Guest Column: Spinning prairie after clear-cutting in DeKalb, part one

Logs stacked along timber trail during clear-cutting. (Photo provided)

Editor’s note: The following is the first in a two-part series.

By Jane S. Levinsky

DeKalb is a community much loved for its many natural areas that run along and about the Kishwaukee River. One in particular, the DeKalb Nature Trail, is known for not only the many species of trees, shrubs, plants and wildlife that exist along its 1.3-mile stretch, but also the immersive feeling one gets as they enter into the 80-foot-wide, closed-canopy deciduous forest. This area is known as the Kishwaukee River Basin and is one of the few parts of Illinois that has always been a forest.

Last November, Commonwealth Edison (ComEd), with the aid of the DeKalb Park District staff, clear-cut 1.3 miles of trees under the power lines that run along the much-loved DeKalb Nature Trail. Within one week, the entire north side of the trail was completely gone. Bare ground scattered with more than 2,000 tree stumps was all that was left in the wake of chainsaws and machinery. People who used the trail regularly — including visitors who made the drive just to enjoy the paved path that runs through this closed-canopy woodland, a county forest preserve and subdivisions known for their mature trees — were stunned and saddened.

In a matter of days, the hedgerows and tree canopies that made the nature trail unique were decimated along the entire length of one side. What lay in the wake of ComEd’s mass destruction and deforestation was huge shards of raw splintered wood, branches and logs, which, by ComEd’s description, would be considered mulch. Along a street once fittingly named Timber Trail, more than 275 oaks, maples and various other trees were either topped off halfway down the tree, or were cut to standing stumps that still remain to this day.

When we asked why at a Dec. 6, 2012, Park District public meeting, ComEd told the community of DeKalb the clear-cutting was mandated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). But this, in fact, was a lie. The mandate issued by the FERC only applies to power lines that are 200kV or above (the power lines along the DeKalb Nature Trail are only 138kV).

After much pressure from the community, ComEd admitted their lie in writing: “The power line along this easement is a high-voltage 138kV transmission line. Although this particular line does not fall under the FERC jurisdiction, ComEd’s vegetation management policy is to follow standard FERC line clearance requirements. …” It was with this statement that the DeKalb community learned the so-called federal mandate ComEd stated allowed them to clear-cut our beloved nature trail was a lie.

The clear-cutting and deforestation that was done was not mandated at all, but rather a corporate preference; a corporate preference that does not match the standards that are set forth by the FERC. The FERC standards dictate air clearances that are needed around power lines. These standards are quite complex and are determined by the voltage of the line, species of trees, growth rates, thermal movement and maintenance schedules.

In the wake of this devastation, the community of DeKalb fought back, attended meetings and organized into the DeKalb Nature Trail Restoration Group. A group whose sole purpose is to return our beloved nature trail, which once provided us with a clear connection to nature, back to some semblance of what it once was before it was attacked by ComEd’s chainsaws.

It was with the help of this group that the community of DeKalb was able to persuade a very reluctant DeKalb Park District Board (two of whom are retired ComEd employees) to appeal to ComEd to repair the damage they had done.

In doing so, the Park District created a Nature Trail Working Group composed of two Park Board members, the Park District director, three ComEd employees, two County Forest Preserve staff and two community members.

While on the surface this effort may appear to be genuine, it was anything but the sort. It was apparent from the start that the two community members were merely a pawn in a game of false appearances. While all members were to be included in the meetings, ComEd and the Park District director and board president created a subgroup to determine a total plan for restoration. This subgroup was composed only of members from the DeKalb Park District and ComEd; no community members were included.

It was within the subgroup that ComEd and the Park District began spinning prairie; converting what once was a wonderful woodland forest filled with more than 2,000 trees and shrubs into a prairie filled only with native grasses and a few token shrubs.

Over the last six months, we have heard many lies and untruths from ComEd and the DeKalb Park District, the biggest of which has been prairie. ComEd spokesmen have continually repeated (what was clearly intended to be a high-sell, sunny message): that this clear-cutting would “allow the native grasses to return” to this area that had supposedly once been prairie (which, as we will explain below, is also an untruth).

The closed-canopy woodland and hedgerows that trail users had loved so much, ComEd argued, did not actually “belong” here. They wanted to “bring back” what was supposedly here before the European settlement. Publicly, they talked about how wonderful this prairie restoration would be (and dodged questions about further removal of trees on the other side of the trail and about prescribed burns — under their own power lines and right next to people’s houses, and in a town that has a burning ban).

But in their private e-mails, they admitted the difficulties of that plan: The 1.3-mile, 40-foot strip is not an “ideal” site for “a small prairie,” the difficulty of doing both actual and manufactured burns within city limits and in close proximity to home owners, how many years it would take to establish a well-cultivated prairie, and the fact that the entire south side of the nature trail would need to also be cut down for the north side prairie to fully cultivate.

From the May 22-28, 2013, issue

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