Restor­ing Cran­berry Slough to glory

Daily Southtown (Sunday) - - Front Page - Donna Vick­roy

Ecol­o­gists thought it had been lost for­ever.

But just one year into the Cook County For­est Pre­serve District’s 2015 nat­u­ral and cul­tural re­sources mas­ter plan, the tiny tway­blade orchid re-emerged at Cran­berry Slough in the Pa­los Pre­serves.

“We thought it­was ex­tri­cated from this site,” said Kristin Pink, re­source ecol­o­gist for the For­est Pre­serve District. “But the very first sea­son af­ter brush re­moval we found it again.”

The tiny ground-dwelling na­tive plant with pur­ple flow­ers was just­wait­ing in the soil for some­one to clear away dense in­va­sive species so sun­light could reach it, she said.

The on­go­ing work at Cran­berry Slough, so named be­cause it is home to a bog that once bore the large cran­berry plant, has all the mak­ings of a clas­sic tale of good ver­sus evil, with the bat­tle be­ing waged be­fore the eyes of ca­sual ob­servers.

It is the story of a land once flour­ish­ing with na­tive plants and an­i­mals that over decades of ne­glect be­came over­run by in­vaders. Seeds from plants such as the bush hon­ey­suckle, brought over from western Asia and em­braced by Chicago-area home­own­ers be­cause of its beau­ti­ful flow­ers and scent, were trans­ported by birds to the for­est ar­eas.

Though lovely, Pink said, the

bush does not be­long in north­ern Illi­nois, and its pres­ence is harm­fully af­fect­ing ev­ery­thing from plant life to bird health to for­est aes­thet­ics. Like other in­va­sive plants, the hon­ey­suckle is ag­gres­sive and quickly ex­pands its reach, snuff­ing out na­tive flora.

On a re­cent rainy Tues­day morn­ing, Pink, who grew up on the Pa­los Pre­serves bor­der in Wil­low Springs and grad­u­ated from Argo Com­mu­nity High School and the Univer­sity of Illi­nois, took me and a pho­tog­ra­pher on a 2.3-mile tour of the Cran­berry Slough area.

As we tra­versed the mul­tiuse Coun­try Lane Road, partly in truck, partly on foot, we could eas­ily point out the ar­eas where restora­tion work al­ready has been done.

On one side of the trail, the woods were dark, dense and over­grown with non­na­tive plants; on­the other, rain and sun­light made its way to the ground, nour­ish­ing na­tive jew­el­weed and but­ton­bush along the­way.

The re­stored area is health­ier for plants and an­i­mals, bet­ter for wa­ter qual­ity and more invit­ing to the hik­ers and horse­back rid­ers who use the trail, Pink said.

The 12,000-acre Pa­los re­gion is a top pri­or­ity in the For­est Pre­serve District’s mas­ter plan, Pink said. And Cran­berry Slough, home to the only bog in Cook County, is a top pri­or­ity among that, she said. Other ar­eas tar­geted for eco­log­i­cal restora­tion are Sand Ridge in South Hol­land, Jur­gensen Woods in Lans­ing, Busse Woods in Elk Grove Vil­lage and Deer Grove in Palatine.

Cran­berry Slough, west of LaGrange Road on 95th Street, sits in a north­east sec­tion of the Pa­los re­gion, which is the largest tract of for­est pre­serves and most con­tigu­ous nat­u­ral area in the county, Pink said.

The slough is “big and mostly a rem­nant nat­u­ral area — an eco­log­i­cal com­mu­nity that’s mostly intact,” she said.

A rem­nant area is one that is near to its na­tive roots, she ex­plained. The soil has never been turned for farm­ing, the tree canopy is largely intact and there’s been rel­a­tively lit­tle degra­da­tion, she said.

“The plants and an­i­mals that live here have es­sen­tially lived here for thou­sands of years,” Pink said. The area rep­re­sents “a di­rect line all the way back to the glaciers” some 12,000 years ago.

In the three years since the county be­gan work to re­move in­va­sive species there, 220 acres of the 570acre site have been cleared, mostly with grind­ing ma­chin­ery and pre­scribed burns, which rids the area of leaf lit­ter and stim­u­lates the na­tive sys­tem of plants, Pink said.

