Lake County restoration project to see if native grasses are key to dealing with climate change
Restoring landscapes to their native state is a regular practice for the Lake County Forest Preserve District, but a pending project at Grant Woods in Ingleside has the added aspect of climate change as a key element.
In late October or early November, more than 800 pounds of native grass seed will be sown over 180 acres of what had been rolling agricultural fields east of Route 59 and north of Monaville Road. Two thirds of the land will be sown with seed "sourced" farther south than normally would be the case to determine whether it will be a better choice for future restorations as climate change progresses.
"We know that by 2050, our climate is predicted to be more like Oklahoma," said Pati Vitt, manager of restoration ecology for the forest preserve district and originator of the "Growing Through Change" project.
"This is more what I consider a demonstration project to see how we are sourcing seeds," Vitt added. "Should we be sourcing farther south and if so, how much farther south?"
Along with the grasses, sedges will be planted in wetland areas on the site. Flowering plants will follow in fall 2021.
The area is one part of an ongoing restoration at Grant Woods, which covers 1,226 acres.
The broader effort has been facilitated by donations of more than $1.1 million to the Preservation Foundation of the Lake County Forest Preserves by a couple with long, personal ties to the land but who wish to remain anonymous, according to Rebekah Snyder, executive director.
Some of that money, along with a $216,000 grant from the national Wildlife Conservation Society Climate Adaptation Fund, will be used for the $350,000 farmland restoration.
"It's not just putting native seed on this agricultural parcel," Snyder said. "What we wanted to do was take a climate change model and put it on top of that."
Vitt, who came to the forest district nearly two years ago, had been curator of the seed bank collection at the Chicago Botanic Garden. She's been considering the effects of climate change on native plant populations and seeds being used for 15 years or more.
The restoration community long has grappled with this complex issue, and the Grant Woods project presents an opportunity to compare a new strategy with standard practice to determine what might work best going forward, according to Vitt.
"This is a highly different approach," she said. "The concern might be if we don't keep up with that quickly changing climate, we could find in 20 years the plants in our natural areas aren't producing well enough."
Because many species of pollinators respond to temperature, while plants respond to the length of the daylight, the two could get out of sync as the average temperature increases, according to Vitt.
The district will monitor how the southern grasses survive, grow and reproduce, and whether their use will be more successful than standard strategies.
"We can grow most anything but will it handle the new climate that's coming?" said Ken Klick, the forest district's site ecologist for Grant Woods.
"Plants from farther south may be favored in this changing climate in the future," he added. "Kentucky, Missouri, Arkansas -- those would be the areas we're pinpointing," for grass seed.
While climate models appear to be accurate in projecting what the changes will be, timing is less certain, Vitt said. That means the project runs the risk of sourcing too far south for current conditions.
"We simply don't know," she said. "There have been few, if any, demonstration projects at this scale to explore this."
Vitt says the research is needed to protect plant vitality and protect native ecosystems, and also provide fresh "marketplace opportunities" for retailers and consumers.
It also could become a key seed source for other entities in the future, Klick noted.
"This may be one of the most valuable restorations in the region 50 years from now," he said.