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Experience the natural world with east central Illinois master naturalists
field trip

Reforestation & Habitat Restoration Tour

Posted by Maddy Kangas -

Master Naturalist Field Trip
Reforestation & Habitat Restoration Tour
October 26, 2016
By Mary Eppich, '15

In the early twentieth century, my grandfather and his sons harvested trees from the southern Illinois hardwood forests, which were being converted to farmland. His sawmill was a prosperous business, and many houses, barns, stores, and schools were constructed using Grandpa's lumber.


Dwelling now in the "Land of Corn and Soybeans," I have mixed emotions about my family's legacy. The farmland produces abundant crops, which help feed the world. But the vast forests of oak and hickory trees are now gone, and with them the forest habitat for wildlife.

So it was with a joyful heart that I joined with other Master Naturalists to take the Champaign County Reforestation and Habitat Restoration Tour. We learned first-hand how some local farmers are taking advantage of a wide variety of conservation practices--from pollinator plants to prairie plants and trees--to restore the forests on their land. These practices save soil from eroding, clean the air, and provide great habitat for wildlife.

Our tour took us to three farms, where we were greeted by the landowners and several professionals from local environmental organizations: Jason Bleich, from Pheasants Forever; Stacy Lindemann, from the National Wild Turkey Federation; Kurt Bobsin, from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (retired); Jay Hayek, State Extension Forestry Specialist at UIUC; and Ray Hermann, retired USDA NRCS.



Len Stelle's Farm

The first property was Len Stelle' farm. Len has owned this property for many years, and was eager to show off his prairie. He told us all about the racoons preying on quail eggs in his prairie, the Monarch butterflies blanketing the tall goldenrod, and his exciting prairie burns -- to which his wife had invited the local fire department.

We also visited the restored forest area on the Stelle property. The restored forest covers 29 acres, which had been direct-seeded with hardwoods in Fall 2000, and now has trees 15-20 feet tall.


We learned that direct seeding means using a tractor to plant actual acorns, hickory nuts, walnuts, and pecans about 10 feet apart, in rows also about 10 feet apart. The regular spacing facilitates mowing and other management of the forest. Over time, the rows become less obvious as the trees are selectively thinned and a second generation of trees begin to sprout.

NOTE: An alternative to direct seeding is planting bare-root trees. A​ ​​ ​bare-root​ tree ​is​ ​a​ young​ ​tree,​ ​no​ ​soil.​ ​​ ​It looks​ ​like​ ​a​ ​stick.​ ​​ ​It​ ​is​ ​about​ ​2​ ​feet​ ​long,​ ​half​ ​of​ ​which​ ​is​ ​root.

bare root.jpg

Stan Zehr's Farm

The second property on our tour was Stan Zehr's farm. This property has been farmed by the


Zehr family for many generations, and his practical farmer attitude was apparent in the way he has planted prairie and tree buffers along the drainageway to prevent erosion.

Mr. Zehr's trees were direct-seeded into over 11 acres in Fall 2000, and they are now over 20 feet tall.

We walked into the forest and learned how to identify the trees which had the highest potential to be harvested for lumber: the tall, straight ones, with no fork in the trunk. Once identified, the area around the "chosen ones" will be cleared to permit adequate sunlight for healthy growth to penetrate the canopy. Also, through selective harvesting over long periods of time, the natural habitat will be preserved. Mr. Zehr (a hunter as well as a farmer) was pleased to report that the deer had already begun to feed on the seeds (nuts) being produced by his trees.


Lunch Break at Middlefork Forest Preserve

We stopped for lunch at Middlefork Forest Preserve. While enjoying a delicious box lunch, we heard brief presentations from local private and governmental conservation groups about volunteer opportunities in everything, from prairie burns to river clean-ups.

Kenny Warner Farm

The final stop was the Kenny Warner farm, which the family has owned since the 1970's.

Starting in the fall of 2000 with direct seeding hardwoods on 31 acres of the farm, Mr. Warner's timber acres have grown to 200 acres of trees. The Warner family now enjoys year around camping, hunting, hiking, and the joy of caring for the land.


At the Warner farm, we watched a tractor direct seed several rows of hardwoods by cutting a shallow slit into the soil and dropping a seed into the slit every few feet.

We then had a chance to see the tractor plant some bare-root trees. I volunteered to ride along. As the tractor cut a 1-foot deep slit into the soil, my job was to quickly push bare-root trees into the slit. We planted about 50 trees. Grandpa would be so proud of me!

This was a very informative field trip. Forests are a rare and very valuable ecological resource. According to the Extension website, approximately 61 percent of the native flora, 82 percent of the mammals, 62 percent of the birds, and 79 percent of the amphibians and reptiles in Illinois require forested habitat for a portion of their life cycles.

We are fortunate to have landowners who are dedicated to preserving and expanding their forests.

Special thanks to the Fields Trip Committee and to Jonathon Manuel, Resource Conservationist, Champaign County Soil and Water Conservation District, for organizing and leading the tour, as well as helping with this article.


Thanks also to photographers Allan Penwell and Renee Weitekamp for sharing their photos.

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