Wandering the trails at Ryerson Woods you may feel as if you’re exploring forests far from the Chicago suburbs. This oak woodland is home to some remnants of our region’s ecological past and it’s a great place to spend the day outside.
Located on the banks of the Des Plaines River in southern Lake County, the Edward L. Ryerson Conservation Area is 565-acre preserve managed by the Lake County Forest Preserves. Ryerson Woods supports some of Illinois’ most pristine woodlands and several state threatened and endangered species. Two rare ecosystems — flatwoods and a floodplain forest — can be found here. Much of Ryerson Woods has been protected as an Illinois Nature Preserve.
Ryerson Woods makes a great day-trip for outdoor enthusiasts. The trails are well maintained and the area is pretty flat, so it won’t be your most strenuous hike, but there’s plenty to enjoy. And part of the beauty of Ryerson comes from its year-round accessibility: the trails are open to cross-country skiing in the winter (when there’s at least 4″ of snow) and it’s treasure to see in late October as the leaves turn. If you’re looking for somewhere new to explore or even if you’ve been before, make sure it’s on your list of places to get outside in our region.
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 email@example.com.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
In the west of Lake County lies one of Illinois’ unique wetland communities, Volo Bog. Managed by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Volo Bog State Natural Area contains a few trails for you to explore including a half-mile interpretative boardwalk and an approximately three-mile trail with views of the tamarck forests. In 1970, Volo Bog was designated as an Illinois Nature Preserve and in 1972 as a National Natural Landmark.
Over 10,000 years ago, during the end of the last Ice Age, a chuck of retreating glacial ice lodged itself deep in the ground at what is now Volo Bog. Several thousand years later the remnant lake began to fill with salt and vegetation, creating the wetlands present today. Volo Bog is technically known as a quaking bog because vegetation floats atop the open water. Yes, all the surrounding plant life and trees in the picture above are floating. Over time, the absence of waves will allow the plant life to slowly expand further onto the water, eventually covering the entire site.
As you explore this natural area, you’ll quickly transition between several types of habitats, including tamarack forests, marshlands, and shrublands. If you’re a photographer or just an avid Instagrammer, bring your camera or phone and share what you find at Volo Bog! Tag your Instagram posts with #DiscoverYourPlace to be featured on our stream and please share with us the highlights from your adventure.
Earth Day is celebrated on April 22, but there are celebrations taking place all weekend long. We want to share some ways you can enjoy and protect the planet! Below is a list of just a few places where you can get involved, spend some time outside, and enjoy the nature around you throughout the Chicago area.
As a follow-up to last year’s March for Science, head to the Field Museum to Speak Up For Science. This is the follow-up action to last year’s March for Science. Come meet scientists, learn about concrete ways you can fight for the planet, share your voice with legislators through a postcard-writing campaign, explore the Field Museum, and more! Learn more.
Friends of the Parks is organizing their 29th Annual Earth Day Parks and Preserves Clean-Up. All morning long, volunteers will be out caring for the parks and green spaces of Chicago. Learn more.
DuPage Forest Preserves are hosting several history hikes, site tours, and restoration workdays at Churchill Woods, West Chicago Prairie, and Mayslake. See the full list.
Lake County Forest Preserve District is also hosting a number of restoration workdays at sites across the county. Learn more.
Sunday, April 22
Forest Preserves of Cook County will host a series of Earth Day events including special celebrations, bird hikes at LaBagh Woods and Sagawau Environmental Learning Center, wildflower hikes, canoe trips, volunteer restoration projects, and more. Check out their full list.
At the Morton Arboretum, unleash your inner champion as you run a 10k through a springtime morning surrounded by trees from around the world. The challenging course follows the Arboretum’s east side main route through rolling terrain. Learn more.
Situated in the heart of Chicago’s north side is a peaceful retreat from the bustle of city life. North Park Village Nature Center is a 46-acre natural area and education resource, offering multiple recreation opportunities and a variety of programming from the Chicago Park District.
The nature center is a great snapshot of Illinois’ native landscapes. Here you can wander through wetlands and tallgrass, forests, prairies, and even an oak savanna. The change in ecosystems is plainly apparent as you follow the trail, and the interpretive signage throughout makes North Park Village Nature Center a superb educational resource. Check it out for hiking and walking, birding, or a short field trip with your family!
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.
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.
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.
Have you tried enjoying the outdoors along a long-distance trail yet? Our region’s recreation trails are among the easiest ways to enjoy the area’s natural landscapes. Find peace and solitude or share an experience with family and friends while you run, walk, bike, or hike in natural serenity!
One of the region’s best known trails is the Salt Creek Greenway Trail, which spans two counties of forest preserves, offers access to the Salt Creek Water Trails, and provides excellent wildlife viewing opportunities.
