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.