By Gloria J. Maloney
When my husband and I were looking for a site on which to build a house seven years ago, we were very happy to have found a site with the back yard on Swanson Road and across from Kieselburg Forest Preserve. We like the view so much that instead of having the traditional indoor fireplace at the back of the living room, the builder allowed us to place a large picture window at the back of the room so we could see the preserve. In addition, there were bike paths in the area and another forest preserve, Roland Olson, nearby.
We enjoyed this view for a few years. We saw deer, hawks and many birds. We loved to watch the changing colors of the trees as the seasons changed. We put bird feeders in the back yard and attracted many birds from the preserve that we could watch more closely. We used binoculars to see into the preserve from our living room window.
Last January, I looked out the window when I woke up as I usually do, and was devastated. A huge machine was knocking down the trees. It felt like a nightmare. The questions I had were: “How many trees were they going to take?” and, “Had the district sold the property for a gas station or commercial building?” I was horrified.
I called the Winnebago County Forest Preserve District (WCFPD) and was told the trees were being removed to “restore the prairie.” I was told that the “native state” is more bio-diverse and that it was going to be beautiful. They further told me they would only remove “scrub trees,” although I saw them remove trees with trunks that were at least 5 or 6 feet in diameter. They cut these trunks into pieces about 5 feet long and hauled them away in dump trucks.
Then, they hauled tree limbs and brush from somewhere else and proceeded to build the biggest open burn fire I have ever seen. They built this fire right across the street from Sheppard Hills Subdivision. It burned and smoldered days and nights for nearly two weeks. At times, there was a huge cloud of smoke over northern parts of Machesney Park and Roscoe that you could see while driving on Highway 251.
I called the Environmental Protection Agency and was told that the WCFPD did not have a current permit to burn. They sent me a copy of Title 35: Environmental Protection Subtitle B: Air Pollution Chapter 1: Pollution Control Board Subchapter i: Open Burning; Part 237 Open Burning. They sent a copy of the expired permit.
So, I had two issues with the forest preserve district. First, I strongly disagree with cutting down forests to create prairie. The more immediate concern a year ago was for my lungs and the house catching fire. I called the fire department and was told there is to be no unattended open burning at any time in Winnebago County. They suggested I call the state police. I filed a report with the state police, but never heard anything more about it.
I called the print and television media about this policy of destroying forests to create prairies. There did not seem to be much concern at the time. I called Randy Olson and talked to the district supervisor. They had the attitude that they are the experts and will do what they want to. We think the “prairie” they created looks like a big weed patch. Our neighbors also think it just looks like weeds. We were told they won’t be planting any of what they believe are native prairie trees, bur oaks, in the foreseeable future. We haven’t seen the owl since then.
When I heard about cutting the native pine trees at Roland Olson and the sneaky way they did it over the holidays, I looked into the matter further. This past weekend, on the Facebook page that has a link from the comments section of the article “Forest preserve or prairie preserve?” in The Rock River Times, I learned 50 acres of pine trees have been removed from the Sugar River Forest Preserve. This is insane.
In the first place, the period in time that the forest preserve district is using as the “natural state” is the 19th century when the settlers arrived. The common definition of natural state is, “a wild primitive state untouched by civilization.”
The Native Americans who had come from Asia had been here for thousands of years. They were civilized. Archeologists have come to know in the last 50 years or so that the Native Americans used fire to control their environment. Recent estimates are that 100 million Native Americans manipulated the environment for hunting and agriculture with fire before most of them died of diseases spread from Europe by the first explorers to America.
Studies of ash, carbon and pollen suggest the Native Americans used fire extensively by burning forests in the late spring when conditions allowed for more controlled burning. The Native Americans planted corn where they cleared forests with fire. They burned undergrowth in forests for easier mobility and hunting. Agriculture in the true prairies of the Great Plains required the invention of the steel plow. The Indians did not have the steel plow.
A 2005 book by Charles C. Mann, 1491 New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus, is a good source to learn about the native state. Also, wildlandfire.com and foresthistory.org are other sources to learn about how the Native Americans controlled the environment for their survival by extensively using fire.
A common-sense way to find out what is the native state of Northern Illinois is simply to not interfere with a clear-cut land for about 75 years and observe it. We have many examples of this. First, the weeds and shrubs will grow followed by scrub trees. Larger trees will eventually shade the smaller varieties, which will die out. The last stage of forest growth is the large coniferous trees. To maintain prairie, it must be burned every one to three years, or the forest, the natural state, will slowly return.
These forest preserves are in populated areas. When they burn the prairie in Kieselburg, I am up all night coughing for a week. What about local asthma and respiratory sufferers?
Are we really sacrificing clean air, health and beautiful mature trees to enlarge the prairie chicken population?
Could there be a private profit reason for taking mature native trees out of our forest preserves?
I believe the WCFPD trustees have violated their fiduciary duty to the residents of Winnebago County, which is to preserve forests for the purpose of the education, pleasure and recreation of the public. Please call the WCFPD, the board and attend meetings. Let them know what “the public” wants and what we think about the forest preserve district’s policy of destroying forests.
“(70 ILCS 805/5) (from Ch. 96 1/2, par. 6308)
Sec. 5. Any forest preserve district organized under this Act shall have the power to create forest preserves, and for that purpose shall have the power to acquire in the manner hereinafter provided, and hold lands containing one or more natural forests or parts thereof or land or lands connecting such forests or parts thereof, or lands capable of being forested, or capable of being restored to a natural condition, for the purpose of protecting and preserving the flora, fauna, and scenic beauties within such district, and to restore, restock, protect and preserve the natural forests and such lands together with their flora and fauna, as nearly as may be, in their natural state and condition, for the purpose of the education, pleasure, and recreation of the public.”
Gloria J. Maloney is a Roscoe, Ill., resident.
From the Jan. 11-17, 2012, issue