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Renewable energy and ecology

May 20, 2014
Trees

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President, Illinois Renewable Energy Association

We came to renewable energy through ecology. For years, we’d been working to rehabilitate natural systems when we noticed a strange little plant growing in our woodland. Known as garlic mustard, it spreads widely, forming continuous carpets shading out native spring flora. This plant, and other invasives, thrived in conditions inhospitable to more sensitive native plants. Nitrogen, which is produced in large quantities by burning fossil fuels, acted as a fertilizer for it, but inhibits growth of some native plants.

Along with reducing the presence of garlic mustard in wooded areas, we increased our advocacy of energy efficiency and renewable energy. Simple techniques can be used to energy audit homes, churches and public buildings, and guide efforts to upgrade energy efficiency. We developed a Solar Electric Education Kit that we distributed at cost to educate young people and their leaders about the basic concepts in a solar system.

While we still focus on renewable energy, we have not forgotten about natural ecosystems. We have a modest woodland, several prairie remnants and restorations, are on the board of the Prairie Preservation Society of Ogle County, and work diligently to maintain the integrity of ecosystems.

Ecosystems are extremely complex, constantly surprising those who work with them. They are more than simple assemblages of trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants of the forest or grasses, and forbs of the prairie that can be named and recited by rote. Multiple interactions exist between the plants and animals in them. Disturb one element, and unexpected, perhaps far-reaching changes can occur.

Human addiction to energy and excess food produces numerous deleterious side effects. Chemicals released from fossil fuels combine to form air pollution and poison the soil and change the chemistry of water sources. Greenhouse gases from fossil fuels combustion and modern farming practices, along with forest destruction, have combined to produce climate change, which is altering environmental conditions around the globe.

Prairie restoration has become a popular and socially acceptable activity. It is worthwhile, but we need a similar effort for forest restoration. Many woodlands, but not all of them, could benefit from efforts to restore native plants within them. Controlled burns can expand plant diversity in oak woodlands. Raking leaf cover from around the bases of trees reduces fuel and limits fire damage to the bark of trees. Removal of invasive, weedy plants also increases plant diversity. Species targeted for removal include garlic mustard, dame’s rocket, buckthorn, honeysuckle and multiflora rose.

We have burned, cut, pulled, dug, used selective spraying and planted oak seedlings to improve the quality of our woodland. While many northern Illinois woods have been abused and neglected, ours is carpeted through the spring by Dutchman’s breeches, trout lilies, wood anemones, wild geraniums and Solomon’s seals. Less well-known shade plants grow in profusion in summer. It is considered a showpiece and example of how our woodlands can look and thrive. Others have visited it and been inspired to implement similar efforts in woodlands they value.

Efforts to restore prairies are well established and successful, and similar efforts directed at woodlands can restore the rich diversity characteristic of them at the time of settlement.

Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl are founders and officers of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association (IREA) and coordinate the annual Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair. E-mail sonia@essex1.com.

From the May 21-27, 2014, issue

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