“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.
The word infrastructure brings to mind roads, power lines, sewers and other built systems that support the human population. But there is also a natural, living infrastructure that is often overlooked: “green infrastructure.”
One definition of green infrastructure is “strategically planned and managed networks of natural lands, working landscapes and other open spaces that conserve ecosystem values and functions and provide associated benefits to human populations.” (The Conservation Fund, www.greeninfrastructure.net).
While a growing number of city planners view the trees, prairies, forests, rivers, creeks and wetlands as vital parts of a community’s infrastructure, there is still some discrimination in our society when it comes to infrastructure. Specifically, those things that cost a lot to build and maintain (e.g. roads, sewers, electric grids) are often given preference over the living systems that have been here for centuries.
How often have I heard someone say: “If we want reliable electricity, then the power company needs to cut the trees”? Or how about this one: “That tree creates a hazard for drivers on the road, so needs to be removed”? Why does the conversation always seem to pit the built systems against the living ones? It’s concrete versus trees, and tile lines versus wetlands.
Fortunately, financial realities of these times are causing communities to give the living parts of infrastructure greater consideration. The City of Crystal Lake has a green infrastructure plan, the City of Woodstock is developing a plan and the McHenry County Board will soon consider a countywide vision of green infrastructure.
One reason for the growing interest in green infrastructure is that a healthy natural system makes important contributions to society while requiring minimal maintenance. Rake up some leaves, keep pollution out of the creeks, allow sufficient buffers around wetlands, and generally the living infrastructure will work just fine. And, the living infrastructure provides a multitude of services to people for generations without having to be torn up and replaced like a road.
Consider that in the course of each day, a tree helps reduce the rate of storm water run-off, cleans the air by filtering particulate matter, provides shade, adds market value to our homes, provides habitat for many birds, insects and mammals, absorbs carbon dioxide and releases oxygen.
Won’t it be wonderful one day when all infrastructure is treated equally?
There are several efforts nearing completion to define Green Infrastructure in McHenry County as well as the region.
The McHenry County Department of Planning is creating a Green Infrastructure Plan for the County. The plan’s main goal is to describe a desired network of interconnected natural lands along with appropriate buffers to help reduce future land use conflicts between people and the essential natural connections. The plan also will offer policy recommendations to support the network. After several months of working with many conservation professionals, municipal park managers, and trail planners from throughout the area, the plan is nearing completion. Please check the Department’s website for the latest information. http://www.co.mchenry.il.us/departments/planninganddevelopment/Pages/GreenInfrastructure.aspx
Chicago Wilderness is set to release a Green Infrastructure Vision for northeastern Illinois as 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.
Millions of small miracles happen this time of the year, as pollinated flowers transform into seeds. Seeds that will feed birds and wildlife throughout the winter as well as seeds that will lie dormant on the ground until next spring when they emerge as a new generation of plants.
Seeds are being produced – large and small – as part of the lifecycle of the plant world. Plants spend much of the rest of the growing season preparing for reproduction. Flowers bloom to attract insects and birds that are necessary for pollination. Pollination is how plants reproduce – insects, birds or the wind move pollen (male gametes, aka sperm) from one part of a plant to the female part of the plant (female gametes, or eggs), resulting in fertilization and the production of seeds (potential future plants).
I'm thinking about getting some turtle crossing signs to put up along Dean Street in Woodstock, asking people to slow down and yield to these little fellas!
Last week we saw a painted turtle that had been run over right in the middle of the road. And yesterday, I saw a very large snapping turtle that had just made it (safely) across the road.
There are wetlands in the back of properties on the east side of Dean Street, and in the front of properties on the west side of the road.
Did you hear the sound of a thumb raking over the teeth of a comb while on a recent hike? That's the Western Chorus Frog. The first frog to emerge when the ground thaws.
They are very loud near some wetlands in our area, particularly in the Alden region where small, fishless ponds (vernal pools) abound this time of the year. A diversity of tiny creatures, such as the fairy shrimp (photo to the right), are found in abundance, providing a valuable food source for the recently emerged amphibians, as well as the hatchling salamanders, frogs, toads and turtles.
In larger ponds - those with fish - these small creatures do not survive, as they become food for the fish. But, in the small temporary pools of spring, the young amphibians are able to mature, feed on mosquito larvae, and breed so there will be future generations!
If you live near one of these spring pools, be on the lookout for spotted salamanders! They have a tendency to end up in window wells - the three on the left were rescued from one during a spring hike to look at vernal pools and the critters found there!