Volunteers Free Oak Trees in McHenry County
Read more about the McHenry County Conservation District's efforts to cut down invasive species during the winter months.
Naturalists say winter is the best time to work on habitat restoration.
“You can actually see what you are doing without the leaves. You’re not dealing with the heat or the mosquitoes,” said Denice Beck, volunteer coordinator for the McHenry County Conservation District. “It gets people outside to really appreciate the winter weather. Some people get outside and realize it’s fun to be outside in winter.”
Conservation district staff and volunteers braved temperatures in the mid-teens on a recent Saturday morning at Harrison Benwell Conservation Area in Wonder Lake. They came to cut down invasive species, mostly buckthorn and honeysuckle, giving the oak trees and other native species room to grow.
Site steward Pat Heald often greets volunteers at Harrison Benwell with a hug.
“We’re tree huggers and people huggers,” Heald said.
Restoration work is a community-building activity and there are many regulars.
“You’re moving, you’re working and talking to other people. It’s social as well as a work day,” Beck said.
Volunteer Karen Lundell, of Woodstock, said she enjoys restoration work in winter.
“It gets you out into the environment in winter, out in the fresh air. It’s an extra winter activity,” said Lundell. “It feels really good when you see the results.”
Heald has worked as site steward at Harrison Benwell for four years, with the help of his co-steward and daughter, Emily, 20. He and other volunteers have helped open up significant areas, bringing them closer to their natural state, an oak savanna.
Beck recalled a fall workday when the volunteers thought they were clearing an area of invasive species to save three oak trees. In the midst of restoration, they found 10 more small oaks that were being crowded out.
“We call it freeing oak trees,” Beck said. “The non-native species take up valuable real estate.”
Greg Rajsky, volunteer site steward for Pleasant Valley Conservation Area, located just west of Crystal Lake, said often people don’t understand restoration, believing the densely wooded areas are natural.
“The dense brush is an unnatural state. In an oak savanna the most conspicuous members are the oaks, but there are also grasses and forbs,” Rajsky said. Restored areas at Harrison Benewall are starting to return to the natural state in which the oaks shoot out from among waist-high grasses and forbs.
“This kind of restoration work is ideal for winter. The best temperatures are in the low to mid 20s,” Rajsky said.
Volunteers contribute about 3,500 hours per year on restoration projects at McHenry County Conservation District. Beck said interested volunteers are certain to find a site close to home. There are 15 sites with active restoration projects. Families, scouting and school groups are welcome, but children should be at least 7 years old.
“Anybody who wants to come and give back to the environment will probably find a place here,” Beck said. Volunteers are encouraged to socialize and have fun.
“If people are not having a good time, we’re not doing our job,” Beck said. As a result of the friendly atmosphere, many volunteers return for more opportunities.
On Martin Luther King’s Day, Jan. 17, Rajsky will lead a community service project at Pleasant Valley, from 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. He said the restoration work will include burning a huge pile of brush that has been building.
There are many more opportunities to volunteer as the district runs habitat restoration workdays every Saturday and most Sundays. Individuals do not need to register, and can just drop in, but should call the site steward ahead of time, to ensure the workday is on.