On the path to recovery

Editor’s note: hello readers, Brett Peto here. Guest author Pati Vitt, Manager of Restoration Ecology at the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois, is back with the second of her three-part series about our research project to restore 180 acres of former farmland within Grant Woods Forest Preserve using a climate-adapted, regionally sourced native seed mix.

An aerial view of the 180-acre research project area at Grant Woods in Ingleside. Photo © Mike Borkowski.
An aerial view of the 180-acre research project area at Grant Woods in Ingleside. Photo © Mike Borkowski.

This winter, we planted 800 pounds of native grass seed from southern Illinois and Kentucky in Grant Woods. We hope this will help us understand whether we should source native seeds from further south to make our future restoration projects more resilient to climate change.

Native seeds from Kentucky, for example, may possess adaptations in their genes that help them better survive heat and drought than seeds from Illinois. In the years ahead, researchers will gather and assess data to determine whether one group of seeds fared better than the other.

At the same time we’re spreading seeds, grounds crews are also removing invasive trees and shrubs from hedgerows and woodlots within the project area this winter.

All of these steps require an understanding of ecosystem restoration—how we get a natural area back on the path to recovery from human activity. Pati will take the reins from here.

Guest post by Pati Vitt

Just as the COVID-19 pandemic was starting to grip the world, another global milestone was occurring: The United Nations declared 2021-2030 the “Decade of Ecosystem Restoration.” The official launch date coincides with World Environment Day on June 5, 2021. In an effort to ensure that both people and nature enjoy a sustainable future, it represents a worldwide strategy to stop and reverse habitat degradation across the planet.

According to the Society for Ecological Restoration, the gold standard result for an ecological restoration project is an ecosystem that’s on a self-organizing trajectory to full recovery from human activity. What does that mean? It means little to no human intervention or management is necessary to ensure the health and resilience of that ecosystem. However, there’s a lot of work to be done to set a degraded, or highly altered, ecosystem back on that path. When you visit a preserve and see large pieces of equipment at work, they’re usually in use with an eye toward doing just that.

The intensity and frequency of restoration work required depends where along a spectrum a particular natural area starts. An area with low impact might be something like a remnant prairie, which will require little management except for the restoration of controlled burns or the reintroduction of native grazers such as bison (Bison bison). On the other end are those lands most in need of intensive restoration, like former agricultural fields. Generally, the more altered the landscape and the more human activity present there, the more intervention is needed.

A tractor spreads native seed in a former farm field. Photo © Mike Borkowski.
A tractor spreads native seed in a former farm field. Photo © Mike Borkowski.

In the Midwest, many farm fields have been engineered to increase crop yield. This is often done by changing the original hydrology of the habitat with drain tiles, so what was once a wetland becomes cropland. Drain tiles are perforated pipes laid below the soil surface, effectively lowering the water table to encourage root growth of planted crops.

As you might guess, drain tiles are a significant alteration of the original environment. This alteration means that restoration of former agricultural lands can be quite complex. Several steps are often needed, and each step requires decision-making.

Removing drain tiles such as this one helps restore the original hydrology of a natural area. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
Removing drain tiles such as this one helps restore the original hydrology of a natural area. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

One factor to consider is how recently the area was farmed. A field that lies fallow for a long time is referred to as an “old field.” The natural process of ecological succession might push the habitat toward one dominated by native plant species that are generalists. Generalist plants can grow in many settings and aren’t very particular about habitat quality. When a farm field goes fallow, these native plants may disperse themselves into it from adjacent areas.

But invasive shrubs and trees can dominate an old field, as well. Invasive plant control can be the first step in a restoration. It may be accomplished with controlled burns, physical removal of woody invasive plants, herbicide application, or all of the above. If only herbaceous (i.e., plants with non-woody stems), invasive species are involved, you might plow the field to allow new native seed to establish rapidly. If invasive species are relatively sparse, as they might be in a newly fallow field, one strategy could be over-seeding the field with fast-growing, native grass species. Following seeding, crews would then selectively apply herbicide to reduce invasive species abundance and boost the success of the newly planted grasses.

A chainsaw operator pauses between felling invasive trees within the project area. Photo © Mike Borkowski.
A chainsaw operator pauses between felling invasive trees within the project area. Photo © Mike Borkowski.

