December 2015

Buffer Strips Make a Big Difference

The Hey report highlighted mowed turf grass at the Slough and Hillcrest Lake as being one of the biggest problems. Shoreline erosion, lack of nutrient filtration and creating a favorable habitat for geese are among the undesirable side effects of having a mowed turf grass shoreline. Because the roots of turf grass are only a few inches long, they only hold the top few inches of soil along the shoreline, do not stand up to wave action and are ineffective at filtering any nutrients or sediment entering the lake from overland stormwater flow.

In contrast, native plantings have roots that vary in length from 3 to 15 feet with more biomass beneath the surface than above it.  Looking at the chart below, it is very easy to see what a difference native plants can make to shoreline stabilization and the retention and filtration of stormwater runoff. Additionally, geese will not congregate in habitat with any height and as a result they move away from shorelines and take their 4 to 8 pounds per goose per day of nutrient loaded poop with them.

Buffer strips are typically made up of native flowers and grasses and are invaluable to any wetland ecosystem, but especially to those surrounded by residential land. Over time, it has become a cultural norm for most people to want a well manicured lawn surrounding their house and everything they see.  It’s what we grew up with, it’s what we know and is familiar. But, it is in the best interest of the entire wetland to re-evaluate what “normal” looks like. 

Alternatively, residents, especially those who live close to the lake or slough need to embrace a 10-20 foot wide buffer strip along their shorelines with mow paths to provide access points to the water. 

Buffer strips benefit wetlands in many ways.  Native plantings provide food and cover for birds, amphibians, insects and mammals, stabilize shoreline soils, and absorb nutrients found in fertilizers and animal waste, which can cause algal blooms and excessive plant growth in lakes.
Establishing beautiful, picture-perfect buffer strips takes time as native plants spend the first year of growth establishing their root systems instead of producing flowers.  A common misconception is that native buffers will look bland or messy or that the plants will block their view of the water.  Although it is somewhat understandable given the unfamiliarity most people have with native species, this does not have to be the case.  Many colorful, low-growing plants can be incorporated in a buffer strip and will provide all of the benefits. The buffer strips could include native wildflowers, native grasses, native wetland plants or a combination of all three. 

As a first step in the coming new year, PHNRC will begin the process of replacing mowed turf grass with low growing native grasses that will be of immediate benefit to the wetland in addition to seeding slower growing native flowers. 

"This is a great opportunity for the community to begin to correct the conditions that have caused many of the problems we have seen at the lake and slough this last year and in the process, truly enhance the natural beauty of Prospect Heights crown jewel," said PHNRC Chair Agnes Wojnarski. "We hope residents will embrace the changes and come out to our volunteer work days to help us make them. This change is essential for the stability, longevity and sustainability of the area and something we owe to future generations."

Emotional Ties Run Deep for Prospect

Heights Wetlands


Late summer and into fall has been a highly charged period for time for the Prospect Heights natural areas. Resident passions and concerns over the extremely low water levels at the Hillcrest Lake and Slough and the ensuing aquatic overgrowth have rung out loud and clear. Residents have repeatedly shown up in mass to city council meetings to make their feelings known and keep the pressure on for getting a solution. 

I live directly across from the Prospect Heights Slough. In mid-October, I was loading up my car when I saw a Cook County Sheriff's squad car across the street reading the PHNRC restoration sign. I watched for a few minutes before the car moved down to the end of the street near the Izaak Walton sign at Route 83. The car remained there long enough for me to decide to walk down and see if there was a problem.

I approached the car at a distance so I would not create a problem and called out to the officer. "I saw you reading our restoration sign, is there a problem or do you have any questions or concerns that I can answer? I'm with the Natural Resources Commission, This is our project" 

"No, I'm just paying my respects," she said. "It was on this day 30 years ago today that Officer Michael Ridges was shot and killed here in Prospect Heights. We try to come by the memorial park on that anniversary every year to pay our respects." 

On the verge of tears, I was taken aback by the power of that moment and the thought that the beauty and serenity of the slough could provide the comfort and inner peace for her to visit her inner thoughts and allow her to pay her respect to a fallen comrade.

