Forest preserve or prairie preserve?

January 4, 2012

Photo by Georgine Arena

Editor’s note: Controversy has erupted over massive tree cutting at the Winnebago County Roland Olson Forest Preserve, with more apparently planned in other Winnebago County forest preserves. The following was posted from the board meeting minutes on the Winnebago County Forest Preserve District (WCFPD) website, www.wcfpd.org.

Non-Native Tree Removal, Wednesday, December 7th, 2011

Photo by Georgine Arena

Winnebago County Forest Preserve District to Remove Non-native Trees

The Winnebago County Forest Preserve District has contracted with Premier Forestry Products to remove non-native pine trees at three locations this winter. Reduction of the pine stands at Roland Olson and Pecatonica River Forest Preserves, and thinning of the pines at Fuller Memorial Forest Preserve are part of the District’s ecological restoration program which aims to create and maintain high quality native ecosystems. The trees being removed are scotch pine, red pine and white pine. The trees were planted very close together, ‘plantation style’ and now require clearing to allow for the restoration of native vegetation. Originally, the only conifers in Winnebago County were junipers, and possibly rare scattered white pines. Removal of the pines in these preserves will eventually increase the biodiversity of the preserves. The trees will be cut and the stumps ground between now and winter 2013.”

Yet, the contract for the removal, obtained by Roscoe resident Paul Arena, states that besides pine — spruce, hardwood hackberry, elm, cherry, cottonwood, box elder, locust ash walnut, maple, basswood, mulberry and basswood will be sold by the ton for pulp, logs and biofuels for as low as $1/ton to $4/per ton. A full log truck

What Roland Olson Forest Preserve useD to look like, and now ... Top and center photos show a wild winter wonderland in what the viewshed used to be from the walking and equestrian paths off 9669 Atwood Road, in Roscoe, Ill. As the Winnebago County Forest Preserve District website states, the preserve is located “3 miles east of Roscoe on Burr Oak Road, south 1/2 mile on Atwood Road. Roland Olson is 127-acres which were once a polo complex. Today it is a favorite spot for hiking, picnicking, equestrian trails and soccer,” complete with a Stuga shelter house that holds 500 people, 15 tables, 90 seats, with electricity. There’s 1.5 miles of trails, plus soccer fields, and yes, even a horse arena. This paper’s editor & publisher spent a wonderful afternoon there wandering last year. “No one was there to stick up for those trees,” said Frank Schier. “They were a beautiful stand, with a special atmosphere. If you follow the prairie mania logic, you’d cut down much of the wonderful Lowden State Park in Oregon and Sinnissippi Farms, planted in the same row fashion. Think of how many ringed years of wonderful seasons have fallen to their cold blades. I’m glad I’m not a tree in their care.” (Photo by Georgine Arena)

usually carries 25 tons. Neighbors to the Roland Olson Preserve have counted as many as 1,000 logs stacked up awaiting shipping. The contract also states, “*Scaling instructions: wood to be weight scaled at a scale of Purchaser’s [Premier Forest Products of Oregon, Ill.] choice.” One forestry expert said after a brief reading of the agreement that it was “a very unadvantageous contract.”

Guest Column: Neighbors shocked and angry and speak out

Roland Olson Forest Preserve is in northeast Winnebago County. There were tree-lined paths for walking and horseback riding. There is access to the Stone Bridge Trail, a baseball diamond, a soccer field, a playground, and a pavilion for gatherings. This park is used by many people in the area. It is a sanctuary of beauty; a place that is good for the soul.

Unfortunately, that was before the Winnebago County Forest Preserve District commissioned “Prairie Restoration” for three Winnebago County parks. The parks listed to be restored are Fuller Memorial, Pecatonica and Roland Olson. They claim they want to bring our parks back to the way they were in the 1800s. Trees and other plants that were not native would be removed so native plants could flourish.

When the work began, we assumed they were thinning the trees, but soon we could see mature trees being felled at breakneck speed. As the work progressed, we noticed large areas were not being thinned but cleared. What has happened in the far northern path has left us shocked and angry. These mature trees are being harvested and being stacked in neat piles. Dead and small trees have been left. This is not restoration.

After viewing the destruction, many of us e-mailed the WCFPD directors. Randal Olson, Winnebago County Forest Preserve District Board president, and Tom Hartley, director of Land & Development, responded. We asked why it would be necessary to do a Prairie Restoration. They had no viable answers. When asked if the taxpayers of Winnebago County were considered in this decision, the answer was, “No.”

Many have seen the devastation of clear-cut sections in the states of Washington and Oregon, and now we can see them here on North Main Road and hidden in what used to be some of the back woods of Roscoe. Both projects proceeded with little notice and substantial shock to the taxpaying public. You don’t know what a tree does until it’s gone. (Photo by Georgine Arena)

The final concern is that they have sold this lumber. Premier Lumber Products has cut and bought our forest preserve. Mr. Olson said the Forest Preserve District is only netting a small profit. There are so many trees in just this one park that we find that statement hard to believe. Someone is stealing our forest preserves under our noses. Do you think it’s a coincidence that this has been done when there is less traffic through the park? Do you think it’s strange that the restoration is being done mostly in the back of the park and not viewable from the front or roadway? Do you want to know who is profiting from the lumber harvest? Are you angry that you didn’t know this was happening? We are, too!

