On a crisp fall day, volunteers carefully strip the seeds from a wide variety of plants that dot the woodland floor at the Cook Country Forest Preserves’ Sommes Woods in Northbrook. The volunteers, under the leadership of environmentalist Stephen Packard, have made huge changes in these oak woodlands that were once filled with the invasive buckthorn plant. Packard describes buckthorn’s impact in an adjacent area that has not been cleared.
“This is the tragedy that befell our forest preserves,” said Packard. “This is all buckthorn, a fine plant by its own but a killer in the oak woods. It wipes out every other species. There were hundreds of species here, and now they’re gone.”
Packard said Oaks were the keystone to the eco system, but now they are growing old, dying, and not reproducing.
“There’s not a young Oak in here,” said Packard.
Just across the road in Sommes Prairie Grove, volunteers have worked for years to clear out buckthorn and other invasive species. The result, said Packard, is a highly diverse ecosystem.
It includes Joe Pye Weeds, Sweet Black-eyed Susan, and Virginia wildrye.
Packard has been working on the Sommes Savannah for 30 years. It’s an area that defines what his work is all about.
“It wasn't long ago that most people thought the best way to treat nature is to leave it alone,” said Packard. “I thought that, and then we started seeing the species dying out. To me, the most important lesson is that in these times nature needs people to care for it if it's going to do well.”
But there are those in the environmental community who disagree with Packard’s methods of restoring woodlands, savannahs, and prairies.
Petra Blix, of the Urban Environmental Alliance, and Bathsheba Birman, of the Urban Wildlife Association, said nature will be harmed --not helped-- by the kind of interventions Packard uses.
Blix said Packard started a movement in the ‘60s, and that he was instrumental in identifying some areas where there were still native plants.
“I think it was well intentioned, but I think the management strategies that were developed in the 1960's are no longer necessarily appropriate for the 21st century,” said Blix.
When Blix and Birman look at a video of volunteers cutting down a grove of aspen in the Bunker Hill Forest Preserve, followed by burning the brush piles, they see destruction.
“The type of species that are being removed from the sites are not only non-native species, but also native species,” Birman said. “And the purpose is really to take existing forest and restructure it into prairie and savannah, rather than focusing on managing the site that’s here as lightly as possible.”
Packard sees the actions on the video as good management techniques.
“We cut down invasive trees -- many of them are native trees -- and they are trees of the floodplain, and of the forest, that have seated into an area that is not healthy,” said Packard.
Packard said they are cutting them to restore health to the ecosystem.
“We like to burn while we cut because then we don't have to make pile after pile after pile,” he said.
Much of Packard’s restoration work has been done on land owned by the Cook County Forest Preserves. Forest Preserve Deputy Director John McCabe said the district supports Packard’s restoration efforts.
“I believe it's very important, especially to the forest preserve district in general, because these properties are so rare in this environment, in the Chicago-land area,” said McCabe. “To have folks like Steve that are doing this type of work, especially with the dedication and time that they put in, to help us nurture these lands to where they're at today, to make them healthy ecosystems, is very, very positive. “
Packard’s reward is the beauty of the land around him.
“It makes me happy," said Packard. I come here as often as I can. I love to do it, and it thanks me with its beauty and richness, and the sounds and smells." And the wonderful people who come. I enjoy them as much as anything else.”