I understand that it is welcome to see something green in the woods after winter, but please keep in mind that the welcome glint of green you see spells trouble for our native trees, shrubs and wildflowers.
That green you see is honeysuckle. Soon to be followed by buckthorn.
The honeysuckle was early this year. I can usually count on it starting to "leaf out" by April 12th, but first noticed it March 31 this year!
Governor Rauner officially declared October to be OAKtober this year to help raise awareness of Illinois’ oak legacy.
The white oak, Quercus alba, is the state tree because of the tree’s importance to the natural heritage and economy of Illinois. White oaks occur in every county in the state.
The wood from these tall, sturdy trees was used by early settlers for furniture, fence posts, barrels and flooring. Native Americans used white oak bark and roots to make medicines to treat a variety of ailments ranging from mouth sores to asthma.
I understand that it is welcome to see something green in the woods after winter - especially after the winter we just had - but just keep in mind that the welcome glint of green you see spells trouble for our native trees shrubs and wildflowers.
That green you see is honeysuckle. Soon to be followed by buckthorn.
“We are responsible for the third generation of oaks in McHenry County.” Mary Tree McClelland, horticulturist, Glacier Oaks Nursery in Harvard.
To Mary's way of thinking, the first generation of oaks was the one that was here when European-American settlers moved into the county in the mid-1830s. At that time, nearly 40% of McHenry County was covered in oak woodlands or savannas. The remainder of the landscape was prairie, wetland, and open water.
By 1872, settlers had cut half the original oak woods, whittling them down to just 18% of the county, or about 70,000 acres. The second generation of our oaks is the one that sprouted and grew since the 1830s, but they never regained the ground lost in those early years of settlement. In fact, during the second generation, oaks have steadily lost ground to farming and development, so that today, oak woods cover just 4% - 14,000 acres – of the landscape.
Of the remaining oak woodlands, very few, perhaps 25%, are healthy. The vast majority are dying off as oaks are choked by invasive shrubs like buckthorn and honeysuckle, and rapidly-growing trees like box elder. Acorns fall, young oaks sprout, but they never grow to adulthood because they are shaded out by the invaders.
As the second generation of local oaks nears the end of its natural life (200 years?), the county faces the prospect of the third generation being nothing more than a handful of remnants in public natural areas – just like zoo specimens.
There is a different way. The descendants of the early settlers and the new settlers who arrive by the thousands each year have a choice. The community can choose to plant oaks. Not just specimens in backyards, but actually recreating oak woodlands and savannas on the soils where these woodland communities once thrived.
And, our community can choose to take better care of the oak woodlands that remain by clearing invasive brush and giving the young oaks sprouting in the woods a chance to mature.
If local settlers – new and old – choose to help, the third generation of oaks can thrive!
Look for "Oak Rescues" that TLC holds throughout the winter months. These are days when volunteers gather on a privately-owned property for the purpose of helping the landowner clear invasive buckthorn and honeysuckle from around some ancient oaks. We get a good brush fire going, have something warm to drink and even cook some brats over the fire for lunch once the work is done. Contact Linda for more information.
Any day now, a faint green will start showing up in local woods right at eye level. While the spring color may be welcome to one’s winter-weary eyes, it is a sign of trouble for native oak and hickory trees.
The problem with the first green of the year is that it grows on buckthorn and honeysuckle shrubs that are not native to this area. The non-natives shade out native spring wildflowers like trillium, shooting stars, Solomon’s seal and wild columbine. They also shade out young oaks and hickories, trees that need a lot of sunlight to grow.
Buckthorn and honeysuckle have several advantages over the native species. Not only do they sprout earlier in the spring, but they stay green longer in the fall. Additionally, the non-native shrubs do not have to contend with the diseases and pests that kept them in check back in their native lands.
The extended growing season benefits the plants in a couple of ways. First, it gives them more time to store up energy in their roots through photosynthesis (the process whereby plants turn sunlight into energy). The chlorophyll in plants’ leaves (it makes them green) is used for photosynthesis. Another advantage to having a longer growing season is that the early-sprouters are able to reduce competition by keeping sunlight from reaching the ground which in turn prevents other plants from growing.
When the plants were moved to this area, they gained an advantage over native species because none of the pests or diseases they kept them in balance was moved with them. Plants, insects and animals that are native to an area develop a balance over millennia that prevents any species from becoming dominant. Without checks on their growth, the non-native plants can quickly dominate.
Humans have seen this scenario play out time and again, yet somehow society continues to move species from one part of the world to another - resulting in some dire situations.
In the Florida Everglades, Burmese pythons that were released by their owners (when the “pets” grew too large) are devastating the native animal populations, and could cause an ecosystem collapse. The snakes are well camouflaged for life in the Florida swamp, and the climate is ideal for them to breed, so the numbers grow.
