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Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2007 09:02 pm

The chainsaw resurrection

How Friends of the Sangamon Valley bring forests back to life

Untitled Document The great 19th-century naturalist John Muir was onstage at New Salem State Park last Sunday, in the person of the actor John Wallace. “The forests of America, however slighted by man, must have been a great delight to God,” Muir said, “for they were the best He ever planted.” Muir was there to address supporters of the Friends of the Sangamon Valley and discuss the group’s efforts to protect the region’s natural areas through education, restoration, and acquisition. “It’s so important to take time to save what is left,” Muir told the crowd.
What is “left” relatively untouched in Illinois is a mere seven hundredths of 1 percent of the land area, according to a state study conducted in the early 1970s. The virgin prairie of Illinois is one hundredth of 1 percent. When the Friends get a chance to save what is truly old-growth forest, like the 50-acre Boyle Woods, between Beardstown and Chandlerville, they jump into action to raise the funds (in this case, $210,000) needed to acquire it. The fundraising campaign is within $30,000 of its goal, and it looks like the Friends will save a little corner of paradise, where wild orchids surround ancient white oaks and the presence of maidenhair ferns shows that it’s never been grazed. But 99 percent of the current forest in Illinois has been grazed, logged, or otherwise “slighted by man,” so the job of the naturalist usually goes beyond protection to restoration. Vern LaGesse, president of Friends of the Sangamon Valley, is the modern Muir. He knows every tree, wildflower, and prairie grass by name. He cores old trees and marvels that a 398-year-old white oak was old when it saw Lincoln. He can tell you, by how a 149-year-old limb is growing, that this woods was logged 150 years ago. When he looks at a forest, he sees not only what’s there but also beyond that to what used to be there and could be again. Today’s woods are often dense and so dark that oak seedlings die for lack of sunlight — but in the forests Illinois pioneers saw and wrote about, trees were far enough apart that they could drive a covered wagon through the woods. At the 68-acre Wolf Preserve, near New Salem, LaGesse led Friends supporters on a hike to show off what’s been accomplished in just two years of restoration work. Sunlight streams to the forest floor, where sky-blue asters and wild ginseng are coming back and year-old oak seedlings look healthy enough for the long haul. These woods are starting to look covered-wagon-accessible again. In his work as a “restoration ecologist,” LaGesse has as his primary tools a chainsaw, herbicide, and fire. The first job is to get rid of such invasive plants as bush honeysuckle and Russian olive, introduced several years ago by well-meaning bureaucrats but now taking over like weeds. Next to go are what LaGesse calls “opportunistic natives” like the sugar maple, which forms such a dense canopy that no seedling can get started beneath it. Sugar maples have their place in the forest — on north slopes, for instance — “but after 100 years without fire,” LaGesse says, “they’ve wandered out of their places.” Controlled fire, set once a year at first, then every three to five years, cleans up the leaf litter, slows the growth of some undesirable plants, and brings the forest floor back to life. “When you take the bad stuff out, the good stuff comes back,” LaGesse says. “It’s spiritual when you remove the honeysuckle and see the bloodroot come up. The fruits of your effort bloom and blossom.”
The spiritual rewards of an ecologically balanced forest sustain groups like the Friends of the Sangamon Valley in their work of preservation and restoration. A century ago, they moved the German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz, who was asked where his ideas come from. “They come particularly readily during the slow ascent of wooded hills on a sunny day,” he replied. And they formed the great John Muir, who advised his audience at New Salem, “Ramble about in the forests and the prairies, and your cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”

For more information about the Friends of the Sangamon Valley go to or call

Contact Fletcher Farrar at
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