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

Editor’s note: The following is the second in a two-part series regarding efforts to restore the DeKalb Nature Trail. Commonwealth Edison and DeKalb Park District staff clear-cut 1.3 miles of trees along the trail in November 2012. Part one of this series appeared in the May 22-28, 2013, issue.

By Jane S. Levinsky

The DeKalb Nature Trail following the clear-cutting. (Photo provided)

In our many meetings and communications with ComEd, we also learned that in their world, using the word “tree” is taboo. One says “planting” or “vegetation” instead. We also learned that our Nature Trail had been full of “invasive” and “non-native” plants (whichever word served ComEd’s purpose at the moment). ComEd argued that our “native” grasses, which had been shaded out by the bad trees, would now “come back to us” ­— but the overwhelming majority of the taxpayers and the citizens never wanted that.

ComEd kept trying to “educate” us about our own back yards and our own parkland — but it turns out that even their own propaganda was based on a lie: this area was never actually a prairie at all; it was forest! Then, that forest was cleared for farmland, and finally farmland that was allowed to become forest once again.

The Nature Trail Working Group set up by the Park District cited a 1939 aerial as a justification to do a prairie restoration along the nature trail. What this 1939 map actually showed was cultivated farmland.

The citizens of DeKalb did some research of our own. It was within this research that we found that in the 1800s, the area that comprised the nature trail was part of what is now known as the Kishwaukee River Basin. This basin, which has shifted over time, follows the Kishwaukee River north and bounded both sides of the river with forest (1800’s land cover map, Illinois Natural History Survey Prairie Research Institute University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign).

Despite this information, despite the overwhelming opposition to the cutting down of trees, and despite the many meetings at which citizen after citizen stood up to speak out against the clear-cutting and to call for the replanting of trees, ComEd and the DeKalb Park District kept on, once again, spinning prairie.

We have been told since at least the 1980s that restoring prairie in Illinois is a good thing. The prairies that were planted in already open spaces near country graveyards and abandoned farmland became beautiful, sculpted grasslands dotted with bright flowers. Visitors to these prairies were reminded of the Little House on the Prairie books, or of the covered wagons and the horses up to their withers in tall grass, or the Native American tribes who hunted bison on the plains. These were lovely places to view from a car, or perhaps for a short visit on a perfect spring or fall day.

The DeKalb Nature Trail before the clear-cutting. (Photo provided)

But in our romance with prairie, few of us had ever considered how it feels to actually try to use a prairie as a park, for recreation, for exercise, for picnics during the extremes of weather Illinois is known for. In the summer, there is no shade from the sun, and for many, it’s just too hot to enjoy. And few of us had considered what the wind can do in winter without a windbreak of trees and shrubs. In a prairie, most woody shrubs and trees are bad. “Most prairie species … thrive best in open, treeless habitats” (Prairie Ecologist).

The more you learn about how antithetical trees and prairies are, the more you will hear about the necessity for frequent and often heavy herbicide applications, about “kill sticks” — the prairie enthusiast’s efficient tool for killing trees — about good and bad trees (most are bad), about the never-ending battle against most woody vegetation that these enthusiasts embrace. Fact: in a prairie, pretty much all woody shrubs and trees are considered bad, with the exception being oak trees (which grow to a height that would require costly maintenance by ComEd’s creative tree-trimming experts).

Prairie restoration is one thing when it is done in an already open space, opening up vistas of farmland or rolling hills, or in a right-of-way that ComEd actually owns. But it is another thing in a heavily wooded neighborhood where people want shade in the summer and protection from the wind in the winter.

If you live in Illinois, you know the numbing cold of winter and the searing heat of summer, and you appreciate, if you are fortunate enough to live in or near a forested area, the feeling of heading out of the scorching sun into a cool, shady area, or, in the winter, taking a walk in the sunshine in a protected corridor on a cold winter day.

ComEd and the DeKalb Park District are using prairie as a myth, as an excuse to cut down our closed-canopy, deciduous woodlands — cool and shaded in summer, a windbreak in winter — and “restore” them to what they say is “correct”: pre-settlement (pre-European settlement) prairie.

