By Valerie Blaine
Oak trees are rugged. They're strong. They're beautiful. And they're disappearing.
The decline of oaks first caught the attention of ecologists throughout the Midwest, and now others are sitting up to take notice. To help spread the word, October 2015 has been designated as Oak Awareness Month, or "OAKtober" for short.
"Oak decline" refers to many types of oaks -- white oak, bur oak, red oak, and black oak to name a few. There are 19 species of oaks in Illinois, eight of which are native to Kane County. Across the board, our native oaks are in trouble.
The story of oak decline is not the story of one oak, or one species of oak, but of oak communities. In ecological terms, a community is a neighborhood of plants and animals, fungi, and other creatures. Every individual in the neighborhood grows in the context of its surroundings -- soil, water, sunlight, next-door neighbors, and visitors. So, to raise an oak it's a village kind of thing.
Oak trees once flourished in several kinds of communities in the Midwest -- forests, woodlands, and savannas. According to restoration ecologist Ben Haberthur, oak communities have disappeared at an alarming rate in Kane County, and the situation is just as bad elsewhere.
"The total loss for Kane County has been about 90 percent since the middle of the 19th century," Haberthur said, "and the story of oak loss has been repeated across every county in Illinois."
To understand the story, we look to conditions in pre-European settlement times. Oaks grew tall and mighty in forests near rivers, buffeted from the flames of prairie fires. Open oak woodlands dotted the landscape like islands on the sea of prairie. In savannas, great oak trees stood like sentinels with massive branches outstretched over grasses and wildflowers.
All of these oak communities were a draw to Native Americans, who found food and shelter under the big, spreading branches. Native peoples actively managed the woodlands and savannas, using fire to keep the habitat healthy for game.
The white people who followed sought these same wooded spots for timber and other natural resources. They, too, managed the land but with very different practices. Instead of using fire to keep woodlands healthy, settlers suppressed fire altogether. The lack of fire changed the composition of trees and herbaceous plants. Plants intolerant of fire, such as maples, basswood, and elms, were able to grow. These shaded out the sun-loving species such as oaks and hickories. Wildlife that thrived in open, oak woodlands declined and gave way to a host of other kinds of animals.
The pressures of land use were great in the 19th century. "While oaks that were cut down for timber may have been allowed to resprout," restoration ecologist Ben Haberthur explained, "those areas that were destined to be farmed had their oaks cut and the roots grubbed out. Many of those fields have yet to see an oak grow in their soil."
Once-large tracts of oak woodlands were broken into small parcels, separated by vast expanses of farm fields. The fragmentation of habitat reduced some wildlife while favoring others. As humans increasingly crossed continents, new plants and animals arrived. Some of these nonnative species aggressively took over native plant communities.
In the short span of 150 years, the character of the land was changing from inside-out and outside-in. Lack of fire led to more shade. Young, sun-loving oak trees died out. Exotic species changed the chemistry of the soil. A host of native plants declined, and without native ground cover, soil erosion increased. The entire infrastructure of oak woodlands and savannas began to fall apart.
Although the ecological change has been rapid, it may go unnoticed in our fast-paced, live-for-the-moment lifestyle. The older folks among us may reminisce about big old oak trees from childhood, and some may notice that those venerable giants are few and far between. Younger adults may know oaks only by the crowns of branches visible above the dense undergrowth of invasive plants. Kids may not know an oak from a telephone pole. None of us, old or young, can find many oak saplings anymore. They're just not there.
But it's not time to close the book! The story is far from over. Through the efforts of many throughout the region, oak restoration is well underway. The Forest Preserve District of Kane County plants thousands of oaks annually and actively manages these areas with prescribed fire, protection from deer, and invasive species control. Other public agencies and private landowners are also actively involved in restoration management of oak woodlands.
Oaks are part of our natural history, our cultural history, and our children's future. Change is a fact of life, and the goal of oak woodland management is not to re-create the oak communities of 1800. The soil, the climate, and the vegetation have changed too drastically, and conditions will continue to change in the upcoming century. But sustainability (a word that didn't enter the American lexicon until recently) should be on every page of the developing story. Managing land with the future in mind is a must.
The trees that once symbolized strength, endurance, and longevity are in peril. It's time to take notice, and take action. This is what Oak Awareness Month is all about. Help write the next chapter in the oak story by participating in "OAKtober" activities in Kane County.
• Valerie Blaine is a naturalist with the Forest Preserve District of Kane County. You may contact her at email@example.com.
OAKtober programs and events in Kane County
• Restoration of Oak Woodlands in Kane County -- Restoration ecologist Ben Haberthur will lead this class for adults at Creek Bend Nature Center, 37W700 Dean St., St. Charles This class will begin indoors with an overview of the ecology and restoration of oak woodlands. Participants will then head out on the trail to see examples of oak ecology and restoration in action. For adults only; registration required. Call (630) 444-3190 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Saturday, Oct. 10, 9 a.m. -1 p.m. Fee: $10
• From Acorn to Oak -- This program is part of the monthly "Homeschool Explorations" series at Elburn Forest Preserve, 45W061 Route 38, Maple Park. In "OAKtober," the focus will be oak regeneration. For home-school groups only; registration required. Call (630) 444-3190 or email email@example.com. Wednesday, Oct. 14, 10-11:30 a.m. Fee: $2/person
• Mighty Oaks of Kane County -- All ages are welcome to this naturalist-guided walk at Dick Young Forest Preserve, 39W115 Main St., Batavia. The focus will be on oak identification and ecology as you hike along the trails. You're sure to find wildlife this time of year, with the abundant crop of acorns on the ground. Registration required. Call (630) 444-3190 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Saturday, Oct. 17, 1-2:30 p.m. Free
• "Oh, Nuts!" -- This program is part of our Little Naturalists and Nature Tykes series for 3- to 5-year-olds at Creek Bend Nature Center, 37W700 Dean St., St. Charles. There will be stories, crafts, and a nature hike. Registration required. Call (630) 444-3190 or email email@example.com. Thursday, Oct. 22, 9:30-10:15 a.m. and 1-2 p.m. Fee: $5/child
• Kane County Big Tree Program -- This workshop for adults is an introduction to the Big Tree Registry of Illinois and the Kane County Big Tree Program. Participants will learn the protocol for measuring trees for nomination as champion big trees on the state and county level at Creek Bend Nature Center, 37W700 Dean St., St. Charles. Registration required. Call (630) 444-3190 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Sunday, Oct. 25, 1-4 p.m. Free