Once those grasses are well-established, perhaps within a year or two from seed, the next step is to add herbaceous species such as goldenrods, asters and legumes to diversify the plant community. In the very early stages of a restoration—the establishment phase—continuing to control invasive species is critically important. Frequent control measures will occur for about five years as native plants become well-established. The intensity and frequency of control, though, will decrease over time.

The native seed mix spread here contains seeds sourced from southern Illinois and Kentucky. Photo © Mike Borkowski.
The native seed mix spread here contains seeds sourced from southern Illinois and Kentucky. Photo © Mike Borkowski.

Many farm fields have hedgerows that grow between them. Hedgerows may contain trees, shrubs and fences. They’re variably used to mark property ownership boundaries, control where livestock wander, or act as a windbreak. Removing hedgerows increases connections between fields and reduces habitat fragmentation. Depending upon the size of the trees, heavy equipment may be employed. One common piece of equipment called upon for this task is a skid steer with a Fecon mower attached.

A skid steer with a Fecon mower attachment shreds buckthorn and other woody invasive species in a thick hedgerow of invasive species. Photo © Mike Borkowski.
A skid steer with a Fecon mower attachment shreds buckthorn and other woody invasive species in a thick hedgerow. Photo © Mike Borkowski.

The Fecon mower attachment is ideal for shredding and mulching woody material very quickly. Large areas of invasive buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) can be removed efficiently by this tool. The skid steer may be equipped with large wheels for versatile movement, or it could have tracks that reduce damage to the soil by distributing the weight of the machine over a bigger area. An additional way to avoid damage is to limit the use of a skid steer to times of year when the soil is very dry or when the ground is completely frozen.

At Grant Woods this winter, we’re removing invasive trees and shrubs, including buckthorn, box elder (Acer negundo) and white poplar (Populus alba), often confused for birch trees. Our end goals are to open up the tree canopy to encourage oak regeneration, and to support a diverse community of native shrubs and herbaceous species beneath the oaks that remain. We’ll plant additional trees and shrubs, which will provide habitat for birds and other animals. Once the restoration is complete, the project area will be continuous habitat.

A top-down view of invasive trees cut by a chainsaw operator. Photo © Mike Borkowski.
A top-down view of invasive trees cut by a chainsaw operator. Photo © Mike Borkowski.
Invasive trees and shrubs are burned in large brush piles onsite. Photo © Mike Borkowski.
Cut invasive trees and shrubs are burned in brush piles onsite. Photo © Mike Borkowski.

As you can see, restoration projects are long-term endeavors, requiring detailed planning and execution to successfully set a natural area back on the path to recovery. Site history, current flora and fauna populations, hydrology, and more must be considered. This project at Grant Woods is no different. But it also has the added component of climate change research that’s important for the future health of Lake County’s natural areas.

Results will not reveal themselves overnight—plants take time to grow from seed, of course—but we’ll be here to document and share them as they happen. Until then, there are some simple ways to fight climate change in your daily life.

Editor’s note, part two: hi there, Brett again. There’s more to this story. Keep watch for the third and final post later this year. And learn more about this research project on our website.

Flicking through the Flickr pool

This gallery contains 10 photos.

Post by Brett Peto

You don’t need me to tell you that 2020 has been a long year. In a pandemic, separated from routines, sometimes days go slow but months go fast, and vice versa. There are fewer anchors around which to pin our schedules like so many pieces of laundry on a clothesline. Some people have started baking homemade bread, assembling model kits, binging movies and podcasts, devouring piles of books, or playing long-distance board games over Zoom. Our strategies may vary, but I think it’s helpful to have as many coping mechanisms as we can gather this year.

One adopted or continued by many folks is spending more time outdoors. Whether in yards, neighborhoods, parks, or the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois, people are discovering or rediscovering the value of nature, even as the thermometer dips. Fresh air; sunshine; wide horizons; the sounds of wind in trees and water over rocks; birds and squirrels and foxes living their private lives; the calm curiosity to find out where a trail goes and the confidence that it’s designed to go somewhere.

"Ice Ice Baby." Photo © Michelle Wendling.
“Ice Ice Baby.” Photo © Michelle Wendling.
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Growing through change

Editor’s note: hello readers, Brett Peto here. This month, we’ve opened up the floor to guest author Pati Vitt, Manager of Restoration Ecology. She’s here to discuss a recent virtual workshop we held as part of our research project to determine best seed sourcing practices for climate resiliency.

