Scientists have completed a “dramatic” decades-long restoration of an ancient oak woodland in Illinois — a rare success story that researchers say holds key lessons for ecological restoration at a time when forests are increasingly seen as a critical tool for fighting climate change, according to a new study published in the journal PLOS ONE.
Most ecological restoration projects fail over the long term, scientists say, from a lack of sustained financial resources, scientific expertise, labor, and time. “Once we destroy a natural area, it has proved disturbingly difficult and expensive to bring it back,” Greg Spyreas, a research scientist at the Illinois Natural History Survey and co-author of the study, said in a statement. “This study shows you how to do it.”
The transformation of Vestal Grove, a stand of old-growth oak trees within the Somme Prairie Grove preserve in Cook County, started in 1983. After decades of mismanagement, the 7-acre grove had been completely taken over by a tangle of buckthorn shrubs. For more than 30 years, a team of scientists and volunteers — led by ecologists at the University of Illinois, Habitat Restoration LLC, and the Somme Prairie Grove forest preserve — pulled and burned the invasive plants; thinned the density of the ancient oaks to encourage reproduction; harvested and hand-planted seed from native trees and plants; culled deer; and, importantly, managed prescribed burns of the land every two years.
The project was temporarily halted for several years in the late 1990s due to a dispute over management of the land. Even in that short time, the grove began reverting back to its buckthorn-tangled state. Restoration work resumed in 2003.
Vestal Grove now contains mature oak trees surrounded by native grasses and flowers, such as shooting stars and wild hyacinths. Native species such as Appalachian brown butterflies have also returned to the land. “These woods give you a sense of what Illinois once looked and felt like,” Spyreas said. “Because of what we’ve learned from this and similar experiments, much larger areas are now being restored more quickly and at less expense.”