With nearly 70,000 acres of public lands, managing diverse ecosystems comes with many challenges. A lot of resources are needed to successfully restore habitats, from money to actual people performing work. This is why volunteer stewardship is often a vital component to restoration efforts in the Forest Preserves of Cook County. In the case of Miami Woods, a 111-acre natural area consisting of prairie and woodland, the dedication of the public is the very reason for the efforts.
“The restoration of Miami Woods began in 1977 when Stephen Packard (one of the first North Branch stewards and volunteer organizers) discovered many native prairie plants growing in a mowed meadow between Caldwell Avenue and the river,” explains Kent Fuller, who together with his wife Jerry, are the volunteer site stewards for Miami Woods. From the initial discovery, residents and local members from other conservation organizations worked with the Forest Preserves to stop the mowing of Miami Woods. Forty years later, the site tells a story of committed public interest and successful restoration work.
Since dedicated restoration work began 40 years ago, North Branch Restoration Project members have committed more than 25,000 volunteer hours at nearly 10,000 events. Efforts have been successful in controlling invasive species, returning sunlight to the ground, bringing fire to the landscape, and reintroducing native plant species.
“In the past, invasive species degraded Miami Woods Prairie and darkened woods where there was little vegetation on the ground, leaving large amounts of bare earth. Today, invasive species have been controlled and bike path users can enjoy open woods and a continuous layer of herbaceous vegetation—it looks beautiful,” explains Fuller.
While a lot of progress has been made since 1977, Miami Woods still has some areas for improvement. Deer browse continues to have an impact on the site, impeding efforts to restore wildflowers, shrubs and trees.
“The North Branch Restoration Project is an excellent example of the public being interested in their public lands—this is one of the oldest stewardship groups conducting work in the Forest Preserves, and is one of the most supportive of the Forest Preserves’ mission,” says Chip O’Leary, deputy director of resource management.
Photo provided by North Branch Restoration Project.