Illinois cuts down state forest trees in name of preservation

To preserve the Trail of Tears State Forest and parts of the Illinois Ozarks, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has to destroy some of it. The DNR is cutting down trees and burning parts of the forest as a means to reignite the forest’s health and support its native oak and hickory tree development.

Benjamin Snyder, a forest ecologist for the DNR, is part of a staff that includes foresters from several districts whose goal is to preserve the balance of the woodlands.

“Some of the background research points to dramatic changes sweeping the Trail of Tears State Forest and the Illinois Ozarks more broadly,” Snyder said. “Without management, the Illinois Ozarks may be the first forest in Central North America to completely convert from oak and hickory to beech and maple.”

The Trail of Tears covers more than 5,000 acres and is a critical part of the Illinois Ozarks. Its oaks, a native tree species, saw a steep drop of 50 percent between 1980 and 2014.

The Trail of Tears State Forest, located between Carbondale and Cairo in southern Illinois.
The Trail of Tears State Forest, located between Carbondale and Cairo in southern Illinois.

At the same time, there was a steady increase in American beech and maple trees, which provide little for wildlife compared with oaks.

Snyder and the DNR will reserve 925 acres within the Trail of Tears to conduct research on which restoration methods and management actions will yield the best results for regeneration. They will have a control area, a burn zone and a cut-first area where they plan to selectively remove beech and maple trees to let more sunlight into the forest floor, Snyder said.

“Oaks are not tolerant of heavy shade conditions,” Snyder said. “This should allow enough sunlight into the forest to help those oak trees start to grow.”

Oak trees thrive when 30 percent to 70 percent of sunlight can reach the forest floor, and the proliferation of beech and maple trees has made it difficult for the oak saplings to flourish.

Snyder hopes to see the fruits of their labor within a decade.

“Hopefully, we’ll see results in 10 years, but it can take longer,” Snyder said. “I was out there this morning, and there was really a good amount of acorns that are falling off the trees right now. The seed source is there.”

They plan on using the seed source and letting nature restore itself in the regeneration zones.

“We plan to use natural regeneration, which means that all of the seed trees – the oak trees and large healthy trees — currently on site will provide the next crops of acorns,” Snyder said. “We hope to get enough sunlight into the forest floor to allow those to naturally grow and reach a large enough size that they’ll be able to make it to the canopy and be that next generation of oak trees that provide food for more than 100 different animals in our forest.”

The project is receiving funds from the Forest Fund and from the National Wild Turkey Federation. Much of the project costs will be offset by the revenue generated by selectively removing some of the trees and turning them into lumber, Snyder said.

Snyder said he hopes the project not only will preserve and manage the forest, but also educate landowners.

“82 percent of our forest is privately owned,” Snyder said. “I hope that private landowners will be able to learn the proper sequence and combination of management actions to do management and restoration on their own.”

–Illinois News Network

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