Restoration Basics

Taking care of the preserves

Remarkably, the Chicago metropolitan area contains some of Illinois’ largest and best remnants of our native ecosystems. These remaining natural lands are precious and irreplaceable, but they need our help to survive and prosper. That’s where groups such as the North Branch Restoration Project come in.

Every weekend, in all kinds of weather, volunteers gather at scheduled sites to work, restoring health to the preserves by cutting brush, pulling weeds, gathering and sowing seeds. Citizen scientists collect important information about the plants and animals, monitoring changes in sites as restoration proceeds and adding to the knowledge of local ecosystems.

Restoration is a new way to interact with nature – helping to restore health and vigor to damaged natural areas through stewardship.

Today, many groups in the Chicago area and the rest of our country are involved in the restoration of native habitats. Among these groups, the North Branch Restoration Project has been called a model for volunteer stewardship and ecological restoration.

Plants out of place

Humans have always had the ability to take plants and animals from their native habitats and introduce them to new lands. That is true today more than ever before, with our ability to rapidly move people and things all around the world. Increasingly it is recognized that some of these “foreign” species, both plant and animal, can have devastating effects on native ecosystems.

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A native landscape

How do we know what the landscape looked like before European settlement? Without records that give us a complete picture, we rely on a number of sources. One source comes from the public land surveys of the 1830’s.

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Seeds for the Future

Under the dense shade of buckthorn and other invasives, much of the groundlayer – the flowers, grasses and sedges – has died out. What’s left are the common plants (those that can tolerate disturbance) or sometimes, just bare ground. Seeds are essential to restoring the diverse understory of healthy natural areas.

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The ecology of fire

Fire is an essential component of many North American ecosystems. The plant and animal species of our Midwestern grasslands and woodlands have existed with these fire ecosystems for hundreds of thousands of years, selected for success by characteristics that make them well adapted to fire.

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Managing with fire

Because of weather conditions and forest composition, the large destructive fires that occur in the west are not possible in our preserves. Instead of highly combustible resinous pine trees, our woods are populated with broadleaf deciduous trees, whose fallen leaves provide much less flammable fuel. In fact, the flames in our woodland burns are often low enough that an individual could simply step over them.

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Taking the pulse of the land

An important part of restoring health to natural lands is keeping track of progress. There are many different questions we might ask – one would be what is happening to the plant community. Plants are the foundation of a natural system, the underpinnings that provide the animal inhabitants shelter, food and a place to reproduce.

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