'Look and feel of those ancient forests': Lake County's St. Francis Woods joins national network

A section of the most visited forest preserve in Lake County's extensive system has received national recognition for its history and value of trees.

Granted, the induction of St. Francis Woods on the north side of Independence Grove into the Old-Growth Forest Network carries no added rules or requirements for the Lake County Forest Preserve District. In fact, the district already has a higher standard of protection than the organization requires.

But the designation of the 80-acre forest dominated by red and white oaks, some thought to be 200 or more years old, is a cool thing for an area north of Libertyville many may not know exists.

“Hundreds of thousands of people go up and down the Des Plaines River Trail every year. Maybe they'll take a minute and look to the west,” says Rebekah Snyder, director of community engagement and partnerships of the Preservation Foundation, the district's charitable partner.

Besides one of the highest-quality oak woodlands in Lake County, they would see hickories, basswood, black cherry and sugar maple species on land first surveyed in 1840.

They also will see the entrance gate of St. Francis Boys Camp, which opened in 1954, admitted girls in 1973 and closed in 1979. That was the last use, but the area along the Des Plaines River was home to a summer camp for children dating to 1926.

Forests have shaded this portion of the eastern slope of the Des Plaines River since the glacier melted 9,000 years ago, according to Ken Klick, restoration ecologist for the district.

Spruce, pine and fir were first. As the climate warmed, maple, basswood and ash trees appeared. Oak and hickory followed, aided by Native Americans' use of controlled burns to shape forests, prairies and savannas, according to Klick.

“When Euro-American settlers arrived, they wrote of the forest with beautiful descriptions,” Klick said in event material. “St. Francis is a rare place that preserves the look and feel of those ancient forests.”

St. Francis Woods is about a 20-minute walk from the trail head near the North Bay Pavilion at Independence Grove. About 115 visitors, including Vic and Ann Berardi of Gurnee, were on hand last week for a plaque presentation to the forest preserve district.

The Berardis have been regularly visiting Lake County forest preserves for more than 20 years. Vic Berardi, a photographer with an interest in trees, began posting shots on Facebook.

He said they caught the attention of author Joan Maloof, professor emeritus at Salisbury University in Maryland, who founded the nonprofit Old-Growth Forest Network in 2012.

The pair connected and the Berardis became local coordinators for the organization. Its stated mission is to create a national network of forests, one in each county where forests can grow, open to visitors, never to be logged and with a mechanism to protect them. It also educates about the ecological and human wellness benefits of mature forests.

St. Francis Woods is the third Illinois forest to be recognized. The others are in Beall Woods State Park in Wabash County and Allerton Park-University of Illinois in Platt County.

“This designation recognizes the importance of St. Francis Woods and our responsibility to take care of it,” Snyder said. While the district has more than one old growth forest in its more than 31,000 acres, public access was a key element, she said.

The Berardis visited several spots before settling on St. Francis Woods.

“We just fell in love with the place,” Vic Berardi said. “It had everything we were looking for, plus it had history — we just imagined the kids, playing and running right into the woods.”

According to the district, a summer camp with 15 buildings, including a recreation hall, dormitories and an outdoor swimming pool, was built in 1926 on about 200 acres along the river.

The camp was used by various entities until the Catholic church bought the property for the St. Francis camp. The buildings were demolished when it closed. The district acquired the site of the former camp in 1982 and restored it to its native state.

  Bicyclists travel along the trail in Independence Grove Forest Preserve near Libertyville on Tuesday. St. Francis Woods, an 80-acre forest on the north end of Independence Grove, right, has been inducted into the Old-Growth Forest Network, the third in Illinois. Paul Valade/
Ken Klick, left, restoration ecologist for the Lake County Forest Preserve District discusses the Old-Growth Forest Network recognition for St. Francis Woods in the northern part of Independence Grove Forest Preserve near Libertyville. Courtesy of Lake County Forest Preserve District
Vic and Ann Berardi of Gurnee nominated St. Francis Woods for old growth status. They are Lake County coordinators for the not-for-profit Old-Growth Forest Network working to create a national network of protected, publicly accessible forests and people to protect them. Courtesy of Lake County Forest Preserve District
  Trails cut through St. Francis Woods, an 80-acre forest just north of the lakes in the Independence Grove Forest Preserve near Libertyville. The woods have been selected for the national Old-Growth Forest Network. Paul Valade/
The gate of the former St. Francis Boys Camp, which opened in 1954, admitted girls in 1973 and closed in 1979 in what now is the northern part of the Independence Grove Forest Preserve near Libertyville. Courtesy of Vic Berardi 
Visitors head over a bridge toward St. Francis Woods during an event last week marking it's inclusion in the Old-Growth Forest Network. Courtesy of Lake County Forest Preserve District
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