Workers and volunteers help clear out Oakton Woods of invasive species of weeds.
Photo by Dayani Pieri
Beautiful Oakton woods surrounds the Des Plaines campus of Oakton Community College (Oakton). Oakton got its name from the majestic native oaks that dressed the forest and gave its inhabitants shade and sustenance. By the 1800’s, non-native species that were imported into this nation by European settlers had thrived and begun to encroach on the native trees’ environment.
Today, one of the Midwest’s noxious weeds is the European buckthorn or Rhamnus cathartica. This is a woody shrub which was used mostly as an ornamental or for hedging; to keep wild animals out of the property. Its advantage is its berries that attract the birds who in turn carry the seeds and spread them. Originally classified as a shrub, buckthorn, today, has grown to become as tall as a small tree and has invaded many Midwestern forests including Oakton Woods. This invasive species coupled with several others have taken over Illinois forests and floodplains, and continue to defeat native species in their struggle for survival.
If not for the efforts of the Oakton forest manager Ken Schaefer, and the dedicated students and faculty of its Ecology Club, Illinois residents would cease to enjoy the native oaks of Oakton Woods. The Annual Fall Workday marks Oakton’s efforts to restore these woodlands to its original state and to protect our native oaks.
This year’s Fall Workday was conducted on Nov. 3. It began with breakfast and registration at 8:30 a.m. An introduction, safety instructions, and demonstrations on how to use loppers and hand saws were given by Ken Schaefer, assisted by Jacob Schmidt of Oakton. After wearing safety goggles and work gloves, the students got to work cutting down a large number of European buckthorn, a couple of European mulberry trees, and thinning sugar maples. Students and faculty joined forces to clear the forest of invaders. Helpers worked in groups to saw, cut, haul and burn. Groups of students were placed around the fires to control them. In about four hours, the whole area had been cleared of invasive species.
Then began the prescribed burn process to clear ground cover, destroy invasive seeds and limit grow-back options in the area. The prescribed fire practitioners in their fireproof uniforms with their crew of students began the controlled burn process. Before long, the whole forest floor was ablaze, creating an imposing spectacle, according to students watching. Schmidt, the President of Oakton’s Ecology Club, explained that the opening up of the woods and the conducting of a prescribed burn “increases biodiversity.” The cutting down of the invasive species and thinning of the sugar maples also makes way for the native oaks to survive. The day following the prescribed burn, Schmidt wrote that he revisited the area and that he could already see the difference and “It looked amazing!”
According to Schmidt, 70 people volunteered to make the restoration effort a success. Students and faculty from Oakton, Northeastern (NEIU), University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and the Illinois Institute of Technology volunteered on this day. NEIU was represented by members of Tri Beta Biological Honor Society (Tri Beta) and the Green Cycle Group (GCG).
GCG is an NEIU club that has become very active this semester. Its members have been actively participating in several community events including the Fall Workday. It eagerly looks forward to the upcoming Energy Sustainability Effort event that will be held on Nov. 29.
Sana Sultana is the President of Tri Beta’s NEIU chapter. Sultana has recently taken over the leadership of Tri Beta and has done a marvelous job of resurrecting it from its dormancy. She has initiated and participated in many activities with the group. Fall Workday was one of those events where she was a very active participant. She has not been to a restoration prior to this day. “I went today, and man it was awesome,” wrote Sultana, “I am looking forward to going again.”