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FAQ

What is habitat restoration?
Habitat restoration is a way to manage the land to increase the number and variety of native plants and the animals that depend on them. We remove invasive alien plants that compete with native species. We collect seeds of native plants--many of which are threatened or endangered--to give them a chance to spread. And we use fire to keep invasive aliens from coming back.

How does restoration work?
First comes knowledge. Using current plant surveys, land records, and notes from the original settlers, we see what the land is, was and could be. We help the land owner--usually the state, a municipality, or the forest preserve district--draft a plan for managing the land. Then we get to work cutting invasive shrubs and trees, and pulling weeds. In the summer and fall we collect seeds from native plants and spread them over the ground. Once restoration is under way, our trained fire experts use prescribed burning to keep the land healthy.

Why remove some kinds of plants?
Many of the shrubs and weeds that are common on our public lands are not even native to this country. When settlers brought them to this country, they didn't bring any of the predators that kept them under control. In the great soil and climate of the Midwest, they took over. Shrubs like buckthorn and weeds like garlic mustard crowd out every other plant species. Where a dense thicket of buckthorn grows, nothing--literally nothing--grows underneath it. The biggest threat to our native plant species is not development but loss of habitat to alien invaders.

Can't we just let nature take its course?
Too late. Our ancestors changed the land through plowing, grazing and building; they brought alien plant species here and suppressed fire. The remaining open lands, protected in forest preserves and parks, bear little resemblance to their original wild state. If we do nothing, we will continue to let the land deteriorate, and whole native plant and animal communities could disappear--that means extinction.

Fire in the forest preserves? Isn't that dangerous?
The volunteers who conduct prescribed burning in forest preserves take a fire management course that lasts several weeks--the same course that the people who fight forest fires out West take. Working under direct supervision of trained professionals, we burn only when wind and weather are just right. The Cook County Forest Preserve District has been using fire safely for over 20 years. Experts all over the country, including the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service, now recognize that prescribed fire is a vital part of land management.

Doesn't fire cause pollution?
Prescribed fire in a woodland or prairie burns hot and clean--producing less smoke than a leaf fire and far less pollution than cars or SUVs. It's no wonder that the prescribed burn program is approved by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.

What about pesticides?
We're environmentalists; we would avoid all pesticide use if we could. But like it or not, cutting most shrubs doesn't stop them from growing back. To stop resprouts, we paint the stumps with herbicide. That's right--the tool we most often use to apply herbicide is a paintbrush, to put a few drops right on the growing part of the plant. Once in a while we will use a hand sprayer to spray a noxious weed. On average, we use a few ounces of herbicide per acre--compare this with how many bags of pesticide are spread on a golf course--or even your own lawn.
Every person who touches herbicide on our projects is tested and licensed by the State of Illinois. We choose herbicides that break down quickly so they don't pose a long-term danger. To let people know where herbicide is in use, we put up signs, plant flags in the ground, and mix brightly-colored dye into the herbicide.

I don't know much about native plants. How can I help?
You're in good company. Our volunteers include doctors and lawyers, teachers and students, writers, artists, and musicians. No special knowledge or training is required. Our stewards will show you just what to do, and how to tell the welcome from the unwelcome. In a few minutes you'll be a restoration veteran.

How old (or young) do you have to be to do restoration?
At just about any age, you can help with restoration. Kids as young as six can help collect seeds, and we've had plenty of school groups cutting brush and pulling weeds. They work alongside the many of our volunteers who are retired. If you can pull weeds or handle a pair of hedge trimmers, you can do restoration work!

What kind of weather do you work in?
We hold workdays every weekend of the year--on the hottest and the coldest days, in snow and in mud. We don't work in driving rain and don't mess with lightning. (We're dedicated, not crazy!) To find out if we're working this weekend, call our volunteer coordinator or the steward for a site near you.

What will it look like when we're done?
You just can't tell. Part of the beauty of nature is its unpredictability. We know that the number and variety of plant species will increase, and we know the kinds of plants and animals that will return, but we can't say for sure which ones and in what numbers. That's one of the things that keeps volunteers coming back, season after season.

  Last Updated: October 27, 2001