The goal of the Oak Ecosytems Recovery Project is to implement the recommendations of the Oak Ecosystems Recovery Plan, developed by Chicago Wilderness, by working collaboratively with partners across the region.

So Few Oaks; So Little Time!

I have often said, “…if you can only plant one thing, plant an oak.”   This is because oaks as a species support the largest number of pollinators by far (at least 534 as documented by Dr. Doug Tallamy in Bringing Nature Home.) But don’t just think pollinators when thinking of oaks. Instead, take a look at Dr. John Hilty’s summary of the White Oak in Illinois Wildflowers and you can begin to understand how oaks are the vital center of several important Illinois ecosystems. And there is a great blog post from the National Wildlife Federation to check out that has even more detail!

Do you have an oak? One? More? Perhaps a woodland? Did you know our woodlands are in trouble and need our help? Once the primary component of Illinois woodlands and savannas, oaks are aging out of the system. This is largely because we are no longer managing our woodlands in the way that mimics the natural and Native American-set fires of pre-European settlement. Taking away this natural cycle of annual burns has allowed less fire-tolerant species such as red maple and sugar maple to begin to take over. Able to grow from a seedling stage in lower light conditions, maples are now shading out oaks.

But by far, the largest issue in our woodlands is the invasion of buckthorn and honeysuckle allowed by the lack of fire and the introduction of these species as ornamental plants many years ago. Oh what we have wrought! Once oaks accounted for 60% of Illinois trees. Now they only make up 5 percent even though the extent of Illinois woodlands is growing.

But another key factor is who owns our existing woods? The Illinois DNR has determined that 82% of Illinois woodlands are in private hands.   So while our park and forest preserve districts and some private landowners are doing what they can to manage these systems to foster oaks, clearly the survival of our oak woods is in the hands of private property owners. Properly managing just 18% of Illinois woodlands isn’t enough. And preserving but not taking on active stewardship of these important spaces is also insufficient.

The Chicago Region Trees Initiative is creating resources to help private landowners under their Oak Ecosystems Recovery Project. Through this, landowners of larger parcels can get in touch with technical and financial resources that can be of help. Are you such a person? Do you know one? Please help them connect with those who can help. The survival of many species is counting on us!