Staring in December 2014, the Forest Preserves of Cook County will begin a new phase of work this month to restore 259 acres of forest preserve land near northwest suburban Wheeling. Contractors will remove a large number of trees from the Portwine, Dam #1 Woods and Willow-Sanders properties, which stretch from Willow Road in the south to Lake-Cook Road in the north. The project began last winter with smaller-scale, targeted brush clearing in more sensitive areas. This next phase will be more dramatic.
Many of the trees being removed are invasive species that encroached on previously open land in the absence of fire. Others were planted in the middle of the last century, when conservation efforts were biased toward preserving forested landscapes. As the field of conservation has evolved, however, scientists have come to understand the critical role of grasslands and other open environments in preserving our region’s complete biodiversity.
The major restoration push will continue through the winter, and aims to restore habitat for plants and animals native to our prairies and woodlands. Removing trees will increase the amount of sunlight that reaches the ground, encouraging the growth of grasses, sedges and wildflowers. These will provide food and shelter to a greater diversity of wildlife, as well as reducing soil erosion. In some areas, the work will leave selected trees in place, creating savanna and providing a buffer from street traffic.
“You may be using the Des Plaines Trail or driving down Dundee Road and see heavy equipment at work,” said Forest Preserves chief ecologist Chip O’Leary. “Some parts of the landscape may look fairly bare for a while. But give them a season or two, and they will rebound very well with grasses and wildflowers. By enlarging existing meadow clearings, this landscape will function much better as habitat for lots of creatures. It’ll also improve as a place to hike and explore.”
The restoration work this winter will cost $500,000, and is being paid for with wetland mitigation funds from the Illinois Tollway Authority. Also, for the first time, the Forest Preserves will be using most of the wood removed for restoration to produce lumber and firewood. (It is typically either burned or chipped onsite.) This will save approximately $235,000 over the course of the project.
“This project reflects our commitment to restoring natural landscapes through collaboration and leveraging of public dollars,” said Forest Preserves General Superintendent Arnold Randall.
The work is being done during the winter, when plants are dormant and the ground is frozen and less subject to compaction. The Des Plaines River Trail will remain open during the project.