“We know that by 2050, our climate is predicted to be more like Oklahoma,” says Pati. So, we need to understand whether we should source seeds from further south to make our restoration projects more resilient to climate change. To help determine this, we’re procuring 800 pounds of native grass seed from southern Illinois and Kentucky.

This November, we’ll plant those seeds in 180 acres of former agricultural fields at Grant Woods in Ingleside. Then we’ll monitor and compare each species’ growth to seeds sourced from our area. I’ll let Pati pick it up from here.

A portion of the research project area at Grant Woods. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
A portion of the research project area at Grant Woods. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

Guest post by Pati Vitt

The natural world is changing, and we can see the evidence in increased flooding here at the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois. Other, more subtle differences include warmer winters and longer, more drought-prone summers. These changes have been gradual over the last 100 years, but will greatly affect the next hundred. In keeping with our 100-Year Vision for Lake County, we constantly review scientific literature to determine when and how we need to update our ecological management practices to ensure our preserves remain healthy and resilient to environmental changes.

One big issue that’s challenging to assess is if we, along with other conservation organizations throughout the region, need to change how we source seeds for restoration activities. As part of that assessment, we received a grant from the Wildlife Conservation Society Climate Adaptation Fund to explore how seed sourcing affects the outcomes of our restoration projects. We’ve used part of the grant support to bring together climate change scientists, restoration managers, and other stakeholders to discuss the issue.

On September 15, 2020, we hosted a virtual workshop, Growing Through Change: Sourcing Climate-Resilient Seed for Ecological Restoration, which welcomed 124 participants from across the Midwest and the broader United States, as well as Argentina, Australia, Canada, and Germany. The workshop’s purpose was to discuss the most current research, challenges, and best practices related to sourcing seed for ecological restoration while building resilience to climate change.

The workshop featured three plenary speakers and lightning talks by land managers and seed producers. Dr. Julie Etterson, professor at the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, and principal scientist at Project Baseline, was the first speaker. She highlighted her research on whether plant populations can adapt to keep pace with climate change, and whether we should restore sites with plant material that is “pre-adapted” to the climate of the future. Dr. Etterson’s research provides evidence for the value of climate-informed restoration practices.

Dr. Julie Etterson (third from left) collecting seeds with students. Photo © Julie Etterson.
Dr. Julie Etterson (third from left) collecting seeds with students. Photo © Julie Etterson.

Next, Dr. Anna Bucharova, assistant professor in the Biodiversity and Ecosystem Research Group at the Institute of Landscape Ecology, Münster presented her talk. Her research focuses on plant evolutionary ecology, specifically the challenges of using seeds for ecological restoration in a changing environment and the rapid evolution of plants in response to climate change. Dr. Bucharova dissected the effects of seed cultivation on plant genetics and evolution, and their implications for seed-based restoration in a shifting climate.

Dr. Anna Bucharova, assistant professor at the Institute of Landscape Ecology, Münster. Photo © Anna Bucharova.
Dr. Anna Bucharova, assistant professor at the Institute of Landscape Ecology, Münster. Photo © Anna Bucharova.

Jennifer Ogle, coordinator of the Arkansas Native Seed Program and collections manager at the University of Arkansas Herbarium, was the workshop’s final speaker. Her presentation highlighted the program’s work to develop regional sources of locally adapted native seed for large-scale habitat restoration and revegetation projects in Arkansas. The program is currently focused on developing demand and incentivizing the use of locally sourced native seed for agencies working in Arkansas; training volunteers to collect seed; increasing seed storage capacity; and developing sustainable ecotypes of target species.

Jennifer Ogle, coordinator of the Arkansas Native Seed Program. Photo © Jennifer Ogle.
Jennifer Ogle, coordinator of the Arkansas Native Seed Program. Photo © Jennifer Ogle.

We asked workshop attendees to participate in a pre-workshop survey designed to gather an overview of their seed sourcing policies and strategies. Participants hailed from a variety of institutions and backgrounds, and included seed producers, educators, researchers, and restoration practitioners. Most participants considered themselves both users and producers of seeds, as many institutions or groups that were represented implement restoration projects, and have native seed nurseries or active seed collection programs.

