Tuesday, July 15, 2008


I wrote awhile back about Sugar Maples dominating the understories of our woods around these parts. The PJ Star ran a good article this past Sunday on a restoration attempt along Farm Creek:


Picture 33,600 tons of dirt. Now, picture it sliding into the Illinois River's Peoria lakes. It happens in this city every year.

Clay-laden soil, barren and seemingly lifeless under the sun-blocking canopies of sugar maples with leaves as big as an outstretched hand, slips with each rainfall from East Peoria's maze of bluffs and ravines, eventually reaching the river.

Can a government agency such as the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission slow that erosion? By itself, no. The Fondulac Park District also can do only so much with the forested river bluffs under its jurisdiction.

"It's a long process to restore a bluff area" to the mix of prairie grasses and hardwood oaks and hickories that graced central Illinois before settlers started putting down roots about 170 years ago, park district Director Brad Smith said. "It's very labor intensive and takes a lot of time."

That's why the estimated 300 people who own about 700 acres of tree-choked land throughout what's known as the Farm Creek Watershed will soon get an offer Tri-County hopes they don't refuse.

Tri-County will provide a professional forester to thin the land of sugar maples, black locusts and other invasive species. The landowner - perhaps in a deal with his neighbors along the blufflands - will pay half the fees, or work some cost off by helping. Using a grant it just obtained, Tri-County will cover the rest of the bill.

Then, perhaps, the landowner will discover his barren forest floor is anything but lifeless; that native grasses, maybe even an oak tree, have been waiting for the sun to return them to life after a dormant century.

"What's so incredible is that nothing is planted," Melissa Eaton, a Tri-County project planner, said as she walked recently through a sun-dappled stretch of the woods of Camp Wokanda near Mossville.

Eaton was referring to the carpet of fauna beneath a high leaf canopy opened by the forest control procedures first introduced to the area several years ago in the Mossville Watershed, including the Peoria Park District's camp, and which Tri-County now will bring to the watershed encompassing East Peoria.

Before the Wokanda area was thinned and professionally burned, the dirt path on which Eaton walked through flooded and eroded with each heavy rain.

"Not anymore," she said.

That's the benefit grass-covered bluffs and ravine edges will bring to owners of homes built before East Peoria passed a "steep slope" ordinance several years ago that strictly regulates construction near bluff and ravine edges. The city also is filled with backyards that, sometimes overnight with sloughs of erosion, are steadily shrinking.

Tri-County recently obtained a $300,000 grant through the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to launch its program designed to reduce erosion into the river from the Farm Creek Watershed by 20,000 tons a year.

It will work with the Native American Fellowship Daysprings Church on Norwood Place in East Peoria to produce an example of bluff restoration on its wooded acres similar to Camp Wokanda, then use it as a demonstration site for homeowners.

Plans also call for workshops Tri-County's hired forester will hold to teach owners how to restore their lands as nearly as possible to the conditions that recurring fires - deliberately set by American Indians to improve hunting grounds or naturally ignited by lightning - maintained before the European era.

Eaton, like Fondulac's Smith, cautioned the process takes time.

Just removing the "sub-canopy" of sugar maples and doing nothing else, she said, "is like opening a Pandora's box." Suddenly, a ground coating of baby maples, fed by sun, can explode towards the sky.

That tree, which spread up the bluffs from lowlands after fires no longer controlled them, thrives by spreading its canopy, while the oak aims in the opposite direction, Eaton said.

"With maples it's leaves, leaves, leaves. With oaks it's roots, roots, roots," she said.

Then, as she walked through Camp Wokanda with her two young daughters, she stopped and pointed to a plant that looked to the uneducated like any other, though a bit taller with a healthy green stem.

"Look. An oak."

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