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posted: 1/3/2013 5:11 AM

Partnership brings navtive plants to utility corridors

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Chicago Botanic Garden submission

Plant life that was abundant nearly 200 years ago has re-emerged in northern Illinois habitats thanks to a public-private prairie restoration partnership between the Chicago Botanic Garden, ComEd and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

Beginning in 2010, the Chicago Botanic Garden and ComEd collaborated to review research design options to determine best management practices to convert overgrown utility corridors to native, sustainable landscapes.

Less than a year later, vegetation management experts from ComEd began conducting the research under the direction of the Chicago Botanic Garden at Illinois Beach State Park in Benton Township.

After ComEd performed routine vegetation maintenance at the selected sites with chain saws and brush mowers, preliminary findings from the research plots at Illinois Beach State Park showed an increase in the number of different species of foliage and also revealed a higher quality plant community and increase in rare plants.

Nearly 300 different plant species, including newly identified 40 species, were recorded from under the newly managed transmission lines in the marsh, sedge meadow and prairie habitats at the 4,160-acre Illinois State Beach Park.

Research plots were established and each set of plots will receive different treatment methods in subsequent years to test best management practices. Some of the varying treatment methods included prescribed burning, selective herbicide applications, and seeding with native plants.

The native plants are no longer in competition with exotic vegetation for sunlight and soil nutrients. These low-growing plants are compatible with power lines and pose little risk of creating a power outage.

Plants that were once everyday staples for early Midwestern settlers such as the ground nut (Apios americana) and the scouring rush (Equisetum hyemale) have now reappeared.

"We are hopeful the lessons learned from this collaboration can one day serve as a road map on how a groundbreaking public-private partnership can protect natural habitats beyond northern Illinois," said Greg Mueller, vice president of Science and Academic Programs at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

Two new research locations are also under way in Vernon Hills and Highland Park.

When the research is finalized in 2016, the Chicago Botanic Garden, ComEd and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources aim to implement the best practices learned in ComEd's ongoing maintenance of 3,000 corridor right of way miles and 5,300 miles of power lines throughout northern Illinois.

The research sites at Illinois Beach State Park are part of a larger area being managed through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation's Great Lakes Restoration Initiative/Sustainable Lakes Partnership.

This partnership is led by the Forest Preserve District of Lake County and they are currently in the second year of a five-year, $874,000 program to protect endangered species and foster sustainable, native vegetation while managing tree growth beneath electric transmission lines.