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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

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