Another Restoration Blitz at Wolf Road Prairie

At the beginning of the year, Jack Pizzo, Pizzo & Associates Ltd. and Salt Creek Greenway Association board member, contacted representatives from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Forest Preserve District of Cook County and the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission regarding ecological conditions at Wolf Road Prairie. He was disturbed to see acres of the preserve being overgrown with buckthorn and wanted to donate equipment and manpower for a workday at Wolf Road Prairie in late February to help remedy the problem.

"I have been coming to Wolf Road Prairie for nearly two decades, and I became alarmed that in the past few years, buckthorn thickets were taking over the grassland and turning it into a forest of brush. It was time for a new approach to effectively manage the preserve involving landowners, stakeholders and the private sector," Jack said.

Jack's plan for a one day restoration workday turned out to be a five day restoration blitz extending from February 16th through February 20th. Following a meeting of landowners and partners, a work schedule was agreed upon and work areas and responsibilities were assigned. The restoration blitz involved the best natural resource professionals in the region.

Participating in the blitz were Dan Kirk and Bryan Eubanks with Illinois Department of Natural Resources; Kim Roman and Steven Byers with Illinois Nature Preserves Commission and John McCabe, Bryan Doerr and Brenda Occhiuzzo with the Forest Preserve District of Cook County. Staff with Pizzo & Associates, Ltd. included Jack Pizzo, Nick Fuller, Nick Zaluzec and Mike Bradtke.

The effort on February 16 focused on eliminating the woody brush that was threatening to shade the prairie out of existence and focused on an area of brush located just south of the wetland in the northern half of Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve. Pizzo & Associates provided a Caterpillar brush mower designed to traverse ground with little impact. This tracked vehicle with a business end consisting of chewing teeth cleared 5 acres of woody invasive species in one day!! The energetic crew from Pizzo and Associates assisted staff from IDNR/INPC and the FPD of Cook County who painstakingly herbicided thousands of shredded buckthorn stems as they followed up on newly mowed areas on February 16, and again on February 19, to prevent noxious buckthorn clumps from sending up resprouts in the spring.

On Saturday, February 20th, crews then focused on tackling remaining stands of brush and non-native trees on 11 Hickory Lane owned by the Forest Preserve District of Cook County and on 9 Hickory Lane owned by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. This back breaking work involved felling large invasive trees and removing thickets of buckthorn which had invaded the property during decades of private ownership. Sucking up moisture from the soil and surface water runoff during rain events, the invasive woody species were depriving native wetland and prairie plants of the water and light they needed to survive and altering the natural hydrological dynamic required for a healthy native ecosystem.

By the end of the Saturday workday, the land between the buffer site and the Wolf Road Prairie wetland was completely connected and open, converting acres of previously degraded land to first phase habitat recovery for native plants, insects, birds and animals. Only scattered brush piles remained to be burned by Forest Preserve District of Cook County resource professionals as weather conditions permitted.

Standing where the cleared buffer site and the wetland joined was a moment of exhilaration and discovery. The blockage of brush and scrawny invasive trees, so long an obstruction to natural processes, was finally gone. The land was open at last to light and the movement of the wind. It will be interesting to observe what species surge in to reclaim the landscape on their own once the growing season begins and what re-seeding may be necessary to enhance biodiversity.

This restoration blitz was a textbook example of a successful restoration effort organized by Steve Byers of the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission and John McCabe of the FPD of Cook County with landowners and private supporters to reclaim degraded portions of Wolf Road Prairie and land along Hickory Lane. Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve is one of the highest quality natural areas in Cook County and Illinois and deserves nothing less than our finest restoration efforts. Now we will watch to see nature begin the healing.

"Concern for the long-term viability of Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve and the concerns that Jack raised earlier in this article were addressed at a day-long meeting with landowners and stakeholders that took place over a year ago (in December 2008 to be precise)," said Steve Byers, Northeastern Illinois Representative, Illinois Nature Preserves Commission.

"Since then, the landowners have really stepped up. The FPD Cook County cleared invasive brush from the savanna along 31st Street during the 2008-2009 winter. That effort allowed increased amounts of light to reach the soil and the response from the herbaceous layer is already evident. In April 2009, Illinois Nature Preserves Commission staff initiated clearing at #9 Hickory and #11 Hickory with volunteers from Exelon (Commonwealth Edison) and again, the results were encouraging with wetland species expressing themselves once again. That effort was expanded in early January 2010 with two days of additional tree/brush removal with staff from the FPD Cook County, Illinois Department of Natural Resources, and the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission. That was a herculean effort with 11 people and two bobcats (machines designed to pick up and move massive amounts of cut brush). Just as impressive was the follow-up effort by the Forest Preserve District in burning or removing trees and brush from the site.

All these efforts, including the efforts described in this article and a planned burn of the northern half of Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, bode well for the prairie and for the long-term restoration of the buffer lands along Hickory Lane. It will be rewarding to revisit these sites this spring or early summer and witness the healing process."

Tours of the restoration area are available through the Salt Creek Greenway Association. Just contact us at to arrange for your visit.

Photos by Dave Waycie, Salt Creek Greenway Association volunteer photographer.

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