In April of 1969, residents showed up in mass before the Cook County Zoning Board of Appeals to protest destruction of the slough. As a result, the request by then slough owner H.C. Hauvner to turn the slough into a landfill and build homes was postponed.

The Park Board had commissioned a report, (sound familiar) in the hopes that the Park District could obtain the funding to preserve the area in its natural state.

In September of 69, the residents, representatives of the Park District and the Old Town Sanitary District once again showed up in mass to protest, this time winning a dismissal of the rezoning request.

In 1972, members of the "Save the Slough Committee" were dealt a serious blow when their efforts to remove Willow road in order to join the then polluted north half, (Hillcrest Lake) with relatively clean south half, (the slough) were thwarted. The road was widened and paved to "meet county standards". According to the committee, they had been told the road would be paved only in spots temporarily to fill the holes in.

It never ceases to amaze me that history repeats itself with recurring themes. We love this one though, people coming together to protect and save this most valuable and precious wetland.

PHNRC adds New Commissioner John Kamysz

As one of the last actions of 2015, the Prospect Heights City Council unanimously 
approved the appointment of John Kamysz to the position of Commissioner on the Natural Resources Commission. 

John began volunteering back in August of 2015 for the Natural Resource Commission and quickly became an important part of the PHNRC team. A Radiologist by profession, John has a degree in Biology and a great understanding and love of the natural world.

"I grew up in the Niles/Park Ridge area across the street from what was a very large natural wetlands area.  We called it "the Prairie", and I was in it from sun up to sun down practically everyday.  Little did I know I was in one of the last native unplowed prairies in the area.  There were countless frogs, fresh water clams, crayfish the size of lobsters, more insects and birds than I can remember, and very tall grasses that we would lose each other in.  As the developers started filling it in, and building houses, I was heartbroken to see it disappear.  Later in life, I would live in Oregon and Michigan which revitalized my love of the natural world.  When I returned to Illinois, I would pass through the Hillcrest Slough area on my way to work just because it felt so good. Eventually, I ended up moving here," said Kamysz.
"Running into the PHNRC volunteers," he continued, "was exciting, in that I found a group of like minded people passionate about their surroundings, and willing to do something about it, a perfect fit for me to give back.  With my background in the life sciences and an avid outdoorsman, I could learn from the group, and contribute my knowledge.  I am happy to advocate for the natural resources in Prospect Heights, and do my best to help make positive changes and restoration happen.
As a resident on Hillcrest Lake, John is looking forward to working with the residents in the betterment and ongoing maintenance of the lake, and the flora and fauna it supports.

PHNRC Reflects Back on 2015

Two thousand and fifteen was quite the year for the Natural Resources Commission. Exactly a year ago this December, we seeded the 5 acre ComEd Bike Path Prairie restoration. Eighty-four pounds of native seeds representing over 70 species were sown by a record number of volunteers into the frigid landscape. When completed, volunteers feasted on roast Kielbasa before heading out for the holidays.
January, February and March saw boatloads of invasive buckthorn go up in smoke in frigid temperatures, but the warm hearts prevailed. Major progress was made in the never ending battle to eliminate invasives from the slough. PHNRC commissioners and volunteers attended the Wild Things conference at UIC in Chicago in January, started the green house program and began plotting the native plantings that would start in May.
In April we were joined by the Boy Scouts and things really kicked into high gear. Parents and Scouts from Troop 468 joined hands with PHNRC and made a major dent into the buckthorn infestation at Elmhurst Road and Hillside Avenue. The Scouts and their parents remained on through early June and were a big help in the planting efforts.

April also saw the launch of the partnership with the Park District to bring nature courses to the regular lineup of Park District offerings. Nature walks, bird walks, plant and shrub ID classes were among the offerings that lasted from spring into late summer.
May was by anyone's standards INTENSE. Invasive removal, Park District classes and planting were in full swing. Commissioner Sievertson's driveway became "Plug Central" for the rest of the summer as 9,000 native plugs from three nurseries made their way to Prospect Heights and ultimately the Slough, Izaak Walton Park, the ComEd Bike Path Prairie and the Gary Morava center. Record numbers of volunteers and the Boy Scouts made sure this monumental task was accomplished.