Workshop participants represented a variety of organizations. Graph © Lake County Forest Preserves.
Workshop participants represented a variety of organizations. Graph © Lake County Forest Preserves.
Most workshop participants both used and produced seeds. Graph © Lake County Forest Preserves.
Most workshop participants both used and produced seeds. Graph © Lake County Forest Preserves.

By far, most on-the-ground restoration projects undertaken by workshop participants occur in natural areas, especially in forest preserve or conservation districts, state and regional park systems, and private conservation land trusts. While the scale of restoration projects varied from one acre to more than 100 acres, the average size was 33 acres.

Workshop participants conducted their restoration projects mostly in natural areas, followed by rural agriculture and non-agriculture areas. Graph © Lake County Forest Preserves.
Workshop participants conducted their restoration projects mostly in natural areas, followed by rural agriculture and non-agriculture areas. Graph © Lake County Forest Preserves.

Most organizations have a tendency to use more than one source population in their restoration projects (67%) and to use more than one vendor or producer to source seeds for a single project (72% source from between one and three producers). Also, most organizations don’t engage in a formal competitive bid process (63%), but they do have formal guidelines or policies in place to direct their sourcing strategies (66%). However, by and large, their guidelines do not currently consider climate resilience explicitly; only 33% of respondents noted that their guidelines do consider it.

Editor’s note redux: hello, Brett again. The story doesn’t end here. This post is the first in a series of three on this topic. Keep watch through February 2021 for the second and third posts. And learn more about our research project on our website.

Milkweed. It’s not just for the monarchs.

Post by Jen Berlinghof

Being home more these past months has allowed my family copious time to observe the common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) in our garden go through its life cycle day by day. We’ve witnessed the transformation from wily little sprouts in early summer to blooming beasts, with pompoms of eraser-pink flowers wafting perfume across the yard—even threatening to take over the footpath—by Fourth of July. Now in the sweet days of September, our milkweed is laden with swelling seed pods, ready to burst with floating seeds like so many little white parachutes scattered in the autumnal sky. The situation is similar in many of the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois.

The beautiful flowerhead of common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
The beautiful flowerhead of common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
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Jack-in-the-pulpit? Or Jill?

Guest post by Pati Vitt

The weather has varied a lot so far this spring. Minor snow squalls and hailstorms trade off with wonderfully warm, sunny days, which seem to call out, encouraging us to find the signs of spring. When the season brings all the beauty and promise of plants and flowers emerging from the winter, I feel as if I am seeing friends old and new once again. It’s rather comforting to know that regardless of what occurs in human society, spring carries on in the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois.

Many of the floral signs of spring are ephemeral, created by healthy populations of plant species that only emerge above ground for six to eight weeks—between the start of the spring warm-up and the closure of the canopy, when the trees grow a full set of leaves. Their live-fast lifestyle is an evolved response to their shade intolerance. Ephemerals need to finish flowering and fruiting while they have enough sunlight, and also put something away for a rainy day. They stash the sugar they make during photosynthesis in underground storage organs such as corms, bulbs, and rhizomes. The starchy carbon will see them through the winter into the next spring.

Some residents of our woodlands and prairies announce the arrival of spring in understated ways that require careful attention. The early-flowering harbinger of spring (Erigenia bulbosa), and later bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), are two examples. Other signs of spring are exuberant and showy, such as the carpets of marsh marigold (Caltha palustris) at Ryerson Conservation Area in Riverwoods. And of course, no spring display is quite so welcome as large-flowered trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) in full bloom. (This sight is only possible when the white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) population is stable; otherwise these beautiful plants are eaten out of existence.)

Not all spring wildflowers are showy, though, and not all of them are ephemeral. Arriving later in the season, Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) is one of the most common spring wildflowers in our woodlands. It’s usually entirely green in Lake County. Rarely, some maroon stripes may also be seen on the inflorescence, the reproductive portion of the plant.

Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) is a beautiful resident of deciduous woodlands. It typically grows one to two feet tall. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) is a beautiful resident of deciduous woodlands. It typically grows one to two feet tall. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
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Here comes the Sun (Lake)

Post by Brett Peto

The sky to the west was robin’s egg blue, a clearing in the day’s dose of clouds. They had just sneezed a handful of snow, already melting. I drove with the radio off. I didn’t know whether to wear my regular hiking boots or a pair of Wellington boots I’d packed at the last moment. The trail could be soggy, or maybe not. I was on my way to Sun Lake in Lake Villa, part of the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois.