And the dif­fer­ence has been sig­nif­i­cant, she said.

Al­ready, more na­tive plants are flour­ish­ing, and that bodes well for the wildlife, she said. Of­fi­cials hope the change will ben­e­fit the fed­er­ally threat­ened north­ern long-eared bat that has been spot­ted there, aswell as two wood peck­ers, the red-headed and the pil­li­ated, both of which are rarely seen across other parts of the county but ap­pear fre­quently near Cran­berry Slough, she said.

In­deed, dur­ing a twohour tour, a red-headed wood­pecker was spied flit­ting among the trees. Near Crooked Creek, a pair of hum­ming­birds chased each other among the jewel weed. Andthe calls of many dif­fer­ent birds were heard, in­clud­ing the Eastern WoodPee­wee, named for its song.

So far the For­est Pre­serve District has in­vested $460,000 of the $800,000 it ex­pects to spend, said spokes­woman Stacina Stag­ner, with work be­ing done by for­est pre­serve em­ploy­ees aswell as con­trac­tors.

“We still have a lot to do, but we’re mov­ing at a brisk pace,” Pink said.

In Novem­ber, pre­scribed burn­ing once again will get un­der­way.

“Some­times when peo­ple hear ‘fire,’ they might think of wild­fires in Cal­i­for­nia. It’s much dif­fer­ent here,” she said.

The in­ten­tion­ally set fires that the For­est Pre­serve District con­ducts are low­in­ten­sity, de­signed to burn off de­bris, Pink said.

“When you re­move leaf lit­ter, in the spring­time that black soil left be­hind will heat up faster, and you’ll have plants green­ing up quicker. You’re also go­ing to have more flow­ers on the plants. The plants be­come more pro­duc­tive. And that means more food for the en­tire sys­tem. So you’ll have more in­sects. It’s quite a re­mark­able tool,” she said.

Cran­berry Slough also is home to sev­eral wet­lands, which ben­e­fit as well when in­va­sive species are re­moved, Pink said. The fish­less ponds are home to frogs and sala­man­ders that head up­land to for­age. If the land around awet­land is cov­ered with non­na­tive shrubs, the am­phib­ians can’t find enough food, she said.

“It’s a com­plex sys­tem, all in­ter­twined,” she said.

Be­cause the area has the abil­ity to re­turn to its na­tive state, it was given top pri- or­ity, Pink said.

Cook County is among the most eco­log­i­cally di­verse ar­eas in the coun­try, Pink said. Ev­ery­thing that is liv­ing atCran­berry Slough is “the zenith of ge­netic and bi­otic di­ver­sity,” Pink said. “That just can­not be re­placed. It can­not be planted. We just don’t un­der­stand enough. We must fo­cus on (restor­ing) rem­nants. Cran­berry Slough is mostly a rem­nant. It just needs a lit­tle bit of help. That’swhywe’re fo­cus­ing here and are ex­pand­ing out­ward to re­store 12,000 acres in the Pa­los area.”

“It’s an am­bi­tious project, but we are mak­ing great progress,” she said.

The work of re­turn­ing the area to its bright, sun­light-dap­pled na­tive state will be bol­stered by sus­tained land man­age­ment, aimed at keep­ing the area as it was meant to be, she said. Be­cause of this work, other rare na­tive plant species, in­clud­ing the Michi­gan lily, In­dian tobacco and fire pink, are re­turn­ing to the land­scape.

All of them, in­clud­ing the pur­ple tway­blade, are har­bin­gers of even­bet­ter things to come, she said.

GARY MIDDENDORF/DAILY SOUTH­TOWN PHOTOS

Kristin Pink grew up on the bor­der of the Pa­los Pre­serves in the Cook County For­est Pre­serve District sys­tem. To­day, the ecol­o­gist is over­see­ing a restora­tion project at Cran­berry Slough that has re­sulted in the re­turn of many na­tive plants.

Coun­try Lane Road winds through part of the Pa­los Pre­serves in the Cook County For­est Pre­serve District sys­tem. Restora­tion work en­ables na­tive plants to re­turn to the area.

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