Mary Weaks-Baxter

Jerry and Martha Jordan

Georgine and Paul Arena

Jean Van Buren

James and Judy Kennon

Roscoe, Ill.

Guest column: Forest Preserve distress and public forum request

By Dr. Mary Weaks-Baxter

My neighbors and I are greatly distressed by recent actions taken by the Winnebago County Forest Preserve Board. Just before Christmas, a sign went up at the entrance of Roland Olson Forest Preserve located next to our neighborhood indicating that non-native species would be removed from the preserve. A posted map on the sign indicates that plant life along the entire border of two paths in the preserve will be removed. The sign refers people to the Forest Preserve website, and the website indicates that the work at this preserve and two others will be completed in 2013. The website indicates that vegetation not native to the region will be removed because the goal is to return the preserves to their native habitats. The vegetation the website refers to are actually mature pine trees in the preserve, although this is not mentioned on the signage.

No public forum was held about the tree cutting, even though a number of houses in our neighborhood back on to the preserve, and many residents use the preserve on a regular basis. This preserve also includes soccer fields, picnic pavilions, a horse-riding ring, playground equipment, and a paved road that runs for most of the length of the preserve. If the intent is to return preserves to their native habitat, this preserve doesn’t seem to be one that should be the focus of such efforts. I certainly understand the need to restore habitats (I teach Environmental Literature at Rockford College, where I am a professor), but the board’s decision to focus on this preserve is perplexing, to say the least.

Even though there seemed to be time for us in our neighborhood to go before the county board at their next meeting to ask for reconsideration of the cutting, we have been devastated to see that the company in charge of the cutting (Premier Forest Products from Oregon, Illinois; Eric Olson is their procurement forester) has almost completed their work. They were cutting over the week between Christmas and New Year’s when many of us were out of town or busy with the holidays. It is heartbreaking for us to see the massive destruction of the pine trees in the preserve, a place that so many of us value. At least for me, too, I had faith in our county board that they believed our preserves were for the people — the taxpayers/citizens of this county. What has happened in recent weeks has left me perplexed and with little faith in the system.

We have found that the preserve system is receiving payment for the trees — not paying to have the cutting done. While seeing the destruction of the trees is heartbreaking, the principle of the matter goes far beyond the physical damage. One of our neighbors has received letters from Randy Olson and Tom Hartley, director of Land and Development, but basically all they have both done is apologize for incorrect information — they said the cutting was complete, but we now hear that cutting is to continue this week, either on Wednesday or Thursday. The rush to complete this work before citizens have a chance to even know what is happening — much less even voice their opinions — is incredibly disturbing.

I hope you feel the urgency in my letter. Can you help us get the word out about what is happening? Please see our Facebook page for more details: “Roland Olson Forest Preserve Community Opinions.”

Here is my request that a public forum be held:

Dear Commissioners,

As a tax-paying citizen of Winnebago County who lives next to the Roland Olson Forest Preserve, I respectfully request that all cutting in the preserve be suspended until a community forum has been held and the board has reconsidered its decision. It is our understanding that the company cutting in the preserve has up to 3 more hours of cutting. A video taken by my neighbors shows several trees cut down in a matter of minutes, so we are quite concerned at the number of trees that could be cut down if this work continues.

Our neighborhood had no chance whatsoever to respond to the board’s decision to cut mature pine trees in our park. The information we have received indicates that ornithologists have been consulted, but not the citizens who live next to the park.

We have a right for our voices to be heard and for the commissioners to provide us with information about what is happening. The preserve website indicates that cutting will be completed in 2013, but we have been blindsided — with cutting taking place over the holidays. Please give the citizens of our community some respect — this is our park.

I made this request to Mr. Olson in an e-mail yesterday, and although he answered my e-mail, he did not respond to this request. Cutting is scheduled to continue this week, so we are running out of time. I urge you and your colleagues to do the right thing and give the citizens of your community a chance to at least be heard.

Sincerely,

Dr. Mary Weaks-Baxter

Roscoe, Ill.

Editor’s note: Roscoe residents who asked to speak at tomorrow’s Jan. 4 meetin g at WCFPD headquarters (5500 Northrock Drive, Rockford, IL 61103, (815) 877-6100, Fax (815) 877-6124, wcfpd@wcfpd.org), were told “no,” they could only speak at the 5:30 p.m., Jan. 18, meeting, and they must register by noon the same day. “Requests must include the speaker’s name and topic to be addressed.”

Unable to reply in writing by press time, Winnebago County Forest Preserve Board President Randy Olson did take a phone call on the controversy. Several people had asked if he had any professional or family relationship with Premier Forest Products’ Eric Olson, and he stated none existed. He thought the firm had been used for some work in 2009 with the WCFPD, and that is why they were chosen. He did not know if the project had been put out to bid or if a consulting forester acted as the taxpayers’ advocate on the deal.

It was one of those typical housekeeping things on the agenda, and we took the staff recommendation,” Olson said. “Myself and the board had what was given to us that night, and we have tried to respond to the concerns of the neighbors’ e-mails even with the holidays in a timely manner.”

Olson noted WCFPD Director of Land & Development Tom Hartley had responded to residents and knew the details of the staff recommendation. Hartley was not available for comment by press time.

From the Jan. 4-10, 2012, issue

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