"As the trays emptied," said PHNRC chair Agnes Wojnarski, "We brought them back to the greenhouse, reloaded them with an additional 7,000 plugs from collected seed that we planted all summer long through our "Grow it don't Mow" it program."

Horcher's Nursery and Oakton Community College Greenhouses also participated in that program.
In June We were still planting, saving turtles and conducting classes. July saw more planting, classes, and the launch of the new speaking series, Nature Speaks with our partner organization, the Prospect Heights Public Library. "Nature Speaks", will feature a series of prominent national and regional speakers presenting topics of great interest and importance on matters of habitat, the environment, restoration and ecology. The program showcases four guest speakers per year, one each season with presentations taking place at the Prospect Heights Public Library. 

PHNRC also hosted a Green Infrastructure Mapping Workshop for the Des Plaines River communities at the Public Library. Led by Chicago Wilderness and several partners, the SWAT team was in the process of completing a cross-jurisdictional green infrastructure study. The first phase of this project mapped each region’s “core green infrastructure,” which is the interconnected network of public and private open space and natural resources that conserves ecosystem functions, sustains clean air and water, and provides trails and greenways that benefit people and wildlife. This was done in consultation with the natural resource organizations and agencies familiar with the resources in each area, including Forest Preserves of Cook County, Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Illinois Nature Preserves Commission, The Field Museum, Audubon–Chicago Region, Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD), PHNRC and many others.

July also received a visit from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) who came out to conduct a fish survey on Hillcrest Lake.
August was a tense month. Emotions ran high as the Hillcrest Lake and the Slough experienced historically low water levels and an overload of native aquatic plants. PHNRC made the request of City Council at a packed council meeting, to commission Hey and Associates to conduct a complete and thorough historical and ecological study of the complete watershed and make recommendations for addressing the issues and the continuing maintenance routine. The City Council approved the request and Hey and Associates went to work.

The Hillcrest Lake Homeowners Association also made an impassioned presentation for the approval of a flashboard riser system to regulate the water levels in the lake and Slough. It was endorsed by PHNRC, approved by City Council but never implemented.

As tense and compelling as August was, it was also as beautiful. "This summer saw a real onslaught of Monarchs, Swallow Tails and several other varieties of butterflies," commented commissioner Dana Sievertson. "I had not seen a Monarch since we moved here 3 years ago until this summer. We had scores of them everywhere," he continued. "The biggest surprise was the Monarch caterpillar. I have never seen a more beautiful, object-like creature. They were everywhere and I attribute it to the restoration work we have done over the last year and a half. Once the buckthorn was out, the milkweed moved in."

Mid-August was also the start of native seed collection starting at the remnant sedge meadow.
                                                                                                                   Orchard Oriole - photo by Erik Breden
Not to be outdone by the butterflies, rare birds also made guest appearances at the Slough as well. "The Black-crowned Night-Heron is a state-endangered bird and a terrific sighting for the Slough", said Mary Lou Mellon, President of the Bird Conservation Network. "The Black-crowned Night-Heron is a level 2 bird of concern for us, one notch down from the greatest concern and is of particular interest if there is evidence of nesting", added Lee Ramsey also of the BCN. 

"The Orchard Oriole that was found is a big deal," says Lee Ramsey. "It nests in shrublands or edges; it's uncommon here (not rare), an indicator species of its habitat, and just the sort of thing we want to see nesting at the Slough. It's also really encouraging that it was a female and defending territory." The Bird Conservation Network officially became a partner organization with PHNRC in August.
September picked up right where August left off. Seed collection ratcheted up with the addition of a special mid-week "Seed Collection Wednesday" which lasted into November. Several new volunteers were able to join us for these events and made a big impact on the amount of seed collected.

