Before the earliest settlers stepped foot on the land that would eventually become St. Charles, oak woodlands occupied much of the landscape. And some of these oak trees, noted in the federal land survey of the 1800s, still exist today.
In plain view, passersby may not understand the significance of four specific oak trees in the Hickory Knolls natural area, but they tell the story of the landscape from centuries ago and also, give hope for the future of restoring oak woodlands.
The witness trees, as they are known, will be the topic of a presentation from 6-8:30pm Sunday, April 28, at Hickory Knolls. During the event, Chris Gingrich, St. Charles Park District Assistant Superintendent of Outdoor Education, will present the history of the federal land survey, and then lead the group on a 15-minute hike to see the witness trees up close.
“The law ordering the survey of western lands required land surveyors to make notes of the trees along the survey lines, including the size and species, as well as other flora and fauna. This was intended to help settlers when they were buying property,” Gingrich said.
Today, the survey is used as a guide to help in restoration efforts of oak woodlands that have significantly diminished from farming and development over the years.
Prior to settlement there were an estimated 1 million acres of oak ecosystems in the Chicago region, and by 2010, only 173,000 acres were remaining, according to Gingrich.
“The land survey gives ecologists an idea of what the area looked like prior to settlement and therefore, it aids in recreating an ecosystem that will support oaks,” said Gingrich, adding that oak trees support 500 species of insects, and in turn, those insects provide food for other wildlife. “There is a lot of life that use and depend on an oak tree for nesting, grazing, shelter and food.”
The witness trees in the Hickory Knolls natural area still exist because they never succumbed to development. “Just by happenstance we have a patch of ground that didn’t get cleared, and as a result we have a nice remnant of oak woodland,” Gingrich said.
For more information, call Chris Gingrich at 630-513-4367. The fee for the program for ages 16 and older is $10 for residents and $15 for nonresidents. Register at www.stcparks.org.