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Conservation group works to expand diminishing oak groves

Maryanne Natarajan Grayslake member Conserve Lake County fastens fence around young oak sapling so it can't be eaten or rubbed

Maryanne Natarajan of Grayslake, a member of Conserve Lake County, fastens a fence around a young oak sapling so it can't be eaten or rubbed against by deer.| Frank Abderholden/Sun-Times Media

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Updated: December 24, 2013 3:26AM

It may take awhile, but there’s a movement to try and enhance and expand the oak groves that used to dominate Lake County’s forests before European settlers arrived, which kicked off the loss of about 88 percent of the oak acreage.

This week, members of Graysake-based conservation group Conserve Lake County were at Camp Henry Horner in Ingleside to plant 66 saplings that were paid for through a grant from the United States Forest Service. They planted the trees near the baseball and soccer playing fields at the camp, but also situated halfway between two old established oak groves on the 180-acre parcel adjacent to Wooster Lake.

“It’s a gift,” said Nils Swanson, caretaker of the camp. He and his crew helped to make fast work of the planting by using an auger to dig the holes for the saplings, most three to four feet high. “What do they say? You don’t look a gift horse in the mouth,” he said with a laugh.

“This restoration is tying together ecosystems and creating a space for future generations to enjoy,” he said. “What’s that saying about a wise man plants trees for others? (‘He plants trees to benefit another generation,’ Caecilius Statius, Synephebi, a Roman comic poet.) That’s what we are doing,” said Swanson, adding that the camp originally was created to give city kids a chance to rub elbows with nature by the Jewish Council for Youth Services. Part of the camp is designated as Illinois Acres for Wildlife.

Sarah Surroz, spokesman for Conserve Lake County, explained that back in 1830 there was an estimated 187,019 acres of oaks in Lake County and in 2010 there were 23,124. The estimates were made using soil maps, satellite images and old maps and notes from some of the first surveyors in the area by the Lake County Forest Preserve District and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.

Both Lake and McHenry counties have made maps showing the shrinkage of the oak ecosystem and other counties are working to do the same. Now there is an effort to bring the oaks back. “We have a lot of old oaks, but no young ones,” said Surroz.

“There are 17 groups throughout the Chicago region who are working on the oak recovery program,” she said, like Open Lands (the group’s Treekeepers received a $500,000 grant from The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to plant 5,000 trees between now and the end of 2015 in Chicago as part of their Urban Forestry Initiative) and Chicago Wilderness, a regional alliance of 260 organizations.

The Lake County Forest Preserve has embarked on a canopy thinning effort through the Southern Des Plaines River Preserves Habitat Restoration project that includes almost $1.8 million in restoration projects for the Southern Des Plaines River Preserves that include Ryerson Conservation Area, Daniel Wright Woods, MacArthur Woods, Lloyds Woods, Grainger Woods, Captain Daniel Wright Woods and Cahokia Flatwoods. Five of these six sites are Dedicated Nature Preserves by the state and are considered to be some of the highest quality natural areas in the district.

This winter tree removal and thinning the understory will allow enough sunlight to reach oak seedlings and saplings at three preserves: Grainger Woods, MacArthur Woods, and the section of Captain Daniel Wright Woods adjacent to Elm Road.

The district has partnered with Chicago Wilderness, Illinois Nature Preserves Commission, Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Morton Arboretum, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Chicago Botanic Garden, Illinois Natural History Survey and Lincoln Park Zoo to help monitor plants, animals and environmental conditions to evaluate success of this project.

“It’s the ecosystem we are trying to help. The oaks used to dominate, it was a keystone species, and they have a significant impact on the other plants, birds and butterflies,” said Surroz. Research has shown that native oak trees provide leaf forage for 534 species of caterpillars (native moths and butterflies), which provide nutritious food for a host of bird species. The acorns from an oak are essential for a number of wildlife species to make it through the winter.

Conserve Lake County has planted hundreds of saplings on two other properties in the county. In Ingleside, they planted 60 oaks (four species) and four shag bark hickory.

An example of the oak’s importance can be seen in the warbler. Surroz explained that warblers time their migration in the spring for the budding of oak leaves because the young leaves attract insects they eat. As the leaves grow, they are less appetizing to the bugs. Once grown, it provides a habitat for a number of species, and when an oak dies, it provides habitat for owls, raccoons and other cavity nesters. Once it falls, it becomes habitat for salamanders, frogs and toads.

“Even in death they provide an ecosystem,” she said.

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