Over the past several days I attended the annual meeting of the Grasslands Research Network (GRN), a Midwestern group of land managers and restoration ecologists involved in prairie and oak savanna research. The meeting this year was held at the McHenry County Conservation District headquarters near Richmond, Illinois. The establishment of the GRN was spearheaded by the Nature Conservancy, but large numbers of others involved in grasslands restoration also attend. Because of the location, this year Illinois was heavily represented.
The meeting was focused (not surprisingly) on establishment of prairies, primarily in former ag fields. I greatly enjoyed Ed Collins talk on how prairie restoration work has changed over the past 25 years at McHenry County Conservation District. Bill Glass' talk on prairie restoration work at Midewin National Grassland, a former U.S. Army site near Joliet, Illinois, was especially interesting when contemplating the immense problems that Wisconsin will soon have converting the Badger Ammunition Depot into a natural area.
The meeting took place at the Lost Valley Visitor Center, a LEED-certified building (Gold level) that is situated in the midst of Glacial Park Conservation Area, a 3,200 acre site featuring a diverse array of prairie, wetlands, savannas, and delta kames. Nippersink Creek, a nice canoe stream, meanders through the wetland. Our registration fee included meals and we could sit in the dining area and enjoy the view while discussing restoration ecology.
A highlight of the meeting was of course the field trips. McHenry County Conservation District has been converting ag fields to mesic and dry-mesic prairie for at least 25 years, and has a wide variety of successes (and a few failures). The District has a large amount of land under management (22,600 acres!), of which over 6,500 acres is of high-quality wetlands, savannas, and prairies. They think nothing of planting hundreds of acres of prairie a year. We were shown prairies planted in the 1970s as well as those planted as recently as 2009. Various planting regimes are used, some more successful than others. Planting is done almost exclusively by tractor-driven mechanical equipment. For some years, the Truax drill had been used but the District is now shifting to the Vicon seed spreader, a Minnesota invention that is adaptable to a wide variety of seed sizes and permits high-rate applications. Since most of the District's restorations are on relatively flat former ag fields, mechanical equipment is very suitable.
McHenry County also has some very nice oak savanna areas, with large open-grown white and bur oaks. In fact, the District has a large program of oak restoration, in attempts to counteract the huge losses of oaks that have occurred since settlement. The Big Woods of McHenry County contained over 30,000 acres of oaks, now mostly gone. A GIS-based study of the history of oaks in the County identified almost 3,000 remaining oak stands, but only 157 of these were 25 acres in size or larger.
The Quercus Project is a county-wide initiative to restore oaks. It involves a bunch of Rs: Recognition (of the problem); Regulation (preserving existing oaks); Regeneration (enlisting the public in a planting program); Restoration (protect remaining oak savannas and woodlots); Resource development (create an endowment fund); and Research (continue to assess the historic and present significance of oaks). The "Oak Keeper" project involves trained volunteers working to gather data at the larger, privately-owned oak woodlands in the county.
Another volunteer activity is working with area youth to promote the next generation of oaks. The District conducts an annual "Acorn Roundup", where kids help collect local acorns for propagation and future oak plantings. Kids also have the opportunity of helping in the work at the Oak Nursery that the District maintains. Also, the kids plant small oak trees at sites around the county. Each child adopts and names his or her oak, and ensures that it is watered each week during the growing season for the first two years.
The funds for land acquisition come from bond issues approved by referendum at general elections. Staff is supported by a dedicated item on the property tax bill (for the Conservation District). Because of the affluence of McHenry County, the return from the property tax is sufficient to support a large staff, in addition to a major intern program (8 full-time interns for 12 weeks) and a number of seasonals.
I was interested in how conservation groups are organized in Illinois at the county level. There are two kinds of county conservation organizations, Conservation Districts and Forest Preserves. Conservation Districts were enabled by legislation in 1963, and a number of counties have been moved to establish them. (McHenry County is the largest.)
The first Forest Preserve system was created in the Chicago (Cook County) area early in the 20th century. A number of other Illinois counties followed along later, although most counties do not have Forest Preserves. According to the enabling act of the Illinois legislature, the goal of the Forest Preserve is "..to acquire... and hold lands containing one or more natural forests or parts thereof or lands connecting such forests or parts thereof, or lands capable of being forested, for the purpose of protecting and preserving the flora, fauna, and scenic beauties within such district, and to restore, restock, protect and preserve the natural forests and such lands together with their flora and fauna, as nearly as may be, in their natural state and condition, for the purpose of the education, pleasure, and recreation of the public..."
I asked several people how Conservation Districts differed from Forest Preserves, and I was told that the main difference was that CDs permit hunting whereas FPs do not.
In September 2008 at Pleasant Valley Conservancy we had a visit from McHenry County Conservation District staff. See my 2008 Blog for a brief description of that visit