In the southern United States, the kudzu vine from Japan was first promoted as an ornamental plant and then planted by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression as a way to control erosion. Today, this vine is known as the “Vine that ate the South” because it grows so aggressively (up to a foot a day). Kudzu is resistant to most herbicides, and experts say that it can take up to ten years of repeated spraying with chemicals to kill the plant.
In this area buckthorn and honeysuckle threaten the survival of oak woodlands – one of the most endangered natural communities on the planet.
Fortunately, there is hope. Buckthorn and honeysuckle can be controlled if one is willing to cut and herbicide the plants. Combined with reintroduction of fire as a land management tool, the non-native plants can be kept in check, and the native trees and wildflowers will thrive once again.
In addition to removing buckthorn, honeysuckle and other non-native plants from our local natural areas, it is also helpful to plant more native oaks and wildflowers.
Purchase locally grown, native oaks and hickories through TLC for pick-up in May. Check www.ConserveMC.org, or call 815-337-9502 to place an order.
“Green infrastructure" - as opposed to traditional built infrastucture like roads - includes the living systems like wetlands and woodlands that provide essential support to our communities in the form of reduced flooding, improved air quality and enhanced water quality.
The illustration shows a classic green infrastructure network of core areas linked by corridors.
The recently unveiled McHenry County Green Infrastructure Plan identifies a network of undeveloped lands that will help ensure the county’s human and natural communities can support one another in perpetuity. The plan includes recommendations for preservation of the existing wetlands, oak woodlands, prairies and streams, use of built green infrastructure like raingardens and green roofs, and the needs of green infrastructure to supports the county’s full diversity of plants and animals. A copy of the plan and maps can be found at www.co.mchenry.il.us/departments/planninganddevelopment/.
A green infrastructure vision for McHenry County is also included in the Chicago Wilderness Green Infrastructure Vision (CW-GIV), due for release later this month. Chicago Wilderness covers an area that extends from southeast Wisconsin all the way around the southern end of Lake Michigan and into southwestern Michigan. The CW-GIV will be a guide to “creating a region where healthy ecosystems contribute to economic vitality and a high quality of life for all residents” (www.chicagowilderness.org). Additionally, the vision will provide a blueprint for preservation of the region’s biodiversity by focusing conservation efforts on preservation and restoration of the lands and waters necessary for the full diversity of native plants and animals found in the region to thrive.
Back in 1999, Chicago Wilderness, a regional alliance of more than 200 conservation organizations, published a Biodiversity Recovery Plan for the region. It may come as a surprise, but the Chicago Wilderness geographic area is home to an amazing diversity of globally rare plants, animals and natural communities.That’s right, despite a human population of more than 8 million people, plants like the prairie white-fringed orchid, animals such as the Blanding’s turtle, and natural communities that include fens, bogs and oak savannas all survive on the planet due – at least in part – to conservation efforts in the greater Chicago region.
Part of the ecological success is due to more than 370,000 acres of land that has been preserved by local, state and federal government agencies. However, the vast majority of land in the region is owned by individuals – it always has been and always will be – and the decisions those landowners make to preserve, restore or develop their land will determine the character and environmental health of the region.
When one looks at the portion of Chicago Wilderness that is in Illinois, there is one county that stands out for the remnant natural communities that exist – and natural areas that could be restored: McHenry County.
For those who live here, that fact is no surprise. Local rivers and streams, including the Nippersink and Kishwaukee, are among the highest quality in the entire state. The local oak woods – while greatly diminished from the 1830’s – are the most substantial remaining oak woods in northeastern Illinois. A great diversity of wetlands from sedge meadows to fens and seeps are still found here. Plus, more than half of the land in the county is farmed, so many of the wetland areas that were drained for farming 80 or more years ago are still farmed today, meaning that there is an opportunity to restore those areas someday.
Private landowners have left an amazing legacy in McHenry County – in some cases by accident, in others, by design. The green infrastructure plans articulate a clear vision that all landowners, conservationists, local governments and developers can follow to ensure that the future balance between people and natural resources in McHenry County is not left to chance, but is preserved by design.
It seems that local trees have been in the news a lot this year. And it looks like the trees are often losing to "progress" or "infrastructure."
Here are just a few of the items I've heard about recently:
Utilities wanting greater power to remove trees if they think they are a potential problem.
Illinois' State Rep from Marengo introduced legislation last fall that proposed giving electric utilities the ability to remove any tree that they deemed a potential problem if it were within 20 feet of one of their power lines. If the bill had passed, utilities would have been able to remove trees on private property, and it would have been a crime for the homeowner to interfere.
My response: Okay, the whole proposal was an enormous give away to the power companies. In communities where power lines run through back yards, it could have resulted in the removal of thousands of trees, forever changing the character of communities, in addition to increasing stormwater run off and reducing property values. The reason for the legislation was to reduce prolonged power outages due to downed power lines following storms. If the utilities really wanted to reduce power outages, they would bury the lines instead of removing the trees.
