Protecting oak trees – and the birds that rely on them – is aim of USDA grant program for landowners

The program aims to restore oak tree and bird populations in the county

In order to replenish the oak tree population in the Chicago-area collar counties and beyond, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service is providing financial assistance to landowners through a Regional Conservation Partnership Program with the American Bird Conservancy.

Any private property owner with forested land – from homeowners to farmers – can apply for the Improving Oak Ecosystem Health in the Great Lakes Region in Northeastern Illinois program. The program aims to restore oak ecosystems because they are “incredibly important” for the local ecology, climate and wildlife, American Bird Conservancy Great Lakes oak ecosystem coordinator Jordan Winkenbach said.

The program is available in McHenry, Will, DuPage, Kane, Kendall, DeKalb, Cook, Lake, Kankakee, Boone, Grundy and Winnebago counties.

About 40% of the Illinois landscape was once forest prior to European settlement and today it’s down to 15%, NRCS State Forester Wade Conn said. About 82% of the current forests reside on private lands, he said.

Winkenbach said “75% of all wildlife depend on forests” and “61% of our native plants in Illinois are grown in a forest situation.”

The program can help to preserve and manage the forests by prescribing controlled fires, removing invasive plant species and planting more oak trees, Conn said. Each property in the program will be analyzed and get its own tailored forest management plan, Winkenbach said.

The American Bird Conservancy is the lead partner of the program because the organization identified oak trees to be crucial to the vulnerable red-headed woodpecker and cerulean warbler populations and numerous other wildlife species, Winkenbach said.

The American Bird Conservancy is the lead partner of the program because they identified oak trees to be crucial to the vulnerable red-headed woodpecker populations.

“A long, long list of birds rely on oak trees for nesting, foraging and shelter,” she said.

Winkenbach hopes to see some results within one to two years of the five-year program, but it will take “a lifetime” of ongoing management to see significant improvements, she said.

Over time, oak tree population declines without management since it can be overgrown by invasive plant species and taller trees that can block sunlight, Conn said.

Conn said he hopes the program will make Illinois forests native, healthy and more diverse. Diverse forests can withstand invasive insects, climate change and extreme weather patterns, he said.

The program has a $3.8 million allocation, with half going to areas in Illinois. The other half will be dedicated to areas in Wisconsin, Regional Conservation Partnership Program coordinator Shannon Allen said.

Landowners can apply to participate in the program by March 29 by filling out a form online at nrcs.usda.gov/il.

“Without private landowners beginning to do this type of active management, we could keep seeing population loss,” Winkenbach said.