Nature Speaks kicked off with its first speaker, Bruce Shackleford from Arkansas. Bruce presented "Life Abounds Beyond the Burning Prairie" to a full house and discussed adaptive management tools for ecological restoration of prairies and wetlands via selective herbicides, prescribed burning, hydrological controls, mowing, flame torching, seeding/planting and showed his television documentary he wrote and narrated "Woolsey Wet Prairie – After The Burn". Speakers added for 2016 include John McCabe, January 26th, Director of the Department of Resource Management for the Forest Preserve of Cook County and speaker Doug Taron, April 19th,  Curator of Biology and Vice President of Research and Conservation at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum.

September also saw PHNRC installing 3 Wood Duck huts at the slough, a gift from visiting guest speaker Bruce Shackleford as well as management of invasive purple loosestrife at the remnant sedge meadow.

In October, we officially launched the "Grow IT, Don't Mow It" program. Designed to encourage residents to make the change from manicured turf grass to native plantings, Commissioners began assisting residents with turf grass removal and installations of native plugs. Sites will receive additional native seeds this winter to augment the plantings. PHNRC has started proceedings to amend the city's Tall Weed Ordinance.

University of Wisconsin Landscape Architecture Senior student Sean McMillion selected Prospect Heights Somerset Park area as his Senior Capstone design project. "I am thinking that in addition to creating a prairie restoration, we also ensure that the park remains very public, with easy access for property owners and with public gathering spaces for community events and socializing, so that rather than loosing a little bit of lawn, local residents gain an entire shared park and prairie," he said.

PHNRC also celebrated Oaktober by planting 30, 1 year old Oak seedlings at the slough. A gift from Prospect Heights resident John Kamysz, the oaks are for the future generations of Prospect Heights. In their spare time, Commissioners swapped stewards with the Morton 
Arboretum and Poplar Creek Prairie while lending a helping hand at the Oakton Community College Ecology Club Day.
In November, the Hey and Associates report came out and the City Council moved to hand the report over to the Natural Resources Commission for review and to make recommendations on how to implement the recommendations contained in the report. 

Peter Hahn was added as a new commissioner and lake resident John Kamysz was proposed to City Council by the commission pending approval at the December council meeting. Commissioner Marcia Jendreas earned her Master Naturalist certification and seed collecting and processing became the main event for November with seed volume tripling over last year.
So that brings us to December, the time for reflection, introspection, plotting out next year's work and an opportunity to thank all of the people and partner organizations that have contributed to one action packed, amazing year. 

December saw our good friend and PHNRC champion Kathy Nowicki retire as the Executive Director of the Park DIstrict. Kathy was instrumental in the creation of the commission and a vital part of the how we function. We were very happy to have had the opportunity to work with Kathy and certainly wish her all the best in retirement and look forward to her joining our work days now that she has the time.

We gained a new friend in newly promoted Chief of Police, Al Steffen. The Chief has a long history with the natural environment in Prospect Heights. Be sure to look for our interview with the Chief in the January Resources Journal.

While December will still be loaded with work days, and we want to invite you all to come out and join us, we want to take the time out to thank the following people, partners and organizations.

Mayor Helmer
The City Council
City Administrator Joe Wade and his Assistant Peter Falcone
Terri Campbell and the Prospect Heights Public Library
Kathy Nowicki and The Park District
The Prospect Heights Police and Fire Departments
Our Anonymous Donor
CommonWealth Edison
The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District
Mary Lou Mellon and Lee Ramsey from the Bird Conservation Network
Izabella Redlinski
The Cook County Forest Preserves
Bruce Shackleford, John McCabe and Doug Taron
Kurt Dreisilker,Tricia Bethke, the Morton Arboretum and Steward John Harris
Horchers Nurseries
Ken Schaeffer and Oakton Community College
Ryan Campbell and the Fermilab Natural Areas
The Poplar Creek Stewards
The Hillcrest Lake Homeowners Association
All of the Commissioners
And above all, our Fantastic Volunteers.

Happy holidays to all of you and our best wishes for a prosperous and Natural New Year.

Copyright © 2015 Prospect Heights Natural Resources Commission, All rights reserved.

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