Helping Restore the Tree Canopy at Indian Ridge Marsh

On the chilly morning of Saturday, October 13, Openlands teamed-up with partners on Chicago’s Southeast Side for a tree planting at Indian Ridge Marsh. Joining us at the planting were team members from the Student Conservation Association (SCA), Audubon Great Lakes, the Chicago Park District, The Wetlands Initiative (TWI), and the U Chicago Lab School.

Indian Ridge Marsh is a 154-acre native marsh and wet prairie habitat in the Calumet region. It sits as part of an extraordinary network of adjacent natural areas on the Southeast Side including Wolf Lake, the Calumet River, Big Marsh, and Lake Calumet. The Calumet Wetlands Working Group — which includes The Wetlands Institute, the Chicago Park District, and Audubon Great Lakes — has been restoring Indian Ridge Marsh since 2016 as part of an important conservation effort that will inform restoration and management of remnant wetland sites across the Calumet area.

Healthy and stewarded natural areas are part of the green mosaic of vibrant, resilient urban environments. They help clean our air, manage stormwater, house our region’s biodiversity, and provide a place of respite from our hectic urban centers. Due to pressure of invasive species, climate change, and development, it is essential to actively manage these open spaces, with native tree planting as a key component.

Volunteers spent their morning planting trees and shrubs in the natural areas at Indian Ridge Marsh. We planted bur oaks, swamp white oaks, and hop-hornbeam, as well as hazelnut trees, hackberry trees, dogwoods, and more! The morning was organized as part of the Openlands TreePlanters Grants program, which provides communities in Chicago and southern Cook County plant new trees in their neighborhood.

“A big thank you to our partners at the Park District, SCA, TWI, Audubon Great Lakes, and Lab School for providing crews, equipment, knowledge, and enthusiasm to plant these trees,” said Michael Dugan, Openlands Director of Forestry. “This was truly a collaborative effort of conservation organizations, stewards, and volunteers in our city and region.”

You can check out our photos from the community tree planting below. If you’re interested in volunteering with Openlands tree planting program, check out our upcoming events here. Our applications for the Spring 2019 TreePlanters Grants will open in January. For more information, please contact trees@openlands.org.


Getting Rid of the Walls of Buckthorn

If you’ve been outside to a natural area of pretty much any size in Illinois, chances are you’ve seen it: walls of a shrubby plant completely blocking off trees, plants, and flowers and overrunning woodland areas. This is common buckthorn and it’s our region’s most destructive invasive plant.

Common buckthorn is not a species native to the Midwest. It was first brought to North America by European settlers to use as hedging material. While they quickly realized it spread rampantly, it was too late, and buckthorn was unleashed on the land.

Buckthorn forms its leaves early in the spring and keeps them late into the fall, creating dense layer of shade that helps it out-compete native plants. It can be so prevalent in woodlands and forests that it will completely replace existing understory plants, like native wildflowers. It exudes a chemical that harms frogs and toads, it wipes out beneficial soil life, and it leads to erosion.

Buckthorn is a major problem and it has spread to far too many gardens and yards, so it should be removed wherever possible. So let’s get started with some tips.


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Making the Right Identification

Buckthorn is easily identifiable, especially later in the fall, as its leaves stay green after most trees have lost their leaves for the season. Buckthorn’s simple leaves are elliptical in shape, about three inches long, and have veins that curve toward the tip.

Twigs often have thorny projections toward the tips, hence the common name. Cut buckthorn branches reveal the species’ yellow sapwood and orange heartwood, which is a useful way to confirm its identification.

Buckthorn’s habit varies from a small tree to 25 feet in height, to a shorter, broader shrub. It often grows in thick stands in the understory, crowding out other species and thus diminishing area diversity. It is very shade-tolerant, which also helps buckthorn out-compete native shrubs and tree saplings. Buckthorn also readily re-sprouts when cut, making it difficult to remove. Birds will the dark fruit, which contributes to its pervasiveness.

Many desirable native shrubs can be confused with buckthorn including American plum, black chokeberry, hawthorn and nannyberry. The easiest time of year for identification is late autumn, when native shrubs have lost their leaves but buckthorn remains full of green leaves.

