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Guest Column: Forest preserves: Balance between trees, tallgrass sound

February 15, 2012

By Tyler Kerr

As the Good Book says, there is a time to kill and a time to heal. Unfortunately for some people’s sensibilities, it is sometimes impossible to accomplish the latter without resorting to the former.

From what I’ve seen, this is the heart of the current dispute over the removal of trees from the Winnebago County forest preserves: that certain observers, as much as they value natural areas, are unwilling to accept the measures that are necessary to maintain or improve them. And when I say “improve,” I mean it: perhaps forests aren’t as widespread as they should be these days, but although prairies are equally important for the survival of native species, they have nearly been erased from this side of the Mississippi. This is hardly an acceptable situation for the so-called Prairie State to find itself in.

I should point out that, although I currently work in environmental restoration, I am writing this letter on my own behalf. It is not my intent to promote the interests of my employer, much less the Winnebago County Forest Preserve District (WCFPD), but rather to explain the realities of environmental work, and the issues that led me to pursue it in the first place.

Although I gather that some WCFPD employees have responded insensitively to citizens’ concerns, and that there are complaints about exactly how the district is performing its work, the overall goal of a balance between trees and tallgrass is entirely sound.

Despite the apparent incongruity of the Forest Preserve District working to re-establish prairies, I do not know of any local agency better suited to shoulder that responsibility. As with the U.S. Forest Service, the name came before the recognition that grasslands mattered.

Although I’m not proud of how Illinois was acquired from the Indians, I would hardly want myself, my family and friends, and millions of other blameless people to be expelled to return it to them. Likewise, I don’t want the entire state to be returned exactly to the way it was two centuries ago — anyone who does, whether a conservation worker, an activist or a private citizen, can be confidently identified as a “crank.”

Most of the people in my field only ask that native species and communities be allowed to persist somewhere, preferably with the resources they need to survive long-term (consult the works of Aldo Leopold for more information).

For now, I can only counsel patience until the prairie species can gain a roothold, a continued close eye on the WCFPD’s actions, and a more open mind about what should make up a “forest preserve.”

I would also appreciate it if contributors to The Rock River Times refrained from belittling the prairie until they understood it better. Finally, if it has never occurred to you to go for a walk in the prairie, or you have never found the idea appealing … well, you have my sympathy. Once spring comes, I recommend visiting Severson Dells or Colored Sands to see what you’ve been missing.

Tyler Kerr is a Rockford resident.

From the Feb. 15-21, 2012, issue


  1. Georgine Arena

    February 16, 2012 at 2:03 pm

    The people are upset because this was done without any notice to the public. Is the definition of Prairie Restoration: Take trees that are all living, straight, and have retail value? If you have access to Facebook, look up Roland Olson Forest Preserve Community Opinions. I have put pictures of the piles of trees they took. They are all at least 25 years old and many were much older. None of it is dead wood. What’s left? Stumps, branches, trees that are dead and diseased and trees that are small. The other curiosity is Roland Olson already is close to half prairie. Why not thin out the trees, taking out the new small trees that are crowding the older mature trees? Why not clear out the dead fallen trees? Why not focus on planting native plants to attract birds and beasts in need of prairie lands to thrive in the prairie areas that are already established? The only logical answer to these questions is that then no one would have made money from this endeavor.

  2. Kitty

    February 17, 2012 at 10:26 pm

    Tyler Kerr, please do not forget Rockford is called the FOREST CITY!! As a taxpayer, I was not consulted or even asked my opinion about the deforestation of our forest preserves!!

  3. Mary

    February 21, 2012 at 2:32 am

    To be fair, commenters, are any of you trained in preservation of forests or prairies? Mr. Kerr is educated on this very subject, and is writing in an attempt to inform the public that this is not a matter to be decided based on our touchy feelings.

    Prairies are ecosystems, just like the forest, and although it may not be as shady or aesthetically pleasing to YOU -preservation is a matter of life or death for the species that dwell in them. Frankly, I’d rather have scientists and people who’ve gone to school to learn how to protect our environment make these decisions, than be at the mercy of citizens who have voted repeatedly AGAINST funding the park districts when they’ve needed it.

  4. Michelle

    March 30, 2012 at 9:45 am

    Rumor mills keep stirring and people are getting angry over untruths. Here’s the truth. Winnebago county might be called the forest city but as a matter of fact when Winnebago county was founded roughly 70% of the county was native prairies. When the Dutch Elm disease came here all the elms were cut down as to prevent spread of the disease to other native trees. As a result unnative trees were planted such as sybirian elms. These trees began to spread and over come what forest we had. Unnative evergreens were planted along property lines. These trees also spread. Here we are 70 years later still triing to control a mistake that was made. The clearing of the forest did not bring down private property value. They did not disrupt views from neighboring homes. It simply opened up areas that were once lush with native plants and flowers. The rumor of wcfpd getting $200 per board foot is outragious. In fact WCFPD maybe received $2 per tree. People are upset because of the revenue those trees could have brought in but the bottom line is if WCFPD did the clearing themselves it would have been a loss monotarily then a profit. The trees were cleared in weeks which would had taken the county years to do themselves. Rumors of a connection between Randy Olson and the people brought in to do the work is unfounded. There is no connection besides business. If people would take the time to research these facts themselves instead of listening to the rumor mill alot of this could be avoided. Sure the people werent informed of the removal but it’s WCFPD’s land its called a preserve and in order to preserve something drastic measures need to be taken.. ie the removal of unnative or overpopulated tree populations. The rumor mill also says WCFPD is cutting down trees and burning up the prairies. Prairie burning is nessisary to avoide unnative plants from taking over the land as well as help with bug populations. Prairies frequently burned like sugar river, colored sands, alder, and seward have less bug populations then say those in the Kishwaukee corridor which are burned from everyother years to once every 3 years. Native plants have adapted to these fires. In fact. the production of seed is greater because of these burns. And last but not least, the Tax. State parks will soon be charging visitors to come into their parks. Inflation is climbing and the WCFPD tax rate has stayed the same for years it’s time they receive more money. Claims that WCFPD spent $220,000 on useless property are just that simply claims. I have seen the property and it is not useless. No land containing prime native speacies is useless. Sure we dont see it now but what people need to understand is natives are deeply rooted. Years of tilling and seeding crops put these plants into a kind of hibernation. They will comeback in time. People want instant gradification which they will not get in this case. Instead they will have to give it time. But with this time they will see improvement. Even if WCFPD left the property alone and did nothing Nature will restore it but sadly without WCFPD these unnative sybirian elms and weeds will overcome the land. The people wont get instant gradification from this but it is not a waste of money in fact I’m sure my grandchildren (when my kids are old enough to provide them) will get plenty of use from it. People need to start seeking the facts and stop listening to editorals they read or blog posts and protests. WCFPD has done more good for this community then harm we should support them. A tree is not just a tree the seeds you get from IHOP are not native do not plant them they will spread and cause more harm then good. When buying a tree check to see if it is native. I know it sounds silly to some people but just like cating a cold planting an unnative tree will spread and cause more harm then good.

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