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Neighbors can't see forest plan for trees

Wednesday, May 17, 2006
Chicago Tribune
by Robert Channick

Despite concerns from some Barrington Hills neighbors over the clear-cutting last winter of 13 acres of mature trees, officials say a habitat-improvement project at Spring Creek Forest Preserve is aimed at re-creating a prairie landscape that flourished two centuries ago.

Planted as picnic groves 30 years ago by the Cook County Forest Preserve District, two large stands north of Penny Road were removed at the 3,910-acre site as part of a joint effort with local conservation groups.

"What we're trying to do is restore the principal ecosystem that has been there most of the time since the glaciers pulled back," said Stephen Packard, director of Audubon Chicago Region, which has spearheaded the 3-year-old project, believed to be the largest contiguous habitat restoration ever undertaken in Cook County.

At the far northwest corner of the 67,000-acre preserve, Spring Creek is home to grasslands, wetlands, oak woodlands and savannas, but vast open spaces have been fragmented by invasive species like buckthorn and well-intended but misguided reforestation, according to Packard.

Hoping to restore the ecosystems and native wildlife such as Henslow's sparrow, bobolinks and other dwindling grassland birds, about 180 acres of brush and woody growth have been cleared, Packard said.

Funded by $140,000 in grants from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and several foundations, volunteers have provided much of the labor, but outside contractors were brought in last winter to raze the tall islands of honey locust, ash and oak trees, opening up a 109-acre grassland and a rift with some neighbors.

"People were upset about it," said Dave Cook, a four-year Barrington Hills resident who volunteers weekly for buckthorn cleanup at Spring Creek. "When you see large trees come down, it's hard to wrap your mind around it, especially if it's called a forest preserve."

In March, project officials met with about 40 concerned residents at Crabtree Nature Center in Barrington.

"We like trees, but when they are in the wrong place, then we feel that we need to take some corrective action," said Richard Newhard, director of resource management for the Forest Preserve District.

Although it's the largest, it's not the first grassland restoration project for the district. Using proceeds from a multimillion-dollar Army Corps settlement fund, both the 585-acre Bartel Grassland near south suburban Matteson and the 960-acre Orland Grassland in Orland Township took shape rapidly while the Spring Creek project was still on the drawing board.

Current plans target 1,500 acres at Spring Creek, with a third of it designated as prairie. The project is expected to cost several million dollars and could take decades to complete. Without public consensus, it may not proceed at all, Packard said.

"The Forest Preserve District and Audubon are eager to see ecological health returning, but are not eager to be part of a project that leads to a lot of acrimony," Packard said.

Coalition partners remain committed to the restoration.

"We think it's mostly a communication challenge. We need to explain to people that we are not about clear-cutting woods," said John Rogner, field supervisor for the Chicago office of the Fish & Wildlife Service. "It looked like a good project, and we're still convinced it is."

Citizens for Conservation, a 35-year-old not-for-profit land trust managing more than 300 acres of restored ecosystems in the Barrington area, is providing rare prairie seeds for the cleared areas. Tom Vanderpoel, chairman of restoration for the group, said critics can't see the forest.

"These trees were planted in prairies," Vanderpoel said. "They are deserts compared to what should be growing there."

Jane Clement, an 11-year resident and a member of the Riding Club of Barrington Hills, which helps maintain the trails in Spring Creek, was one of about 100 volunteers removing brush at the preserve on Earth Day.

"I know they have the best intentions,[but]it's still difficult for me to see big trees come down."

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rchannick@earthlink.net

Copyright © 2006, Chicago Tribune



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