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Preserving the Region's Natural Beauty

© Mark Baldwin
by Christopher Cudworth
West Suburban Living, April 2015

Imagine standing on the rise in the landscape that now holds the intersection of Highland Avenue and I-88 in Downers Grove. Before the surrounding landscape was settled and developed, the view must have been stunningly beautiful in all seasons. The prairie in summer. Rich coves of changing oaks and hickories in fall. Crisp blue snow ridges in winter. A hint of green when spring rains come. Pure and beautiful.

Yes, our region was once a naturally compelling scene, worthy of being called some of the most beautiful country in the New World by French Explorers that had traveled so long to get here, and who would have so great an impact on its future.

Human Influence

Of course long before European settlers took over the land we now call the Chicago region, people had been impacting the landscape for tens of thousands of years. Prairie fires set by human beings to clear land and drive game often consumed thousands of acres. Yet those fires helped keep the prairie intact, and in doing so preserved critical habitat for wildlife, insects and plants that evolved in the prairie ecosystem. So there has always been a balancing act going on between nature and human beings in Illinois.

That means we cannot effectively separate the natural history of Illinois from the human influences that brought us here. Agriculture, wetland alteration and development are all woven into the puzzle we now face in modern land conservation. That means there are facts to be discerned from the land before decisions can be made about conservation and preservation of the most valuable and rare stores of natural history in the western suburbs.

Conservation Commitment

It has become clear in the last two decades that the general public supports the mission of land conservation indicated by repeated passage of land preservation referendums. The trickier part has been formulating plans to restore and manage much of that property.

Chicago’s western suburbs are leading many innovative efforts to improve the quality of natural areas while encouraging greater use of public lands by people of all ages and backgrounds.

Hands-On Planning

Erik Neidy is Manager of Natural Resources for the DuPage County Forest Preserve District. His job is to help create and implement a sustainable plan for thousands of acres of public land. Finding the right balance between public recreation and protection of rare species of plants and animals is challenging work. Introduced and invasive species of plants and animals often threaten high quality natural areas.

You have probably heard of the emerald ash borer — an ‘“introduced” species now devastating trees across the Chicago region. Meanwhile, invasive plant species such as garlic mustard, purple loosestrife and buckthorn trees swarm over untended properties, choking out native wildflowers and even oak trees that cannot thrive under the aggressive shade created by these invasive blanket species.

Wetland management is also an ongoing challenge. The hydrology of the western suburbs has been highly manipulated over the last 160 years, making it difficult to ascertain what constitutes a “natural” wetland from one created by human activity.

The Role of Restoration

Natural area restoration plays a key role in helping lands regain their natural potential. Restoration is the process of using human activity to allow nature to rebound in a healthier state. In the last 20 years, vast networks of volunteers have dedicated themselves to the process of fighting invasive species in an effort to protect native and restore natural plant and animal communities. “Without those volunteers,” says Neidy, “our job managing all our property would be impossible. We have 10-15 lead volunteers who basically function as part of our staff. They contribute a lot to our decision-making process, and our volunteer workforce goes out and gets the job done.”

That growing network of natural area restoration volunteers now serves many parks and forest preserves in the western suburbs on Kane, DuPage, Kendall and Will counties. Your local forest preserve district can help you focus your interest in park restoration or monitoring populations of butterflies, frogs, reptiles or birds. People of all ages are welcome and provide vital conservation support as natural areas volunteers.

Benefits of Restoration

Changes as a result of restoration activities can be dramatic. Wildlife and plant species thought to be wiped out often return as if by magic. “In some cases we look for indicator species to help us determine what state a property is in,” Neidy says. “But that can change rapidly. We’ve learned that certain regionally rare species of birds such as yellow-headed blackbirds may stay only a season or two when a marsh is in transition due to restoration activity.”

