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Thursday, Sept. 30, 2010 05:55 pm

Nurturing natural heritage

Menard County woods, prairie returning to former glory

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Vern LaGesse, president of the Friends of the Sangamon Valley, leads hikers on a tour of the Wolf Preserve, where Menard County's oldest white oak tree continues to grow.
PHOTO BY RACHEL WELLS

Five years ago, a 68-acre stretch of land just south of New Salem, with its unique hills and valleys, had one thing in common with most of the rest of Illinois – it looked nothing like what the state’s first European settlers would have seen 200 years ago.

According to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, only about one-tenth of one percent of Illinois landscapes look as they did in the early 1800s. The rest of the state is now made up of housing developments, corn and soybean fields or, like the Wolf Preserve was until management efforts began, invasive species that choke out native flora and fauna.

Just last weekend, however, a group of hikers with heads turned upward awed at a red-headed woodpecker camping out in the upper canopy of the Wolf Preserve. The bird is proof that the woods are slowly gaining strength, said George Rose, board member of Friends of the Sangamon Valley. IDNR lists the red-headed woodpecker as one of the state’s “species in greatest need of conservation.”

The bird’s return is just one of many signs that Friends of the Sangamon Valley’s management efforts are working. White oak tree acorns scattered throughout the woods have grown into nearly knee-high saplings; white indigo legumes, once used by native Americans to make dye, rattle when hikers brush by them on the preserve’s eight-acre prairie; and honeysuckle, an exotic weed, is now hard to find.

“When I first got there I had to crawl through it,” says Vern LaGesse, the Wolf Preserve’s primary steward and president of the FSV. The land was donated to the organization after standing idle for about two decades following about half a century hosting cattle. The preserve is named for the wolves that once inhabited it, the last place in Menard County where they were known to roam. Probably due to its difficult topography, the land was never logged, allowing many white oak trees to become hundreds of years old, LaGesse says.

Just up from the base of the preserve’s first hill stands a 410-year-old white oak, the oldest in Menard County. It isn’t a healthy tree – half of it is missing and many of its limbs are dead – but it provides a clue to how the woods once looked. Branches that stretch far from its base show that at one time the tree had room to breathe. In fact, LaGesse says, at one point the trees were spread far enough apart that covered wagons could through the woods with relative ease.

As invasive species took over, the woods became more crowded, but the white oaks, and dozens of the area’s other native plants and animals, had less access to sunlight and they began to decline or disappear.

Now, after five years of controlled burns, selective tree girdling and seed spreading, the woods’ understory supports about 50 more native species, LaGesse says. It’s also a lot more damp than it used to be, not only because it is soaked with the rains of three very wet years, but because there are fewer trees to suck that rain up. That’s OK, because now LaGesse can help patches of wetlands establish themselves.

While the Wolf Preserve has progressed, it’s still only at the starting point of guiding the landscape towards matching the historical descriptions left by surveyors in the 1820s and made famous by native poet Edgar Lee Masters, LaGesse says.

“We’re setting the stage and the structure for what the historic woodlands of Illinois were,” he says. Although the group will have to continue maintenance efforts, in about three years LaGesse hopes to let Mother Nature do most of the work herself. “They [ecosystems] are so beautiful and complex. You push it a little and it responds,” LaGesse says. 

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