There are still some undiscovered natural treasures in McHenry County; that’s what Oak Keepers discovered once they started exploring tracts of privately owned woodlands.
“Eighty five-percent of the remaining oaks are on private land. In 2006, when we started Oak Keepers, we knew virtually nothing about those woods,” said Lisa Haderlein, executive director of the Land Conservancy of McHenry County.
Oak Keepers are trained volunteers who set out to collect data on the remaining oaks in McHenry County, which have dwindled to just 10 percent of the oaks that stood in pre-settlement days.
One of the most amazing finds was a grove of swamp white oak, a species that scientists believed did not exist anywhere in McHenry County. Oak Keepers found not just one, but three populations of 200-year-old swamp white oaks, in woods north of Marengo Ridge Conservation Area.
“When we set up training we were told don’t even teach about swamp white oak. There aren’t any there. McHenry has been farmed, developed; there are people all over the place. How did we miss that?” Haderlein wondered.
We live in a time when we feel all the great discoveries have already been made,” said Greg Rajsky, an Oak Keeper volunteer and trainer. “For a small stand of any species to have gone unrecorded is surprising; it reminds us we don’t know as much about our environment as we presume. It keeps us humble,” he said.
Grove of Red Oaks is 300+ Years Old
Another significant find was a grove of red oaks, 42-inches in diameter, on private property north of Harvard. That makes them more than 300 years old.
“What we uncovered was an uncut oak grove that was already mature when the first European settlers arrived here in the 1830s and 1840s. There are red and scarlet oaks of extraordinary size, also bur oaks and white oaks,” Rajsky said.
A staff member from the McHenry County Conservation district came out to record and map the grove. Rajsky said they discovered that the different species of oaks stood in swaths in the landscape depending on specific environmental factors.
“They sorted themselves out on the landscape,” Rajsky said.
“That’s what makes participating such an exciting thing. Every time you go out, you’re visiting a place you, as volunteers, have never been to and you don’t know what you will find. Some sites are very degraded; others are pristine. Every one is unique,” Rajsky said.
Oak Keepers also found a 52-inch diameter white oak in Bull Valley. Bull Valley has the largest concentration of oak woods in the county.
The Land Conservancy finds the oak stands with the help of an 1837 land survey together with aerial photographs from 2005. “We have a good record of where oaks were and still are. There are so many properties to be surveyed. We probably mailed a request to 400 landowners and that’s just scratching the surface,” Haderlein said.
Since the first class of Oak Keepers was trained in 2008, they have surveyed about 100 properties, concentrating on parcels that are 50 acres or more . The volunteers collect data about the age and condition of the trees, as well as the presence of invasive species. They also provide the landowners with information about managing and preserving the oaks. They have found that the landowners are very interested in learning about what they have on their property and how to preserve it.
Oaks Face Many Threats
In McHenry County, the old oaks are facing many stresses and the new oaks are having a hard time taking root.
“For the most part, what we are seeing is little seedlings and great granddaddy oaks, but not much in between. Part of that is a result of all the invasive species shading out the baby oaks. The oaks need sunshine,” said Becky Walkington, an Oak Keeper volunteer.
Oak groves were managed naturally in the past by fire, which burned out the understory and allowed seedlings to take root. Walkington said she found it interesting to look at the 1837 land survey regarding her own land in Bull Valley.
“I read the notes referencing the different species of oaks the surveyor found. In a lot of areas, they noted no undergrowth. I have to assume that naturally occurring fires had done the work,” she said.
Walkington said volunteering, as an Oak Keeper is a labor of love. “We are always looking for ways to protect and preserve the oaks in this area, which have diminished dramatically,” she said.
There are many threats to the oaks, including the stresses from encroaching development. Oaks are also susceptible to pests like gypsy moths and diseases like oak wilt.
“It could be catastrophic if all the oaks were gone. What we are hoping is that oak keepers can get enough information to know what’s happening and to intervene,” Haderlein said.
Quercus Needs Help to Survive
“There’s a wide-held misconception that you can leave things alone and nature will take care of it. We’ve learned that because of the stresses, it’s necessary for us to actively manage these sites. We can help landowners understand basic management and point them towards resources like conservancy tree care companies,” Rajsky said.
“I think oaks are a very visible representation of our natural heritage. They are magnificent and conspicuous on the landscape,” Rajsky said. “The data we collect will be used by people in the future to deepen their understanding. It’s not just about today. This is about tomorrow. We reap the benefits of the generation before us and we pay it forward.”
Oak Keepers is part of Project Quercus (the Latin name for oak), which aims to preserve, protect and regenerate the oak woods. Other projects include acorn roundups that provide the seeds for nursery-grown baby oaks and tree planting efforts.
The Land Conservancy has training sessions for Oak Keepers on Wednesdays, May 4, 11 and 25, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. The course fee is $20 and training is held at Land Conservancy offices, 4622 Dean St., Woodstock. This office is on a 25-acre oak woodland and wetland called Hennen Conservation Area.
The first two sessions are in the classroom, learning to identify oak species, native plants and invasive species. The third session is in the field. Contact volunteer coordinator Cheryl Perrone for more information, firstname.lastname@example.org or call the Land Conservancy, 815-337-9502.