Volunteer Project Tackles Invasive Plants In North Suburban Watersmeet Woods Forest Preserve

Veteran and first-time volunteers alike helped make an 18-month land restoration collaboration a success at Watersmeet Woods near Northfield.

Funded by the Illinois Clean Energy Foundation's community stewardship grant and private donations, this latest effort at Watersmeet wraps up in October. Enthusiastic volunteers, led by site stewards Eileen Sutter and John Berg, spent more than 450 hours using saws and loppers to remove invasive plant species such as common buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica), glossy buckthorn (Rhamnus frangula), multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora), and alien honeysuckles (Lonicera spp).

Additional educational events at Watersmeet included seed collecting, a spring ecology and wildflower walk, and a late-summer mushroom identification outing. The events were designed to encourage the community to visit their local Cook County Forest Preserves site.

Under the oversight of Friends of the Chicago River Conservation Programs Specialist Maggie Jones, the project also included raising private funds, organizing volunteers, and creating social media accounts to connect with active and prospective volunteers. "The site stewards, Eileen and John, were invaluable in this project. Their leadership and dedication led the way in welcoming volunteers and meeting project goal," Jones said.

With the funds raised, contractors supplemented the volunteer work using mowers and other heavy-duty equipment clearing nearly 10 acres of invasive plant species. Friends is also working with the Cook County Forest Preserves to install a kiosk onsite to educate the public on the value of such work in improving wildlife habitat (more conducive to turtles and other creatures) and flood prevention (native plants absorb runoff better) and advertise future volunteer work days.

"Large organizations just don't have the money to do all that is necessary to keep these rare ecosystems alive, so a large volunteer base is needed. The loss of biodiversity is a loss for all humankind," said Berg.

Sutter noted that the area is now home to sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale), boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum), cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), and great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica). "Two years ago, it was full of buckthorn and very little else," she said.

"Monarch butterflies and bumblebees are now nectaring and gathering pollen from those native plants," Sutter added. "Nature was our first home, it has always fed our bodies and our spirits and continues to do so."

Watersmeet is a 160 acre complex of wet prairie, savanna, and floodplain and gets its name from the location where the Middle & East Forks of the Chicago River join. It has been a regular nesting site for various birds of prey, woodcocks, and turtles. In recent years, this has also been the site of a great blue heron rookery.

The Illinois Clean Energy Foundation was established in December 1999 as an independent foundation with a $225 million endowment provided by Commonwealth Edison. Its mission is to improve energy efficiency, advance the development and use of renewable energy resources, and protect natural areas and wildlife habitat in communities across Illinois.

The foundation has provided financial support for clean energy investments in Illinois through a variety of programs, awardeding over 5,000 grants providing $258 million to Illinois nonprofit organizations, schools, municipalities and other local and state government agencies. The grants support activities in every one of Illinois' 102 counties.

Friends of the Chicago River is an award-winning nonprofit organization whose mission is to improve and protect the Chicago River for people, plants and animals. With over 14,000 members, volunteers, and online advocates, Friends works to make the river greener and more accessible, while building awareness of the benefits that a clean, healthy river can bring to the surrounding community. Friends of the Chicago River is working to make the Chicago River one of the world's great metropolitan rivers. For more information visit www.chicagoriver.org.