Photo: Gary Fewless via Wisconsin Wetlands Association

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Removing Buckthorn Properly

Take a moment to size up your population of buckthorn on your property: where is its heart and in which direction is it spreading? It’s usually helpful to work from the least-infested area toward the most-infested area, but if you’re protecting a high-quality area, such as a stand of oak trees, work from there outward.

Hand-pull small plants when soil is damp. An advantage of hand-pulling is that it removes the roots, which reduces resprouting. Use a Pullerbear, Extractigator or similar tool for stems up to 2 inches. Cut larger stems and trunks with a loppers, hand
saw or, when necessary, chainsaw. You’ll want to protect your body with goggles, thick gloves, sturdy boots, etc.

Herbicide immediately and very carefully after cutting. Choose the right herbicide for the setting and time of year, and follow all label instructions. Apply carefully to the stump with a disposable paint brush. With large infestations, adding a dye to the herbicide will help you keep track of which stems were treated. And if you do use herbicides, don’t let it touch any plants you want to keep.

Be sure you have a plan for disposing of the waste, too, whether that’s burning or chipping. In general, it is best to leave noxious weeds like buckthorn on-site. Even dead plants can spread seeds. If chipping or burning aren’t an option, contact yard waste facilities to see if they accept noxious weeds.

One last tip: talk to your neighbors. For one, you may want to mention why you’re cutting brush, and chances are they’ll have buckthorn on their property too. If all the neighbors are removing it from their property, everyone has a better chance of success. Plus, you can team-up on neighborhood workdays and many hands will make light work.


Planting an Alternative

It’s understandable that you may want to keep a sense a privacy around your home. Luckily, there are several native species you can plant that will provide similar aesthetic features and provide brilliant fall colors while giving a better home to birds and wildlife.

We recommend the following buckthorn alternatives:

  • Hazelnut or filbert (Corylus americana)
  • Spicebush (Lindera benzion)
  • Ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius)
  • Nannyberry viburnum (Viburnum lentago)
  • Blackhaw viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium)
Photos via Possibility Place Nursery and John Raithel

Getting the Help You Need

This might sound like a lot of work. In some cases, it certainly can be, but you’re making an important commitment to nature and the environment. To keep big jobs from overwhelming you, simply draw an imaginary “line in the sand,” and pledge to remove any buckthorn that crosses the line. Another option is waiting until winter when plants are dormant and soils are frozen. This will keep you from trampling any flowers or plant life you do want on your property.

If you’re unsure what you’re looking at, Openlands can help. Through the Conservation@Home program, you can spend a hour walking your land with one of our expert ecologists who will help identify the natural features on your property, assess tactics for controlling invasives like buckthorn, and recommend ways to implement conservation-friendly practices. Learn more about the program and sign up now for a free property consultation.

Advocating for Chicago’s Trees, Block by Block

In 2016, TreeKeeper Ed Zimkus noticed something peculiar happening to the trees on his block. Ed lives in West Edgewater, a typical Chicago neighborhood with countless tree-lined streets, but even when Ed became a certified TreeKeeper, he never expected to find himself in a fight to save all 13 trees on one side of the block. The following was written by TreeKeeper Ed.


It started in 2016, when I discovered spray-painted magenta dots at the base of many of our block’s parkway trees. The dots continued for a couple of blocks and around the corner. I had no luck in getting answers from the ward office about who sprayed the dots or what they meant. No one seemed to know. I let it ride until this March, when I became alarmed at the spray-painted green stripe running down the middle of our parkway the length of the block. A couple of trees – both of them healthy – had big green X’s on the trunks. It didn’t look good.

Eventually I learned that the Chicago Department of Water Management is in the midst of a 10-year program to replace century-old water mains all across the city. Their goal is to replace 30 miles of water mains a year. It’s a huge, expensive undertaking, and who can argue with updating the city infrastructure? If a couple of our parkway trees were going to be collateral damage, my main concern was minimizing the root damage to the remaining trees on the block. I emailed the Ward Office asking that someone from the Bureau of Forestry be consulted to help protect the remaining trees, as I had learned from the TreeKeepers training. Yet I heard nothing back until the Department of Water Management returned to our block a few weeks later. This time they marked a big green X on every single parkway tree. The supposed final word is that the devastating result of a new water main is going to be zero trees on our side of the block. No shade. No birds. No beauty.


