Next time you pull into Oakton’s Des Plaines campus along Golf Road, take a look on either side of you just past the baseball fields. To your right, you will likely see a blackened patch of earth and to the left–lots of grasses (and hopefully!) a glimpse of the river. Had you driven by this past Saturday morning, you definitely would not have seen the river, but you may have noticed individuals wielding loppers and saws, cutting down trees and dragging them to burn piles, or witnessed (licensed!) individuals setting fire to a stretch of prairie grass. Believe it or not, this is restoration in progress.
Over 100 people participated in Oakton Community College’s Fall Restoration workday on November 8th. This annual event, sponsored and organized by our Ecology Club, is a great opportunity for students and community members to get some hands-on experience restoring and preserving the natural areas on campus. As part of a larger prairie restoration project, volunteers of all ages (including youth scouts working right alongside college students) removed invasive buckthorn from a stretch of land next to Oakton’s baseball fields along the Des Plaines River.
Volunteers also planted about 20 native shrubs in a recessed portion of the area that will grow to create safe, usable habitat for frogs, snakes and other animals in the restored prairie.
After a few hours of hard work cutting down and dragging out buckthorn trees, attendees were treated to a prescribed burn demonstration in a restored prairie section just across the street. Students learned about the importance of fire for healthy prairie ecosystems and were encouraged to come back in spring as grasses and other plants start to return.
“I thought you were trying to SAVE the environment…why are you cutting down trees and burning prairie??” These are common questions for anyone new to a restoration project. Here is a quick synopsis:
Take a look at the before and after shots below. Non-native species (like buckthorn) were/are often brought over from other areas of the world either as decorative plants, shrubs used for good coverage, or a number of other reasons. Unfortunately, some species become invasive–meaning that they take advantage of their new surroundings by consuming, reproducing and spreading. These quick growing plants absorb nutrients from the soil and grow tall in a short amount of time. In doing so, they use valuable resources that other (native and often slower growing) species need. As plants like buckthorn grow, they block sunlight from reaching seedlings of oak trees, ash trees, and other native plants whose growth we wish to encourage. (That’s why you see yellow caution tape in some of the images–those are the plants we want to see more of on campus!) Because they are so quick to grow, it can often be hard to eradicate them from an area once they have taken hold. Workdays like this provide the man (and woman) power we need to take down a lot of the individual trees. Licensed individuals then come through and use a specialized herbicide on the plants that were cut down to ensure they do not grow back. It can take several years to clear an area of invasive species.
There was a River hiding behind all of those invasive species!!
In the case of prairies, fire is an important part of maintaining a healthy ecosystem. In natural prairies, fire would occur periodically–wiping out invasive grasses that could not withstand the temperatures and ensuring proper development of native seeds–some of which require those high temperatures to germinate. Because native prairie grasses have deep root bases growing from a point underground, even though the grassy stems above ground are burnt, the plant itself remains intact–ready to grow and thrive as the spring comes. In restored prairies, such as this stretch, prescribed burns are a way of controlling invasive species thereby giving the prairie grasses we have planted in the past enough nutrients and space to grow and reproduce.
It takes a lot more effort to restore stretches of natural land than it does to disrupt or destroy them. As the seasons change and you watch these areas grow, take a second to think about all of the work that goes into maintaining and restoring the beautiful habitats–and maybe you can join us next time!!