How a Lake County project to address climate change is feeling its effects

  • Pati Vitt, manager of restoration ecology for the Lake County Forest Preserve District, explains the ongoing restoration of a former farm field at Grant Woods Forest Preserve near Ingleside.

    Pati Vitt, manager of restoration ecology for the Lake County Forest Preserve District, explains the ongoing restoration of a former farm field at Grant Woods Forest Preserve near Ingleside. Mick Zawislak | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 7/14/2021 8:33 AM

Under normal conditions, the muck in the wetlands of Grant Woods Forest Preserve near Ingleside can be moved by hand to create pockets for the native plants being installed as part of a restoration project.

But on Tuesday, a gas-powered auger was needed to penetrate the parched earth, and a crew planting plugs of blue flag iris had no need for rubber boots.

 
Pati Vitt, manager of restoration ecology for the Lake County Forest Preserve District, left, and Caolina Cordoso-Luna, a Youth Conservation Corps crew member, plant native plugs Tuesday as part of a restoration project at Grant Woods Forest Preserve near Ingleside.
Pati Vitt, manager of restoration ecology for the Lake County Forest Preserve District, left, and Caolina Cordoso-Luna, a Youth Conservation Corps crew member, plant native plugs Tuesday as part of a restoration project at Grant Woods Forest Preserve near Ingleside. - Mick Zawislak | Staff Photographer

"This should be standing water," Pati Vitt, manager of restoration ecology for the Lake County Forest Preserve District, said at the site Tuesday.

"These plants like to have their feet wet. Hopefully, the rain will catch up and they will be OK."

In the bigger picture at Grant Woods, grasses planted last fall to restore the landscape to what it once was didn't survive. It's a disappointing start to a demonstration project featuring climate change as a key element.

"This is part of the story," Vitt said. "We can plan and do everything right, but climate change has become so unpredictable we're not assured of success."

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Sean Sima, assistant crew leader with Youth Conservation Corps, augers holes for planting blue flag irises Tuesday at Grant Woods Forest Preserve near Ingleside as part of a restoration project.
Sean Sima, assistant crew leader with Youth Conservation Corps, augers holes for planting blue flag irises Tuesday at Grant Woods Forest Preserve near Ingleside as part of a restoration project. - Mick Zawislak | Staff Photographer

Instead of an enhancement to a new landscape in progress, the wetland planting Tuesday was an attempt to regain a foothold in the restoration of a former farm field.

More than 900 irises, sweet flags and skullcaps were planted Tuesday in a small wetland north of Monaville Road and west of Fairfield Road.

By now, 800 pounds of native grass seed sown last fall should have emerged and taken hold. The grasses were to have been the chief visual element in the restoration of 180 acres to its original state.

But a severe drought nixed that, and the seeds didn't germinate.

Plugs of blue flag iris were planted Tuesday as part of a restoration project at Grant Woods Forest Preserve near Ingleside.
Plugs of blue flag iris were planted Tuesday as part of a restoration project at Grant Woods Forest Preserve near Ingleside. - Mick Zawislak | Staff Photographer
                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Vitt's demonstration project became a casualty of the phenomenon she is trying to address. Rather than grasses swaying in the breeze, weeds dominate the rolling landscape.

"Our planting pretty much has failed because of the drought," she said. "Basically, we're back to the drawing board."

The effort has been facilitated by a grant from the Wildlife Conservation Society and donations from the Preservation Foundation of the Lake County Forest Preserves, the district's charitable arm.

Plants evolved to take cues from the environment, Vitt said. The grasses could have withstood a late-season drought, but those that survived couldn't develop root systems to do so.

"In a way, the reason we did this planting is causing the plants to fail," she said.

A demonstration project to restore a 180-acre former farm field at the Grant Woods Forest Preserve near Ingleside began last fall but has been hampered by drought.
A demonstration project to restore a 180-acre former farm field at the Grant Woods Forest Preserve near Ingleside began last fall but has been hampered by drought. - Mick Zawislak | Staff Photographer

The project is intended to help determine whether the forest district should look farther south -- and if so, how much farther -- for seeds used in restoration efforts. The seed planted last year at Grant Woods was sourced from southern Illinois and Kentucky.

In a typical year, the weedy species on the site would be mowed so they didn't go to seed and then herbicide applied.

Tuesday's planting was to have included about 450 sedges as well, but that was delayed. Plans to add flowers in the fall are now in flux.

"Now it's not even worth it to put the effort into that. It's really sad," Vitt said.

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