Saving Illinois forests by cutting down trees

Conservationists normally plant trees – not cut them down. But, in an innovative project at Trail of Tears State Forest, that is precisely what the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) is doing to restore a more open, sunny forest that can support a diversity of life.

“We intent to restore a healthier, more resilient forest. Wildlife should find this a better forest to call home,” said IDNR forester David Allen, who co-led a collaborative work group of natural resource professionals, members of the ­community and conservation leaders through a two-year process to study the forest and determine what actions, if any, should be taken.

What group members found is that dramatic changes are sweeping Southern Illinois forests. Recent inven­tories of Trail of Tears State Forest reveal oak trees and native plants are on the decline. Oaks, the keystone tree ­species at the forest, saw numbers in the canopy drop by 50 percent between 1980 and 2014. At the same time, there was a steady increase in American beech and maple. Unfortunately, neither of the trees provides food for wildlife comparable to the oaks that are being lost.

Selectively removing trees should have a ripple effect in the Union County forest which spans more than 5,000 acres. It will restore the forest’s wildflowers, grasses and shrubs. Bees, butterflies and other pollinators feast on these ­flowers. It will improve habitat for wildlife, such as birds that prefer grassy openings for nesting and foraging. The area’s oak ­forests, woodlands and barrens are home to the state-threatened timber rattlesnake and rice rat, and, possibly the federally-endangered Indiana bat. In all, the forest is home to 23 species of conservation concern, a desig­nation that ­indicates their populations are small and/or declining.