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Ancient Trees Play Critical Role

May 31, 2023 ● By Sheryl DeVore
Three woman wlaking on a path in the woods.

Photo by Nick Sanchez

Vic and Ann Berardi find great joy in walking among old trees, and this is what led the Gurnee couple to serve as volunteer Lake County coordinators for the national nonprofit Old-Growth Forest Network.

After extensive research, many walks and discussions with Nick Sanchez, OGFN midwest network manager, and staff from the Lake County Forest Preserves, the Berardis succeeded in getting St. Francis Woods, within Independence Grove Forest Preserve near Libertyville, recognized in the national Old-Growth Forest Network (OGFN). It was dedicated on May 5, and is one of 200 forests across 33 states in the network—the first in Lake County and the third in the state to be included in this list. The other two are Allerton Park, in Monticello, and Beall Woods State Park, in Mount Carmel.

St. Francis Woods, in Libertyville. Photo by Vic Berardi

“There’s a wonderment and mystique about woodlands that have old-growth trees,” says Vic Berardi, explaining why he thinks places like St. Francis are important to protect. “Most of these places are generally peaceful, and when you realize that these trees have survived for so long, much longer than our own lives, we begin to admire them even more. A 250-year-old white oak tree was born in 1773, when our country was just starting. That tree probably went unnoticed as a sapling, but began a journey that we get to witness. And if left alone, this tree will survive much longer than we will, and you begin to wonder what it will witness in the future,” he says.

The Berardis are now branching into McHenry and Kane counties seeking more woods to be nominated, and a DuPage County coordinator has started searching for old-growth forests in the Chicago region, as well. They all work with Sanchez, who lives in Chicago and is a certified forester through the Society of American Foresters.

Today, fewer than 5 percent of western old-growth forests remain standing, and in the eastern United States, fewer than 1 percent of original old growth remains standing, according to the Old-Growth Forest Network, founded in 2012 by author and Professor Emeritus at Salisbury University Joan Maloof, who seeks to protect those woods.

Defining old-growth is complicated, but Sanchez uses the term to refer to a forest that is relatively old and undisturbed. “That means the forests often contain trees that are at their maximum biological age,” he explains. “That could be in the ball park of hundreds of years for species like oaks, and in the thousands for cypresses and redwoods. In the Midwest, we’re talking anywhere from 140 years to 200 years-plus, depending on the forest type.”

After European settlement, from about the middle to late 1800s to the early 1900s, most of the forests that were primarily old growth were logged and burned, and many were cleared for agriculture and development.

“Those that remain are places that have not seen the human-caused disturbance that most of our forested landscapes have seen,” Sanchez says. “There are plant and animal communities and fungal networks that are still intact. There are all kinds of species that depend on large, old trees, live or dead, for their life cycles.” Some species that live in Illinois, including the Chicago region, that depend on old forests are several species of warblers, woodpeckers and even bats that roost in hollows and bark crevices.

“One important point about old forests is that they include patches of young trees and shrubs which develop in the canopy gaps from where larger trees have fallen,” Sanchez adds. “When you look across the forest toward the canopy or on the forest floor, old forests are incredibly diverse from a habitat perspective. This is what separates them from younger forests. Enough time has passed for complexity to develop.

“As parts of our forests recover from historic logging, we also have an emerging opportunity to increase the amount of old forests on the landscape by protecting some of those forests from logging, securing future old-growth. Protecting and restoring more of these areas will allow more forests to reach old age, developing conditions that are incredibly valuable when it comes to combating biodiversity loss and the climate crisis, but also improving access to high-quality experiences in nature.”

Allerton Park, in Monticello, is one of three old-growth woods recognized in Illinois by the Old-Growth Forest Network. Photo by Nick Sanchez.

The OGFN is working to connect people with nature by creating a national network of protected, publicly accessible forests and a network of people to protect them. Working with volunteers, naturalists and researchers across the country, their goal is to identify and ensure the preservation and recognition of at least one forest in every county in the United States where forests grow.

“We focus on forests that are accessible to the public because we want people to be able to see them and experience them,” Sanchez says. “We also require that these places be protected from commercial logging before they can be recognized in the network.”

Logging operations can quickly degrade the ecological, spiritual and recreational value of old forests. At the state scale, the percentage of our forests that are protected from logging is very low, at just 6 percent. Despite the logging era that ended more than a century ago, the majority of the state’s forestland is younger than 60 years old.

When the Berardis started their search for old-growth forests in Lake County, they read a paper by Marlin L. Bowles and Michael D. Jones, of the Morton Arboretum, entitled, “Chronological Change in Old-Growth Forests of the Chicago Region.”

“It was here we found reference to several possibilities in Lake County,” Vic Berardi recalls. “What led us to St. Francis Woods was its beauty, history and location.” Bowles and Jones wrote that a stand of trees there contained five white oak trees that had been growing between 1737 and 1801. Over time, ash, hickory and basswood trees became part of the woods.

The Berardis also learned a summer camp for orphaned children was located on part of what is now the old-growth woods. The Lake County Forest Preserve District purchased the property in 1982. The buildings were torn down, but not the trees surrounding them. It is there that the Berardis have walked and gazed at the old trees while feeling the old concrete of the former buildings beneath her feet.

The Berardis visited St. Francis Woods many times to observe the trees and relay information to Sanchez. Various observations about the trees’ shape and stature can be made to determine its age, Sanchez says. A 1939 aerial photo shows the forest back then. “It was intact at that point and it’s still intact today,” Sanchez says.

“Old-growth forests are spiritual places,” Ann Berardi says.

Sanchez agrees, saying, “They put our lives and our relative importance in perspective.”

Sheryl DeVore has written six books on science, health and nature, as well as nature, health and environment stories for national and regional publications. Read more at