Thursday, Sep 19, 2019

A rescue mission for oak trees

Oak Rescue web photo.jpg
Volunteers for The Land Conservancy take part in the group’s first oak rescue near Alden Road in 2011. Courtesy photo

To help insure the survival and regeneration of one of the county’s most prized natural resources, The Land Conservancy of McHenry County will conduct what it calls “oak rescues.”

With 84 percent of the oak woodlands that remain in the county located on private land, TLC recognized it isn’t going to be the government that saves the oak woods of McHenry County but instead the actions of individual residents.

“[Oak rescues] give the landowners a little spark to jumpstart restoring their woods,” said Linda Balek, TLC land protection specialist.

This jumpstart comes in the form of TLC-managed labor.  Volunteers assist private landowners with the removal of invasive species such as buckthorn, honeysuckle and multiflora rose in existing oak groves. The presence of these invasive species inhibits the growth of the mature trees and shades the ground, preventing new oak seedlings from taking root.

“Out west it’s the spotted owl, and here it’s the oak tree,” said Balek. “People here feel a real affinity toward oak trees. It’s our star species.”

She said the idea for oak rescues originated with TLC’s Oak Keepers, a program that trains and sends volunteers out to privately owned woodlands across the county to conduct evaluations on the health of the woods and share restoration information with landowners. With the vast majority of the oak woods on private land, TLC recognized that building relationships with oak woodland landowners was paramount for the future preservation of the species.

In the process of conducting their evaluations, the Oak Keepers got to know the landowners, and they came up with the idea of oak rescue. Balek said their first oak rescue project was in 2011, and they have done about six so far, including workdays about a year ago on a 40-acre property southwest of Harvard belonging to Al Van Maren.

Van Maren, who lives on a 10-acre hobby farm on Lembcke Road, bought the property about six year ago through an auction. Already familiar with TLC’s Oak Keepers program, Van Maren invited them to come out for an evaluation.

“It’s a beautiful piece of property,” he said. “I was interested in determining information about the oaks because I recognized it as a large oak stand.”

Aside from a few hunters, he estimated the land has been virtually undisturbed by humans for about 100 years.  The Oak Keepers evaluation included an approximate tree count, species identification and noting the size and approximate age of some of the specimens.

Van Maren said, “They found one that they figure was about 330 years old – one of the oldest in the county.”

 TLC’s Balek proposed the idea of putting the property in a conservation easement, a voluntary, permanent agreement between a property owner and TLC to preserve the natural, agricultural or scenic qualities of their property. An easement specifies the uses that will be permitted and restricted today and in the future. 

 Van Maren agreed. “I’m conservation-oriented, and I’d hate to have that tract of land turned into a subdivision,” he said. “It’s a very good cause.”

A large oak tree is noticeable along Alden Road at the site of the first oak rescue. Balek said, “Now when I drive by there I always look at that oak because it sticks out. It was surrounded by a buckthorn jungle, but now you can see it stretching its branches out, the way it was intended to.”

Monthly workdays will begin in Harvard TLC will host a work day 9 a.m. to noon Saturday, April 25, at the Community Research Forest, 20500 Lembcke Road, Harvard. Volunteers are asked to park along the north side of the road. Workdays at this location will continue at the same time on the last Saturday of each month.