Forestry experts are working to bring back native trees and ecosystems in southern Illinois forests by letting in the sunshine.
It’s not too often you hear the sound of chainsaws inside Trail of Tears State Forest in Union County, Illinois. But Tuesday was an exception.
"Conservationists normally plant trees, not cut them down," said Ben Snyder, district forester with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. He, along with other area leaders and forestry experts, was in the forest Tuesday, keeping an eye on the progress to alterations in the forest canopy there.
They’re there, not to weed out invasive populations, but to better protect the forest’s native oak trees and the wildlife that needs them for food and shelter. Snyder says the oaks need plenty of sunshine, and they support pollinators, raccoons and deer, along with about 100 other species in the forest. He says the IDNR needs to protect the oaks now before big changes happen.
"Without management, the Illinois Ozarks may be the first forest in central North America to completely convert form oak, hickory to beech, maple forests," Snyder said.
Where they've been thinning the midstory of the forest for the past two years, you can see more oak trees, more sunlight and a more open environment that can support more animals. But, on the other side where they haven't been doing anything, you can see it's darker, more dense, with less sunlight to support wildlife in the area.
The changes they’re making are meant to be slow, controlled and in different groups. Snyder says the 925-acre control group in the forest will see no changes as the IDNR studies the effects of the area its altering.
The other parts will be dealt with in three ways. Midstory trimming will be used to clear out the canopy on a broad level, leaving more sunshine and space between oak trees and leaving room for new seedlings to sprout. Light controlled burns have been used, but forestry experts say they haven’t been as effective as they’d hoped, clearing out only the base levels of the sugar maples and beech trees they’re trying to clear out. They’re also out cutting trees to help clear the canopy and bring in more sunshine, leaving lots of room to allow new tree growth.
But not everyone in the area is convinced this is the right path for the forest. Georgia de la Garza with Shawnee Hills and Hollers says she’s hesitant. She says having a tribal connection to the land for generations, she’s concerned about any disturbances being made to the forest there.
Snyder says they’re doing their best to take care with the changes, making alterations as they go to find out what works best.
"Hopefully, in five to 10 years we'll see a great abundance of oak regeneration, grasses, wildflowers, oak, shrubs and all the wildlife that ecosystem supports," he said. And with careful attention, he says they’re working to keep the forest strong for decades to come.
The IDNR is working with Southern Illinois University researchers, the Illinois Natural History Survey, Central Hardwoods Joint Venture, the National Wild Turkey Federation, the University of Illinois and others to improve the Trail of Tears State Forest. The IDNR says there is no time limit on the project, but it hopes to see revitalization with the forest and wildlife in the next five to 10 years.
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