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In Chicago, trees marked with a dot typically mean they’ve been recently inventoried, but you certainly want to pay attention and get in touch with Openlands.

As a home-owner and tree lover, I couldn’t give up so easily. The more I talked to neighbors and my Openlands connections, the more I got swept up in an activist role. I’m learning as I go, with the outcome still in question, but if trees in your neighborhood become threatened, this much I can share:

There’s Strength in Numbers: Rally your neighbors to email or phone your Alderman. You can’t stop the construction, but say you want them to explore every option to save as many trees as possible. I dropped off flyers on porches and posted on our neighborhood website, and the response was quite positive. This prompted our alderman to forward a letter from the water department commissioner to everyone who expressed concern.

The water commissioner said there was nothing to be done, and unfortunately the trees had to go. However, I knew enough from talking to my contacts that there are options. This led to me drafting a petition asking for a meeting with the alderman, representatives from the Chicago Department of Water Management, the Bureau of Forestry, and residents all present – preferably on site. With so much to lose, we wanted to have all our questions answered before the trees are taken down.

Start gathering knowledge and taking pictures: Document whatever helps your case. Many neighbors take their parkway trees for granted, so be sure to remind them what they stand to lose unless they speak up. Your neighborhood trees have real value as property assets. Trees sequester and store carbon by absorbing CO2, they soak up rainwater to reduce flooding, and reduce the “heat island” effect in neighborhoods, and mature trees won’t be replaced for decades. Learn whatever you can about the options. (For instance, I’m trying to find out how wide a water main trench has to be.)

Understand it’s all about money: The water main upgrade is so big, subcontractors outside of the city are being contracted, with low bids getting the job. The faster they make it go, the more money they make. They’re not really worried about our parkway trees. Make a monetary case for the value of the trees as property assets. Removing and replacing decades-old trees is expensive. Imagine the change in cooling costs to your home. Ask about the cost of any construction options that might save the trees. (In our case, I want to know why the new water main can’t be in the street instead of the parkway, like it is throughout most of the city. Aren’t they just perpetuating the planting and removal of parkway trees with every future pipe issue?) Let them come back to you with costs. Don’t be inflexible or angry, or you risk alienating your alderman, who may want to find a solution for all. But make noise. The city departments and contractors are all counting on apathy to make their jobs easier.

Finally, know that there is a chance we may not win, but losing is certain if we don’t speak up.


Openlands Forestry team has planted more than 4,500 trees across the Chicago region since 2013. With the help of our TreeKeepers volunteers, we are the active stewards of Chicago’s urban forest. If you are concerned about tree removals in your neighborhood, please contact TreeKeepers@Openlands.org.

Oak Ecosystems in the Chicago Wilderness Region

Maybe you know them from walking through your favorite forest preserve or from raking their leaves in the fall. Maybe you know them from memories of picnics beneath their shade, from playing under one in your neighborhood park, or from collecting and investigating their acorns as a kid just because you were curious. Oak trees are something many of us remember and cherish, and they are a towering icon across our landscapes.

Often referred to as the “king of trees,” oaks play a vital ecological role wherever they grow. Historically, oaks were dominant trees in the great wilderness of the American frontier — forests covered a million square miles of North America east of the Mississippi River at the time of European settlement.

But as the United States expanded westward in the 1800s, these great forests were cleared for their resources. By the turn of the century, the majority of the “old growth” forest in Illinois had been logged, and much of the original forest land was converted to towns, cities, and agriculture. In those places, “second growth” forests grew on the leftover land.

Though large portions of oak ecosystems have been cleared or depleted, Openlands has worked to preserve the remaining oaks in our area through restoration, preservation, and replanting.


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Foundations of a Landscape

Oak ecosystems, both woodlands and savannas, support high biodiversity because they are heterogeneous environments. Their open canopies create highly variable light levels and foster variability in soil moisture, pH, potassium, and organic matter. This heterogeneity allows numerous plants and animal species to find niches within the ecosystem. Yet you may be asking yourself, what does any of that mean?

It means that oak trees are important, and that they are keystone species in the Chicago Wilderness region. As a keystone species, they are essential to the foundations of an ecosystem due to the influence they exert on other wildlife in a given ecosystem. Managing and stewarding the health a keystone species, therefore, holds positive effects for the surrounding ecosystem.

