While walking a trail this winter in one of the St. Charles Park District’s natural areas you may occasionally find workers cutting shrubs, clearing brush and even cutting down trees.
This may seem counterintuitive, but it is necessary work that must be completed to help woodland ecosystems in this region thrive. And part of that work is made possible by resident volunteers.
Winter woody work includes ridding a woodland area of trees, brush and shrubs that are nonnative and/or blocking sunlight from reaching the native understory. If the native understory - the layer of vegetation between the woodland canopy and floor consisting of shrubs and herbaceous vegetation -- does not prosper, the entire ecosystem will unravel.
The goal is to have 30-50 percent canopy openings in a woodland setting, according to St. Charles Park District Lead Restoration Technician Ryan Solomon.
“The misconception is that woodland areas are supposed to be dense and predominantly shady. That is not true. A healthy oak woodland needs 30-50 percent of open sky,” he said.
That 30-50 percent is not some arbitrary percentage; rather, it’s the percentage needed for acorns to germinate. “If it is too shaded for acorns to germinate, the conditions are better for nonnative species and inhibits the growth of natives,” Solomon said.
This, in turn, affects the insects, birds and wildlife that depend on those natives to survive.
It is also the goal to save the “keystone species” such as oak trees. “Just one oak tree can host more than 1,500 different species of insects, that mass of insects plays an important role for ecosystem functions,” Solomon added.
The Naturalist team manages more than 500 acres including 11 designated natural areas. Over the course of the winter season, staff - with the help of community volunteers - will work on six or seven natural areas and intensely focus on three to four sections, equating to about 10 acres.
Delnor Woods is one area the park district will focus on this winter. The 45-acre park featuring a native oak-hickory woodland will undergo both canopy thinning and brush clearing.
It has been about 20 years since Delnor Woods has undergone intense clearing.
“Every natural area has negative and positive areas, and we’re turning the page on addressing the negative components of Delnor Woods which include the invasive understory,” Solomon said.
“Our focus will be the overgrowth of invasive shrubs that have gotten so prolific that it’s choked everything else out,” he added.
The park is also a priority due to its higher percentage of oaks than other natural areas, and the fact that it’s a heavily trafficked park with its .66 mile trail that winds through the woodland; grasslands, wetlands and a dam with a small waterfall. It also features the Timeless Tags dog memorial, a shelter and playground.
Solomon welcomes all residents to lend a hand to help natural areas thrive.
Volunteers help with light work such as shrub cutting, using hand saws or loppers. No experience is necessary, as Solomon and other staff will provide instruction and education.
“Volunteers quickly realize the importance of native plants and natural areas. It’s an uplifting experience. Especially with brush clearing, volunteers can see the difference they’ve made in a particular area that same day,” he said.
Volunteer work days are every Saturday, but the time and location may change weekly. Solomon encourages residents who are interested to e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org to sign-up for a weekly update on the various volunteer work days.