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The top 3 things that make managing a forest preserve successful

November 20, 2018

By David Bart

Community partnership, long-term leadership, and committed project partners: key ingredients in managing a forest preserve

Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir (“Father of the National Parks”) were true visionaries that joined forces more than a hundred years ago to help protect America’s wilderness. I think many can agree with the former president and naturalist that being out in nature offers us something that nothing else in life can quite match. Forest preserves, or any protected green space, provide society an opportunity to step away from the everyday hustle-and-bustle—a catalyst to connect us to the environment through nature-watching, exploration, and by asking questions about the world around us.

A diverse prairie that includes native plant species such Bee Balm, Wild Quinine, False Sunflower, and Canada Wild Rye is vital to economic and ecological stability as they support declining pollinators like butterflies and bees.

Deer Grove Forest Preserve is an 1,800-acre, heavily-used forest preserve just 50 miles from downtown Chicago. It’s home to numerous native plants and animals within its wetlands, woodlands, and prairies. In my role as a Stantec ecologist, I’ve had the pleasure of working on restoring and managing a 185-acre portion of the preserve—the Deer Grove East Wetland Mitigation site—since 2010. Funding for this multi-year restoration was provided by the City of Chicago to compensate for off-site wetland impacts associated with expansion of Chicago O’Hare International Airport. Openlands, a regional conservation nonprofit organization, is the project sponsor while the US Army Corps of Engineers is the lead regulator and the Forest Preserves of Cook County (FPCC) is the landowner.

The tremendous successes achieved to-date in restoring the ecology and biodiversity within Deer Grove East is in part due to three key characteristics. So, what makes managing a forest preserve successful you ask?

Using a backpack sprayer, a Stantec restoration technician selectively applies herbicide to manage Canada Thistle in this oak woodland.

1. A true community partnership

In 1995, the Deer Grove Natural Areas Volunteers (DGNAV) group was formed to steward the natural areas at this preserve. When the Deer Grove East project began, additional volunteers from the community quickly joined and strengthened a partnership between the FPCC, Openlands, and Stantec. This was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. The DGNAV has been instrumental in collaborating with Stantec and the FPCC to help manage this very large site through a variety of means, including volunteer work days, an annual Earth Day event, and biological monitoring.

During the volunteer work days, nearby community members come together to assist with several tasks, such as the cutting and burning invasive brush in the woodlands, the annual native seed collection and dispersal to enhance biodiversity, and scouting for invasive species using publicly-available naturalist apps.

The annual Earth Day event is a strong example of community buy-in and commitment to the Deer Grove East restoration. This large stewardship event, supported by contributions from local businesses including Stantec, attracts 200 to 300 participants annually to assist with invasive species removal and biological monitoring. Several uncommon species that were once more abundant —including Henslow’s Sparrows, Red-headed Woodpeckers, and breeding Sandhill Cranes—have recently been documented by volunteers using the newly-restored habitats. “If you build it, they will come” is a phrase we use in ecosystem restoration to illustrate the power of restoring habitat for wildlife. It’s truly amazing how quickly wildlife returns to formerly-degraded lands, and Deer Grove East is a strong testament to this.

Our long-term involvement has resulted in an intricate knowledge of the site, which has informed how we approach the entire restoration process.

Promotion and education have been instrumental in generating interest with these caretakers. We have utilized social media extensively to recruit additional volunteers and promote awareness of the work being done on-site. Nature tours have also helped educate the public about the management process and the ecological significance of the preserve.

2. Consistent long-term leadership and collaboration

Dominic Kempson and I have been fortunate to work on this site since Stantec was selected back in 2010. Our long-term involvement has resulted in an intricate knowledge of the site, which has informed how we approach the entire restoration process. Having a greater understanding of the successes and failures over time has allowed for an adaptive management approach. Our techniques and protocols are adjusted based on site knowledge and the restoration process history.

The site itself is as dynamic as our approach. Techniques are constantly being tailored as we uncover new and rare plant and animal species—we need to design restoration approaches that foster and protect these important ecological inhabitants. We learned many years ago that consistent leadership on the project is key to building a sense of trust and cohesiveness.

Great Blue Heron enjoys the restored wetland.

3. Committed project partners

The project exceeded the 25 wetland mitigation credits required to offset impacts associated with the airport expansion. Openlands and other project partners decided to go above and beyond and remain committed to ongoing care of the site. The site was dedicated as a State Land and Water Reserve by the Illinois Nature Preserve—a designation provided to the highest-quality natural areas that possess significant natural heritage within the State of Illinois. In addition, the FPCC has continued to dedicate resources to conduct management around the periphery of the project area to reduce the influx of invasive species entering the site. To highlight the restoration and engage the public, Openlands and the FPCC collaborated to install interpretive signage and nodes within the project area.

A recipe for successful forest preserve management

Managing a large site requires a significant number of staff resources, a reliable funding source, and a commitment to long-term management and monitoring. And it’s okay to ask the community to engage in stewardship of our shared open spaces. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the number of people who are as passionate about protecting the region’s open space as you are.

Also, remember patience is a virtue. Your average prairie takes approximately five to seven years to establish. So, close collaboration, long-term involvement, and committed project partners are vital to success.

The project team’s deep understanding of the restoration process and long-term commitment has resulted in a landscape reminiscent of pre-settlement times where vast open spaces can be enjoyed for many years to come. One can’t help but think Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir would be proud of the project accomplishments achieved in such a short period of time.

  • David Bart

    David is an experienced restoration ecologist who has worked extensively to restore the Midwest’s natural ecosystem, focusing on native vegetation installation, invasive species control, prescribed fire management, and erosion control monitoring.

    Contact David
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