The DeKalb Nature Trail after the clear-cutting. (Photo provided)

The Northern Illinois University biologist consulted by ComEd for the DeKalb Nature Trail prairie restoration is well known for his prairie restoration work at Nachusa; and he, quite conveniently, argued that for a prairie restoration, most of the remaining trees along the other side of the nature trail “don’t belong here, because they would not have been here in pre-European settlement times.”

But here’s what we were never told: he began his talks with ComEd by posing the question: “What era do you want to restore the land to? You have many choices.” And among those choices, and on the list of restorations that Commonwealth Edison does, is a woodland restoration.

ComEd and the DeKalb Park District chose to keep this information from the citizens. The district never offered us that option, even though it existed, and even though it still exists. Why? Because ComEd, in their relentless “education” of residents about the benefits of prairie restoration, is simply exploiting the prairie fervor to its corporate advantage. It simply costs less!

In April, 140 days after the clear-cutting, ComEd presented DeKalb citizens with the plan, a “sustainable” restoration plan for a strip prairie under the power lines and, behind the prairie, 400 small shrubs and 25 small trees — this is all they offered up to replace the approximate 2,000 trees and shrubs that they cleared in a moment’s notice. ComEd “volunteers” came to our town and planted the 400 small shrubs, most of which are little more than a foot tall. And of the 25 trees that ComEd promised? None has been planted.

To make this situation even worse, we have been reaching out to our local media source — the Daily Chronicle — in an effort to bring to light all that has been happening over the last six months. To our surprise, and more adequately stated, frustration, the Daily Chronicle has yet to publish any type of truth in regard to the nature trail.

They have edited, by omission, all the key facts related to the nature trail and its destruction. Meetings in which divided Park District Board members have argued vehemently on both sides of the issue have not been truthfully publicized.

Where some board members are outraged at the devastation that ComEd and the Park District staff have allowed to happen along the nature trail, others see it as an “opportunity” to make the trail better. Instead of giving the residents of DeKalb the whole picture, the Daily Chronicle has decided in its infinite wisdom to only tout the untruths of prairie, the so-called wonderful donation that ComEd has given to this community, and the so-called wonderful job the DeKalb Park District is doing along the nature trail.

DeKalb is a very resilient community, and we will continue to fight to restore our beloved nature trail. There is no excuse for the untruths and lies ComEd, the DeKalb Park District and the Daily Chronicle have continually pushed down the throats of this community.

It is not appropriate, and will never be appropriate, to completely demolish a woodland forest to plant prairie in its wake, no matter what the circumstances are.

While this may seem like a never-ending battle, we have recently seen a few glimmers of hope. Through the supplies of Chad Pregracke’s Living Lands & Waters’ (LL&W) One Million Tree Program, Editor & Publisher Frank Schier and founder and coordinator of the Rock River Trail has graciously donated 300 oaks and maples to be planted along the nature trail to help us restore the character and quality loved so much by this community. He told us LL&W’s Ashley Stover said the maple trees she provided were the same that power companies were handing out to be planted under power lines because they didn’t grow too high. The very generous donation, along with Schier’s continued support, has really helped the DeKalb Nature Trail Restoration Group make headway with both the DeKalb Park District and ComEd.

Additionally, within all this chaos, there has been a Park District Board election. May 9, three of the five existing Park Board commissioner seats have changed. This pivotal step turned bad favor into good and showed the DeKalb Park District, in force, what the community is looking for in its elected public officials. For the last six months, previous Park Board members have continually spouted about what they have done for the Park District, when in actuality, it had nothing to do with them, but rather the community of DeKalb.

We can only hope this new Park District Board will take the time to listen to the citizens of this community and push for a true woodland restoration of the DeKalb Nature Trail. And while many may see this as a fight between woodland and prairie, it is not. This is about standing up and doing what is right, holding those responsible for such destruction accountable for their actions, and most of all (since we were not able to save our beloved nature trail) restoring the DeKalb Nature Trail so it can one day again be what it once was: a wonderful place to be in nature and protected by nature.

From the May 29-June 4, 2013, issue

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