Protecting large parks while providing access to human activities is one of the most important priorities for land managers. “We’ve adopted the method of installing trails around large properties so that people can use it while providing protection for the plants and animals inside the park,” says Neidy. “That works really well.”

Properties such as the Springbrook Prairie in Naperville and Dick Young Forest Preserve in Kane County have carefully established trail systems that swing around and through more than 1000 acres of restored prairies and marshlands. The Dick Young preserve honors one of the leading botanists of the region, whose work led to the designation of Nelson Lake Marsh as an Illinois Nature Preserve. Kane County has since purchased and restored thousands of acres surrounding the marsh, creating one of the largest systemic experiments in land restoration in the western suburbs.

Balancing Acts

Before all the restoration activity can happen, worthy properties must be identified and secured through purchase or conservation easements. That’s where organizations such as The Conservation Foundation come in. Brook McDonald is a former DuPage County forest preserve employee who now runs the Naperville-based non-profit dedicated to purchasing and transitioning land from private hands to public open spaces. “Some of the owners simply want to make a gift to society,” McDonald says. “Others want their land to be preserved, but for specific purposes. It’s our job to serve as a go-between and a point of contact for landowners who want their land set aside but don’t know how to go about it.”

The Conservation Foundation also plays a vital role in helping businesses learn how they can better manage their properties for environmental health. Those measures often save companies money on large land management expenditures. The Foundation also reaches out to homeowners and communities to be smarter about land and water use, including watershed protection, which impacts ponds, lakes and rivers.

Making Connections

The western suburbs have come a long way in conserving and preserving land in the past several decades. Connecting people to those properties still requires education and commitment. That’s where organizations like the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum come in. While the museum itself is located in Chicago, its programs and conservation efforts reach well into the suburbs, supporting education curriculum for public, private and alternative schooling. “Our ongoing focus is helping people find ways to connect with nature in their own back yard,” says Steven M. Sullivan, senior curator of Urban Ecology at the museum.

One of those efforts is Project Squirrel in which people of all ages can enroll and become Citizen Scientists by monitoring and reporting on the squirrels in their own neighborhoods. “It’s easy and it’s fun,” says Sullivan. “It’s all about gathering data, and we even have a Project Squirrel app for smartphones.”

Visiting the Arb

Families seeking hands-on opportunities for exploration of natural areas in the western suburbs find The Morton Arboretum an ideal mix of nature and interpretive opportunities. From the Children’s Garden all the way up to professional education, the Arboretum plays a central role in conservation in the western suburbs, and around the world.

Dr. Nicole Cavender, vice president of Science and Conservation at the Morton Arboretum, heads up the department that leads education and interaction with conservation professionals across a spectrum of purposes.

Its Community Trees program serves cities and towns, helping them maintain the “forests” of which they’re in charge. Working with a variety of municipal officials, from city managers to professional arborists, the Arboretum provides high-level expertise and support to promote and extend the health and vitality of a community’s trees as they age.

Cavender views such work as an extension of the greater mission of conservation. “So much of our population, about 80 percent, now lives in an urban context,” she explains. “That means the ability to develop and maintain a vibrant, green infrastructure can improve the lives of so many people.”

It’s no secret that trees are a key part of a healthy global ecosystem. “There are about 100,000 tree varieties in the world,” Cavender explains. “About 10,000 of those are in danger of one sort of another, even extinction,” she notes.

Which puts in context the structure and purpose of the Morton Arboretum, where Cavender says each tree is closely monitored and managed for the information it gives back to our scientific understanding of how the environment works. That information, in turn, can be used to determine what conservation measures may be necessary to protect and conserve our current natural surroundings, and what we want for the future.

It is a compelling notion that even an individual tree can make a difference in how we view and manage the world. The same holds true for every individual human being, and our collective societies. Conserving nature, it turns out, is very much the same as conserving ourselves. That’s true here in the western suburbs and around the world.
 

Springbrook Prairie Forest Preserve in Naperville. © Mark Baldwin
 

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