Newman: Native landscapes in DeKalb benefit community, environment

Editor’s note: This is an installment of a monthly column written by the City of DeKalb’s Citizens’ Environmental Commission that focuses on increased awareness of topics such as promoting projects and ordinance changes involved in recycling, reducing energy consumption and planting native habitats.

DeKalb is a city with a lot to offer and hosts a resident population that is generally forward-thinking and environmentally conscious.

The City prides itself in actively maintaining a wide array of natural features and amenities with over 700 acres of green space maintained by the DeKalb Park District and opportunities for water recreation via the Kishwaukee River. However, a more active attitude of maintaining and improving the DeKalb environment has begun to take root in recent years. This attitude is also beginning to take hold across the country: restoring the land back to native habitat.

Native habitats are the landscapes that existed before the introduction of agriculture and residential development initiated by European settlers. In northern Illinois, the landscape once consisted of a vast ocean of rolling fields filled with flowers and tall grasses making up the “Prairie State,” as well as the oak woodlands and wetlands that once filled the region. These prairies, oak savannas, and wetlands were home to countless varieties of wildlife, including pollinators, birds, fish, and more. What was once a complex system of varied landscapes and wildlife communities is now dominated by corn and soybean fields.

Within DeKalb proper, areas that are maintained as green space are generally comprised of mowed lawns. This has led to many species of wildlife, including all-important pollinators, to leave the area in search of habitats and landscapes that can support them. One notable example of this is the monarch butterfly, a butterfly species which has seen massive declines in its populations due to habitat loss and the heavy use of pesticides in agricultural areas.

In addition to providing a home for pollinators and other wildlife, the reintroduction of native habitats will provide a wide range of benefits to the DeKalb community. Native habitats provide beauty and complexity to the landscape, offering more interesting environments for daily living in DeKalb and opportunities for people to have more engaging outdoor experiences. Once established, native habitats require much less maintenance than mowed lawns and manicured landscapes, with reductions in watering, mowing, weeding, and pesticide application.

With their deep roots and ability to both retain and purify water, native habitats will provide DeKalb with another vital benefit: the ability to reduce flooding and stormwater surges. These deep roots also allow native habitats to help reduce soil erosion, a major issue in agrarian communities like DeKalb.

Some DeKalb community members, like the DeKalb Park District and the Kishwaukee Water Reclamation District, have begun acting to reincorporate native habitats into the DeKalb landscape. Last year, these two entities initiated the joint “2020 Native Habitats Project” that aims to restore roughly 22 acres of green space to native habitat. If successful, more native habitat installations are planned to follow.

Furthermore, the City of DeKalb was certified as a Monarch City this past March, being only one of two cities in Illinois that has adopted the goal of providing habitat for the now-endangered monarch butterfly.

Hopefully, native habitat restoration will continue to be supported in DeKalb, thus giving DeKalb one more reason for residents to be proud of their city.