, I noticed a lot of ash and mulberry tree shoots populating my meadow, descendants of the established and prolific seed producing mulberry and ash trees that grow in more manicured parts of my yard. Some of those saplings are getting quite large, and if I continue to maintain my current hands-off approach, my meadow will soon transform into a woodland.
I had a chance awhile back to talk with a longtime employee of the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, who told me that for decades, the process taking place in my meadow was pretty much how forest preserves were managed. In some cases, district workers planted trees, but aside from mowing grassy areas and taking care of pavilions and recreational facilities such as walking paths and the old toboggan runs, the wild areas themselves weren’t really maintained. What resulted were deserted forests. Deer and a few other mammal types took refuge in the woods, but the average suburban neighborhood with mature trees contained more squirrels, raccoons and even songbirds. The exception was the few natural areas that were preserved prior to development, areas that were actual ecosystems rather than just land with trees. The ecosystem areas had marshy wetlands along with dry uplands. There were open savannah areas, where trees were less dense along with grassy areas and briar patches. These were the areas that owls and songbirds sought out, places that offered visitors a true glimpse of nature rather than just shade.
Gradually, forest preserve folks and visitors alike grew to realize that there was more to preserve management than just declaring some land to be open space.
A little more than a decade ago, a group of local nature lovers took it upon themselves to create an actual ecosystem on forest preserve land near Central Avenue and Flossmoor Road. Formerly farmland owned by the Bartel family, the acreage wasn’t all that far removed from the pastureland it had existed as for a century or more. Weedy trees were encroaching on the open, grassy areas from former hedgerows, but amidst the timothy and other imported European plants suitable for bovine diets, there were a few prairie remnants here and there. But there were other farmland remnants as well, including lots of old clay drainage tile that helped funnel water off the site.
The nature fans, among them some experts in such diverse fields as fungi identification and reptile habitats, banded together to transform the land from a former pasture at risk of becoming bland woodland into a haven for birds and birdwatchers alike.
Early on in their efforts, I had a chance to tag along with two women on an expedition devoted to cataloguing what plants were already on the site. We mostly found pasture plants, though the occasional surprise prairie plant would draw a shout of glee. In the years since, regular work outings by the volunteers have succeeded in changing the ratio of prairie to pasture plants much more in the former’s favor. They’ve also removed the drainage tile, allowing for the reformation of some natural wetlands. They’ve installed a hiking path and benches, and helped scale back on the encroachment of trees.
This year, those volunteers are celebrating the 10th anniversary of the formation of Bartel Grasslands with a series of events they’re dubbing “A Year of Nature in the South Suburbs.”
“Our prairies are more rare than the rainforest, and they have more than enough room for a person to leave the cares of everyday life, and enjoy some of nature’s magic,” states a press release from the group announcing a slate of activities. “We hope everyone will be as proud of our wild places as we are.”
Upcoming events include a May 6 exploration of the newly reformed wetland at Bartel Grassland. The adventure starts at 1 p.m.
And on May 20, the volunteers will formally celebrate the preserve’s 10th anniversary with a large event that is still being planned.
Events including presentations on bird and plant identification, butterflies and dragonflies and more are scheduled throughout the summer and fall.
And even if the scheduled events are inconvenient, I highly recommend getting out to Bartel to enjoy the fruits of the volunteers’ labor. As volunteer leader Dick Riner wrote, “This is one of the rarest wild places on the continent - and you’re already here!”
More information on Bartel Grasslands, the volunteers who made the preserve possible and the events they have planned are at www.bartelgrassland.org.