Spanning 25 miles from Busse Woods in Elk Grove Village to the Brookfield Zoo, the Salt Creek Greenway Trail connects 12 communities and over 300,000 residents overall. The Salt Creek Greenway includes both a paved land trail and the water trail, the latter of which is featured in our Paddle Illinois Water Trails guide. Both trails connect through the Forest Preserves of Cook County as well as the DuPage Forest Preserves.
Whether by land or on the water, you will pass under shaded canopies, through open prairies and savanna, and through protected Illinois nature preserves along the Salt Creek Greenway Trail.
Last winter, Openlands promised to keep you, our constituents and supporters, up-to-date on news and policy proposals impacting conservation in our region. Conservation issues remain in the headlines and in the forefront of political discussions, and below we have updates on issues from transportation to clean water, how these issues are unfolding, and how you can help.
First, recognize what we have accomplished: all signs suggest that your advocacy for the Great Lakes was a success, as funding has been included in federal budget proposals for the next fiscal year. That means $300 million will still support regional and international efforts to clean, restore, and protect the Great Lakes. We expect a congressional vote on a federal budget in December, but it may come sooner — we will alert you to any actions impacting conservation.
And while the White House, the EPA, and the Department of the Interior may be dominating the headlines, state-wide and local decisions are impacting our environment on a daily basis.
Regionally, Openlands, along with our conservation partners, local farmers, and farm organizations, helped to defeat a transportation proposal which would have threatened the vitality of clean water resources, natural areas like Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, and precious farmland in our region. In late August, the federal Surface Transportation Board rejected a plan from Great Lake Basin Transportation, Inc. to build a 261-mile railway line that neglected to consider the region’s existing plans for sustainable growth. Openlands believes transportation and infrastructure projects should not jeopardize our natural resources — and this proposal plainly ignored the negative impacts on the environment.
In Will County, Openlands is advocating at all levels for growth to complement and enhance Midewin and surrounding natural and agricultural landscapes. Our ongoing efforts to support Midewin include advocating for smart growth in the area. For instance, Openlands and our partners worked with Will County to adopt a freight plan that calls for consciously locating roads and development to preserve the natural and agricultural heritage in the Midewin area.
The devastation wrought by hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria has given new urgency to our projects to control stormwater and to reduce urban flooding. We are moving forward with solutions to make our region more resilient in order to face a changing climate. For example, our ecological restoration projects and our Space to Grow partnership aim to manage stormwater more effectively. Flooding this past July in McHenry, Kane, and Lake counties—only the most recent flooding event here—are but a glimpse of what we may face as climate change makes storms larger and more unpredictable. The catastrophic flooding in Houston caused by Hurricane Harvey underscored the human and ecological devastation that occurs when massive amounts of rain fall within a limited period of time on a major metropolitan area.
We have also been working with several aldermen in Chicago to form an Urban Forestry Advisory Board. Trees shade nearly 17% of Chicago, and convey a wide range of economic, social, and environmental benefits to residents. However, Chicago’s urban forest faces a growing list of threats — both natural, like the Emerald Ash Borer, and those human-made, such as lax enforcement of tree protection laws. This advisory board will convene public and private stakeholders to brainstorm and implement workable solutions to Chicago’s most pressing forestry problems. We are aiming to introduce a City Council ordinance soon, and we will need your support to help it pass.
Openlands has kept a very close eye on the planning for the future of Chicago’s Jackson Park. We have advocated for an update to the 1999 plan for Chicago’s south parks, and we are pleased that an update is being prepared. All summer, however, the Chicago Park District promised more specific information on the future of these parks, yet at the most recent public meetings, we were once again given nothing new and were told everything is preliminary. Without data, the Park District, nor the city, nor its residents can make informed decisions about our parks.
In the Forest Preserves of Cook County, Openlands has been assisting in the implementation of the Next Century Conservation Plan, which aims to protect an additional 20,000 acres and restore 30,000 acres. Openlands has contributed research that identifies sources of political support among Cook County residents and which documents the overwhelming financial benefits of restoring natural areas in the Forest Preserves. We have recently completed the restoration of Deer Grove East, and we continue to work in partnership with the county board to support funding for some of Cook County’s most beloved places to get outside.
From our founding, Openlands has worked to connect people to nature. These are the issues we are keeping an eye on at the moment, and we know that with your engagement, we can succeed. Openlands remains committed to building community at the local level through education, empowerment, and access to nature. We remain committed to inclusion, public participation in decision making, and science-based actions. And we remain committed to protecting open spaces and natural resources for generations to come. We promise to continue updating you as policy issues impact our region and on ways to make your voice heard.
Founded in 1963, Openlands protects the natural and open spaces of northeastern Illinois and the surrounding region to ensure cleaner air and water, protect natural habitats and wildlife, and help balance and enrich our lives.