HARVARD – Small white flowers cover the floor of the 93-acre woodlands, dominated by a variety of oaks, bitternut hickory and black cherry, just south of Route 14 in Dunham Township.
“It’s just so dramatic,” said Lisa Haderlein, the executive director of The Land Conservancy of McHenry County. “You don’t usually see that because most woods have been overgrown with brush, honeysuckle, buckthorn and multiflora rose.”
Oaks – in forests, woodlands, savannas and barrens – used to cover one-third of McHenry County, but as settlers moved in and development escalated, the trees quickly disappeared.
A 2005 survey conducted by the McHenry County Conservation District put the amount of mature oaks at 18,000 acres, an 87 percent drop from the 1837 estimate of 143,000 acres.
If that rate continues, a majority of the remaining oaks could disappear in the next three decades, the survey projected.
The conservation district and The Land Conservancy of McHenry County hope the 93-acre oak stand, now known as the McHenry County Community Research Forest, will prevent some of that loss by providing a large-scale living laboratory for researchers, private landowners, students and anyone interested in the long-term survival of oaks.
It will provide a place for long-term research into every aspect of the ecology of oak woodlands, potentially including the types of fireflies that live there, why oaks generate under certain circumstances but not others, and the effect of prescribed burning, said Ed Collins, the conservation district’s director of land preservation and natural resources.
First, though, two entities will conduct a “very thorough inventory” of what’s out there now and put together a research prospectus, Collins said.
About 53 acres were bought outright by the conservation district using in large part a grant from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation. The remaining 40 acres were donated to The Land Conservancy as a conservation easement by its owner, Al Van Maren.
Haderlein hopes this example will serve as inspiration to other landowners – most of the remaining oak stands are on privately owned land – to preserve and restore their oak stands as well as provide the platform to research the economic benefits of restoration.
“That’s the challenge we’re going to see going forward,” Haderlein said. “The conservation district can’t just buy them all.”