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Volunteers battle invasive species in Morton Grove's Linne Woods

Monday, April 27, 2015
Chicago Tribune


Linne Woods

As helmet-clad volunteers chopped branches from trees and threw them onto bonfires in the woods just south of Beckwith Street in Morton Grove on April 25, Eileen Sutter kneeled down and cradled the leaves of a tiny plant in her fingers.

"This is a May apple," she said. "This, and other ground covers like the red trillium and the wild strawberry, have deep roots that hold the soil in place and prevent soil erosion."

But since buckthorn trees arrived from Europe and began voraciously taking over Midwestern forests, according to the Illinois Natural History Survey, their dense canopy of leaves have prevented sunlight from getting through to the beneficial ground covers, making them, and the topsoil, vulnerable.

That was the reason about 18 volunteers from Notre Dame College Prep's Lumberjack Club, about 20 volunteers from Comcast and a handful of Cook County Forest Preserve nature stewards had come to the Linne Woods Forest Preserve to chop and burn the invasive buckthorn. They used hand-held saws to take down tree limbs and tossed them on to one of three bonfires, which were keeping the volunteers warm despite the gray skies and occasional drizzle that Saturday morning.

The small army of volunteers was making progress against the buckthorn, but it is a formidable nemesis.

"It leafs early in spring and holds its leaves until late in fall. It's still green and photosynthesizing in fall when other trees have turned red and gold—that helps it survive better," Sutter said. She pointed to the massive number of trees with early-sprouting leaves, saying they were all buckthorn.

"If we would get all the buckthorn out and have periodic fires, we would be in a good situation, but we still have too much buckthorn," she said.

The white oaks and burr oaks in Linne Woods are naturally fire-resistant, Sutter said. However, Linne Woods is too close to homes to conduct what naturalists call a controlled burn, in which they set fire to a designated nature area under controlled conditions.

So volunteers such as the nature stewards and the Lumberjack Club at Notre Dame College Prep come out on a regular basis to chop and burn.

"We come out here about 18 times a year," said John Bachta, a teacher at the high school who heads the club. "The boys get an hour of service time for each hour they work. They have to get 25 service hours per year."

As he spoke, the students, some wearing helmets and gloves, were sawing and pulling down branches.

Tom Christoffel, 19, who graduated from Notre Dame and is attending Columbia College, comes back to work with the club, of which he was president his junior and senior years.

"The stewards would teach us the importance of what we're doing—that motivated me to continue," he said.

Bob Schulter of Niles, who works for Comcast, said Comcast employees were there volunteering because it was Comcast Cares Day. Another group of employee volunteers was at Bunker Hill Forest Preserve in Niles fighting another invasive plant, garlic mustard, he said.

John Thill, a Morton Grove trustee, who with his wife Marion is a steward with the Cook County Forest Preserve District, said the volunteers did a great job, and explained that after they leave, he and Marion stay for a few hours until the bonfires burn down to ash. The volunteers had left the buckthorn stumps two to three feet tall; Thill said a worker with a chain saw often cuts them level with the ground, and then the Thills pour a herbicide called garlon on them to prevent the felled buckthorn from growing back.

"This is 11 years of doing this for us now, and John and Jane Balaban do similar work at Bunker Hill and Harms Woods," Thill said.

During that time, a lot of buckthorn has been cut, and some lands have been restored to their native prairie vegetation.

Gesturing to the west, to the area between the woods and the Delaine Farms subdivision, he said, "You can take a walk in a loop around this prairie. And if you want to see some really beautiful woods, wait about two weeks and go for a hike in Harms Woods."

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