Volunteer Restoration Work
Offers Chance to Learn and Get Exercise
Photo by Small Waters Education
Cold weather is approaching, and for restoration volunteers, that means it’s time to remove non-native plants in the region’s natural areas. They’re also sponsoring workdays and welcoming those that want to help, even for a few hours. No knowledge or skills are required, and when out in a natural area, volunteers gain new knowledge and skills, get some exercise, meet people and help protect nature, according to Jack Speer, of Alden, Illinois.
Needing a change from working indoors all his life, Speer decided to help with restoration work in McHenry County. His wife, Judy, seeking a deeper connection with nature for health reasons, joined him, and they met people that understood how important it is to know the history of the landscape and help restore it.
The volunteers first cleared invasive brush, including buckthorn, and planted seeds at the Alden Conservation Area, owned by the McHenry County Conservation District. “We also saw restored areas, so we knew what we were shooting for,” says Speer. “We had a goal in mind.” Today, they serve as stewards for a rare oak savannah ecosystem that includes a pioneer cemetery.
Restoration workers also remove other invasive plants during spring and summer, collect and plant seed in fall and even participate in prescribed burns after receiving proper training. But fall and winter are often the best seasons for cutting and removing invasive plants.
“In November, the invasive plants (including buckthorn and autumn olive) that don’t lose their leaves as quickly stick out like a sore thumb,” says Speer. They’re easy to cut, he notes, and in winter, it’s easier to move along the terrain. Those certified also dab the leftover stumps with an approved herbicide to prevent the plants from re-sprouting.
“Restoration is important, because not every plant in the woods is a native,” advises Zachary Salus, an intern with the Cook County Forest Preserve District, who earned a degree in ecology at the University of Illinois, in Champaign.
Buckthorn, for example, was introduced from Europe to the U.S. and began shading out the forest floor and preventing native wildflowers and shrubs from growing. “To preserve our forest diversity, we have to take an active role in managing it,” says Salus. “The main thing we need is manpower. In winter, we need help cutting and creating brush piles.” The brush piles get removed or burned, and volunteers can warm themselves in front of the fire on a cold winter day.
“It sounds like you’re going out and being a lumberjack, but you’re really not,” says Salus. “We’re not taking down big trees. It’s more like dealing with big sticks and cutting them up. A cool thing about doing this work is that you’re getting out into the woods and seeing nature. You’ll be surprised what you can find on these workdays. It’s a good time to learn about the ecology of forests.”
Those that continue to work also see the positive effects over the years and come to realize how important education is, observes Speer. Ever since he and his wife cut their first buckthorn plant, they’ve helped design and build pollinator gardens for schools in the inner city. They now serve as stewards of natural areas and schedule work days to continue McHenry County’s restoration work. They’ve also started the nonprofit Small Waters Education to teach others about natural areas. Speer thinks that working in nature can help people feel better, both physically and emotionally, and says, “It can change your life.”
Sheryl DeVore is a Chicago area writer, editor, educator, photographer and author of three books on nature. For more information, email Sheryl.Devore@comcast.net.
Many Chicago region organizations welcome volunteers to help restore and protect natural areas. They typically loan gloves and equipment such as pruning shears and will train volunteers, says Zachary Salus, an intern with the Cook County Forest Preserve District.
Participants should dress in layers and wear close-toed shoes. Contact local natural areas to learn when work days are scheduled and to register. “Don’t be shy. We’re always looking for people. It’s all about the manpower,” says Salus.
Here are some places to check:
Citizens for Conservation (CitizensForConservation.org)
Cook County Forest Preserve District (fpdcc.com/event/restoration-workday-ecological-restoration/all)
Lake County Forest Preserve District (lcfpd.org/volunteer/workdays)
Lake Forest Open Lands Association (lfola.org)
Lake Bluff Open Lands Association (lbola.org)
Land Conservancy of McHenry County (conservemc.org/get-involved/volunteer)
McHenry County Conservation District (mccdistrict.org/rccms/habitat-restoration-days)