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
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
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.