For example, oaks provide a home to birds and insects, as well as food for numerous mammals. Further, the canopy of a healthy oak ecosystem has evolved to encourage the growth of native species at the surface level. If we focus our resources to conserve our oak trees, we can exert indirect, yet positive outcomes on the surrounding landscapes and habitats.

Over 250 species of birds migrate through our region during spring and fall migration seasons, and many of these birds prefer oaks over other native tree species. The variety of tall trees and small shrubs that grow in oak ecosystems provide essential stopover habitat for these birds as they travel across North America.

And the benefits extend beyond helping other wildlife. As a large, long-lived species, oaks are especially useful for climate mitigation via long-term carbon storage. Their vast canopies produce shade, which reduces urban heat island effects and can also reduce energy use in buildings, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions. As our climate continues to change and storms become more intense, we face an increased need to better capture rain water and prevent flooding, and trees function as natural water storage systems.

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How You Can Help

For all of these reasons, restoration and management of oak-dominated ecosystems is an essential goal in promoting biodiversity and managing wildlife in the Chicago region, but the conservation community needs your help to protect these delicate ecosystems.

There are several regional tree care programs you can join and support, including Openlands TreeKeepers®. As a TreeKeeper, you will assist Openlands in the care of Chicago’s urban forest and oak tree population, you can adopt trees in the City of Chicago, and you can take a leadership role in caring for Chicago’s parks (and their respective trees).

You can also join us at one of our community tree plantings or you can volunteer with your county’s forest preserve district to assist with restoration of natural areas. For instance, the McHenry County Conservation District has made oak ecosystem recovery a central aspect of their Natural Areas Protection Plan. Additionally, the Chicago Region Trees Initiative, a coalition dedicated to improving the health of our region’s forests, lists numerous ways to get involved with caring for trees.

If you’re looking for other ways to explore oak ecosystems in the region, there are several places you can start. At the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve, many original remnants of oak woodland can still be found within the Preserve’s boundaries. Deer Grove Forest Preserve in suburban Palatine is home to a variety of ecosystems including some spectacular oak trees. You can also visit Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge to see some of the most impressive oak savannas for yourself.

For more information on oak ecosystems in the Chicago Region, see this report from Chicago Wilderness.


Openlands Forestry team has planted more than 4,000 trees across Chicago in the last four years. With the help of our TreeKeepers volunteers, we are the active stewards of Chicago’s urban forest.

Openlands Director of Regional Forestry Accepted into Civic Leadership Academy

Daniella Pereira, Openlands’ Director of Regional Forestry, has been accepted into the 2017 class of the Civic Leadership Academy at the University of Chicago. Pereira’s acceptance into the program serves as recognition of her expertise in forestry and her substantial work to connect residents of Chicago to their urban forest. Through education and engagement, Pereira hopes to raise greater awareness of the conservation issues that face our region.

“My personal goal is to connect more urban people to appreciating and stewarding green spaces in their communities,” says Pereira. “Unless a child is introduced to nature when they are young, it is difficult to appreciate nature, let alone advocate for it.”

Having joined Openlands in 2013, Daniella oversees the sustainable expansion of our Forestry programs, creates and strengthens strategic partnerships, collaborates on urban forestry policy both locally and with the State’s Urban Forestry Committee, and leads Openlands’ role in the Chicago Region Trees Initiative.


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The Civic Leadership Academy is an interdisciplinary leadership development program for emerging and high-potential leaders in nonprofit organizations and local government agencies within the City of Chicago and Cook County. The highly selective program, which accepted only 30 of 150 applicants in 2017, is designed to develop a pipeline of talented leaders to help nonprofits and government agencies thrive. Pereira’s involvement with the program will examine the best ways to engage local leaders with residents and how to best leverage the city’s resources in care of the urban forest.

“If people find value in being outside, they will be open to stewarding green space as part of their civic duty,” adds Pereira. “The conduit that I would like to make is giving missed outdoor opportunities to adults by creating positive environmental policy that stimulates good-paying, green jobs and training. Investing in people can connect them to valuing nature.”

Learn more about Openlands urban forestry work.