CHANNAHON – Residents near McKinley Woods Forest Preserve District in Channahon might have seen some smoke coming from the woods Saturday morning – the effects of a controlled fire started by a crew of Forest Preserve staff and volunteers.
The burn pile was mostly made up of European buckthorn, a pesky weed, which can grow to 20 feet. The volunteers cut and dragged the buckthorn branches to a pile, which was then set on fire.
Jason Buss, the Forest Preserve Natural Resource Management crew leader and volunteer liaison in charge of Saturday’s operation, said taking out the weeds is necessary in order for nearby tall oaks, already established, have a chance to thrive.
“Buckthorn is a bushy invasive shrub that greens up first before anything else. It out-competes all the desirable native plant life that we want in this area,” Buss said.
A crew of about 25 people, almost all volunteers, spent the morning cutting and then dragging twig- and branch-size wood to the 6-by-15 wood pile. As the pile grew, branches and small logs were lobbed on top. By the end of the morning, about a half-acre of underbrush was cleared.
The 6 inches of snow on the ground didn’t deter Michael Siegel, a junior at Lewis University, from coming out to help.
He showed up in part because he needs community service hours for graduation – he has volunteered for the Forest Preserve District before – but he also saw the value for the environment.
“This ties into the management of the Earth, responsible management,” he said. “It is helping to develop a healthy ecosystem, and it fosters in others here the will to help the environment.”
Siegel said he was amazed at the core of regular volunteers who show up time after time.
Buss said those running chainsaws, for example, were volunteers the Forest Preserve District has trained; some of the volunteers are stewards who take and regularly patrol and report on some of the properties that the district owns.
One of the regular volunteers is Carrie Rock, who is with the Will County Audubon Society. Rock has been a volunteer for 18 years, mostly at Lake Renwick giving guided tours about birds.
“This is the first year, [that] I started doing habitat work,” she said as she picked up branches.
For her, volunteering is about protecting the natural areas that birds need to survive.
“The No. 1 reason birds and other animals go extinct boils down to habitat,” she said.
Other volunteers, like Taylor Runge of Joliet, were assigned by traffic court to put in community service hours. He didn’t seem to mind to temperatures in the 40s, the first day in the long winter that it has been this warm.
“It’s good to help the community and the neighborhoods.” Runge said. “I’m happy it’s super nice out.”
Most of the volunteers had on boots and layers of outer wear. By mid-morning, as it warmed up, some of the volunteers hung their jackets from trees as they continued to break and drag branches to the burn pile.
Ian Powers, another Forest Preserve worker, pointed out that by tackling the project in the winter, the invasive bushes are easy to spot. Another reason, he said, is that the need for water at the site to control the brush fire is lessened by the snow cover. The snow prevents the brush fire from spreading.
Still, “we always call the Fire Department to let them know,” Powers said.
When it’s all done, said Buss, the volunteers will have a great sense of satisfaction.
“Twenty years from now when they come back and there’s no buckthorn, and it’s been turned into an open oak area, these volunteers will know that the work day helped contribute to this natural area,’ Buss said.
The Will County Forest Preserve District has other work days scheduled. For information, visit www.reconnectwithnature.org.