For this month, I decided to revisit the idea behind my February 2019 post, when I explored a new-to-me preserve and wrote up my observations as a virtual tour. Readers seemed to enjoy it, and I enjoyed circling another name on the map I keep at my desk. So, here I was, about a year later, ready to chronicle another tour. Find a comfy chair and a warm mug. Here’s a snapshot of Sun Lake as I saw it.

The view looking south from the parking lot at Sun Lake. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
The view looking south from the parking lot at Sun Lake. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
Always look at the trail map before you go. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
Always look at the trail map before you go. I walked the trail loop clockwise. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
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Finding the right angle

This gallery contains 10 photos.

Post by Brett Peto

I keep thinking about angles. Not the kind you measure with a protractor, but those you measure with your mind. The angle of a story, a conversation, or a project. Photography, of course, uses physical angles—where’s the camera pointed? is the sun directly overhead or is it the sweet time of golden hour?—but the best photos make you want to see even more. They make you want to break open the frame and soak in every bit of the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois.

Since it’s nearly the end of 2019, I thought I’d turn 180 degrees and peruse the photos uploaded to our group Flickr pool since January 1. Suffice to say: we’re spoiled. Spoiled with the beauty of Lake County’s flora, fauna, and natural areas, and the talent of the photographers who capture it for everyone to see. Trees and shrubs in their bright fall wardrobes on either side of a trail draining into a vanishing point. A sandhill crane (Grus canadensis) with both wings up like a paper airplane as it dashes to take off. A whirlpool of stars spun around a rich blue sky over a tranquil wetland.

I’ve gathered these moments plus seven more below, but that’s only a small taste. I encourage you to browse the rest of the visual buffet as we make the turn out of the 2010s into the 2020s. And, hey! You might become inclined to upload that shot living on your phone, camera, or computer.

"Night Moves." Photo © reddog1975.
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Go take a hike

Post by Nan Buckardt

Everyone has one! At least, anyone who regularly hikes in the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois has one: a favorite trail. It might be the trail near your home or the one that reminds you of a secret only-I-know-about-this spot growing up. Maybe it holds a special memory. Whatever the reason, something about it always sparks joy in your heart.

I’ve been thinking about trails a lot this fall as I’ve hiked those selected for this year’s Hike Lake County (HLC) program. HLC has encouraged folks for 20-plus years to explore seven of 12 designated trails between mid-August and November 30. More than 200 miles of trails thread through dozens of preserves countywide, so the diversity of choices isn’t necessarily a big surprise, but it is a big benefit to residents and visitors.

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A different kind of autumn apple

Post by Jen Berlinghof

Fall is the time of harvest here in the Midwest. Golden stacks of hay bales, farmer’s markets teeming with end-of-season produce, and above all, apples. But step away from the orchard and into an oak woodland and you’ll find a different kind of autumn apple: an oak apple gall. What looks like a small, lime-green, spotted apple dangling from an oak leaf is not a fruit at all, but rather a secret abode for a tiny wasp.

There are more than 50 species of oak apple gall wasps in North America. Each one creates a unique fruit-like structure that protects and feeds its eggs and larvae as they develop. Lately, I’ve been finding many dried, spent brown husks created by the larger empty oak apple wasp (Amphibolips quercusinanis) around the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois.

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Monitoring in the morning

Post by Brett Peto

Good things start at seven in the morning. That’s when our group of four hiked 15 minutes off-trail into the heart of Middlefork Savanna in Lake Forest, part of the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois.

The air was warm, the sunshine spread everywhere. Spiderwort blooms were freshly open, a waist-high meadow of bluish-purple fireworks. We found the steel T-post marking the start of the day’s first transect and the red flag for the first plot.

Then we gathered our tools. A one-meter-square collapsible wooden quadrat, retractable tape measure, clipboard, data sheets, and each other’s knowledge of plants.

Well, my own knowledge, not so much. I was there to take photos and observe the three experts onsite: Pati Vitt, Manager of Ecological Restoration; Ken Klick, Restoration Ecologist II; and Pete Jackson, who authored a 2009 study on this preserve’s plant communities that served as his thesis for a master’s degree program. In my head, I called them the Plant Team.

Ken stands in a field of spiderwort. Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

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