IDOT taking down "hazardous" trees along their routes.
You may have noticed that quite a few trees came down this spring along Route 120 between Woodstock and McHenry, and Route 23 between Marengo and Harvard. This work was commissioned by the Illinois Department of Transportation as part of their regular maintenance. Trees in the right-of-way that were dead or leaning over the road were marked and then removed to prevent them from one-day falling on someone.
My response: IDOT is well within their rights to do this, and their intentions are good. I just wish they didn't view the trees that are located in the right of way as "their" trees, and I wish there were some requirement that the public be notified when a project like that is proposed. The trees do not belong to the state, they belong to the residents of Illinois, and it seems the public should receive some notice before our trees are removed.
Municipalities proposing to remove many large, old trees to rebuild roads, put in sidewalks and/or install stormsewers.
Recent proposals in Algonquin, along Fleming Road, and Alden Road between rural Woodstock and the Wisconsin state line, all gained public notice in large part because so many large, old trees were proposed to be removed. To some people, if a tree is located in the public right of way, and the road authority wants to widen or "improve" the road with curbs and stormsewers, those trees are just in the way.
My response: There seems to be a general lack of understanding that trees are an important part of a community's infrastructure. They reduce stormwater run-off, clean the air, enhance property values, reduce the "heat island" effect in urban and suburban areas, provide habitat for birds and insects, and are generally good for our mental and physical health and well-being. Yet, rather than factoring tree preservation in to built infrastructure plans from the beginning, it seems that road authorities and local communities view even historic trees as just something to be removed if they are in the way. While sometimes there are provisions made to plant replacement trees, a 2" diameter tree is going to take a generation or more before it provides the benefits to the community that a 150 year-old bur oak provides.
Farmers removing fence row trees and tearing off tree branches that overhang their fields, all to get a few more rows of corn.
With corn and soybean prices at record high levels, we have been seeing some really aggressive tree removal by farmers who have a strong financial incentive to plant a few more rows of corn (or beans). In several cases, entire fence rows have been removed and burned. 150+ year old oak groves have been cut down and the stumps grubbed out to open up less than an additional acre of farmland. Some farmers have even used equipment to rip the branches off of neighbors trees if those branches overhang the farm field - otherwise the ginormous equipment used these days won't fit.
My response: Back in the day, farmers wanted to have diversified operations and land holdings that typically included a wood lot to provide fire wood, timber, grazing for the cattle in summer, etc. They also left large trees in the middle of fields to provide shady spots where they could stop and have lunch during the middle of a hot summer day. Now, many farmers don't even own the land they farm, and their only goal is getting as much income off the land as possible. Besides that, the combines and planting equipment have enclosed cabs with airconditioning these days, so there is no need to sit in the shade for lunch! A family's farm was their home back in the day, so most families tried to be good stewards of the land resources to be sure the next generation would be able to make a living there too. Today, land is seen as a commodity - something to be bought and sold. Something to wring the most money from today without a thought given to the next generation.
Some highway officials believe that shade from trees damages road asphalt.
There is a rumor that has been passed along for a few years now that says tree shade damages asphalt roads because it prevents them from drying following a rain storm. So, some road departments are getting rid of the road-shading trees. In the most obnoxious cases, road agencies have removed every tree branch that is overhanging a road, severing the branches in the middle rather than pruning them back to the trunk.
My response: This is a rumor based on partial information. This is one of the most dangerous kinds of rumors, because once acted upon, it is impossible to undo the damage done. Namely, once a tree has been damaged through irresponsible cutting of limbs, or removed entirely, it is ruined or gone forever. There is a kernel of truth in the rumor, as is often the case, but it isn't the whole story. Water on asphalt does damage the road surface, so the thinking is that anything that prevents the water from leaving quickly is bad. Thus, shade from trees becomes bad since it prevents the water on roads from evaporating as quickly as it would in direct sun. What this story omits, however is that branches overhanging roads actually reduce the amount of rainfall that strikes the road. That's right, the tree leaves catch a good amount of the water, especially during a light rain, so the road actually may stay dry under the tree. The tree leaves also catch and slow the rainfall, which further reduces the direct impact of rain on asphalt. Plus, shade is only a factor on a sunny day after a rainfall. What happens when it rains at night? Trees or not, there is no sunlight hitting the road during the night. Additionally, trees only generate meaningful shade during the growing season - typically May-October in our area. That means for half of the year, shade from trees is a non-issue.
All this is a long way of saying that I wish more people would view trees as important cultural, historic, infrastructure, aesthetic and community resources, and do more to think about the ways trees contribute to our health and general well-being as a society, and stop viewing them as obstacles to be removed. In some cases they were here long before we were - and if we take care of them, they could be here long after we are gone.