Park District Naturalists Give Mother Nature a Helping Hand
Most people driving past the wetlands at Otter Creek Bend or hiking the trails at Norris Woods Nature Preserve must think, “Okay, this is the way this place always looks.” Nature unspoiled, nature unassisted.
In fact, Mother Nature needs a hand to keep natural areas looking, well, natural. For the St. Charles Park District, this assistance comes via the naturalist staff: Ecological Restoration Technicians Jill Voegtle, Jason Pettit and Ryan Solomon and Native Plant Specialist Joan Kramer. These four manage the District’s dozen natural area sites with a combined total of more than 400 acres, plus an extensive Native Plant Demonstration Garden along the banks of the Fox River.
“There is always something to do somewhere,” said Voegtle.
That “something” takes many forms. Maybe it’s an afternoon at Hickory Knolls Discovery Center monitoring a prescribed burn – an intentionally set fire that helps stimulate germination of desirable plants and controls competing, unwanted vegetation. Or perhaps it’s a day of brush clearing at Majestic Oaks Wetland to open up a woodland canopy so that more sunlight reaches the understory plants. It could even be a Saturday morning spent seed collecting at Ferson Creek Fen Nature Preserve, gathering seeds that will be used in restoration projects in the future.
From savannas to streams, marshes to meadows, the natural habitats in the Park District can be as diverse as the native oak-hickory woodland at Delnor Woods Park to the upland swamp at Persimmon Woods. Several are designated as Illinois State Nature Preserve, giving them permanent protection under state law. They provide essential functions such as water filtering and flood control and contribute to the health of the native plant gene pool by encouraging rare species to survive and evolve.
“We’re here to help good plants thrive and get rid of the bad plants that get in their way,” said Voegtle. “It’s so easy for non-native species to get out of control and crowd out the plants that are supposed to be here.”
Plants like the impressive bur oak (pictured above) in Delnor Woods Park. Impressive now, yes, but for years one could hardly see the tree for the forest of buckthorn and other invasive species growing up around its base. Naturalists set about removing the marauding plants, and within one year the tree was visible again, now framed by a diverse complement of grasses and wildflowers that enhance – but won’t eclipse – its beauty.
While encouraging the health and beauty of native plant species in their natural habitat may be the overall objective of the naturalist staff, showing their diversity and application in the home landscape is the mission of the Native Plant Demonstration Garden, located behind Pottawatomie Community Center. By installing native plants against the building’s foundation, tucking them beneath benches and bird feeders, and having them cascade over garden walls, garden manager Joan Kramer replicates typical landscape situations to show home gardeners how native plants can be used in their own backyards.
“They can be integrated with plants gardeners already enjoy in their yards, and generally they are less demanding and more drought and disease tolerant” said Kramer. “Plus they have the added benefit of attracting butterflies, hummingbirds and pollinators.”
Remember that earlier statistic? Four naturalists, more than 400 acres? In the best tradition of “many hands make light work,” the Park District has established weekly restoration days in the community’s scenic natural areas. Held on Saturdays from 9 AM to 12 PM, these regular morning work sessions are perfect ways for volunteers to contribute to the maintenance of these essential habitats. The volunteer schedule rotates as follows: 1st Saturday of the month is at Hickory Knolls Discovery Center; 2nd at Norris Woods Nature Preserve; 3rd at Ferson Creek Fen Nature Preserve; 4th at Persimmon Woods.
And so, while it may look like these many diverse areas are functioning perfectly well on their own, the truth is, they are doing so with a little – okay, a lot – of help from their friends.
“It’s impossible for a natural area to maintain a healthy ecosystem without human help,” said Voegtle. “Nothing exists in a vacuum and things change. We naturalists are here to monitor that change and help things move in the right direction.”
Visit a natural area today. For specific locations, visit the Park District’s web site at www.stcparks.org. To volunteer to help the naturalist staff on weekly restoration days, call 630-513-4399.