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Getting in touch with nature

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2011 5:30 a.m. CDT

Preparing to trudge through deep snow, Jon Cooper, Mark Allen and Bob Lootens gathered Saturday morning in the parking lot of the Fabyan Forest Preserve in Geneva.

They filled buckets with saws and herbicide and resumed work on a job that’s done at forest preserve areas throughout Kane County all year long – a habitat restoration day.

Volunteers meet on a regular basis to clear areas of unwanted plants and to spread seeds to promote growth of what is desired. The goal is to allow native prairie to thrive. The work is performed by stewards, who coordinate the outings and by anyone else who wants to show up.

On Saturday at Fabyan, the mission was to cut down buckthorn, and Cooper, Allen and Lootens ultimately were joined by Nancy and Denis Bowron to tackle the job.

Rob Cleave, the volunteer coordinator at the Forest Preserve District of Kane County, says the turnouts can vary. Cleave said many of the restoration days are popular, and that the Fabyan restoration days have drawn 14 volunteers on a day when the high temperature was 8. Ideal weather can attract more than 20 volunteers.

Their reasons for coming vary. Lootens and Cooper are longtime stewards. Allen says he simply enjoys pitching in. Pointing out some areas that have been cleared and some that have not, Allen smiled.

“It’s fun to come back and say, ‘I cleared that,’ ” he said.

South on Route 31, at the Les Arends Forest Preserve in Batavia Township, another crew gathered Saturday in a parking lot. Stewards Martin Valenzuela and Therese Michels were preparing seed to be spread. Valenzuela produced a long list of plants that were to be introduced.

“A lot of these species, this is the first time we’re going to put them in this site,” Valenzuela said. “There are 20 different species.”

The atmosphere was festive. As hot chocolate was handed out, volunteers Philip Fues and Tim and Cheryl Rerko were preparing their seeds. The Rerkos’ daughter, Geddy, a fourth-grader at Alice Gustafson Elementary School in Batavia, read a prairie poem she had written. Then the volunteers fought through the snow to spread the seeds. It’s the kind of hands-on lessons the Rerkos had in mind when they first started volunteering.

“Tim and I wanted to teach our kids about the importance of community service,” Cheryl Rerko said. “We also wanted them to learn about the environment and taking care of it.”

Valenzuela, who works at Fermilab’s Roads and Grounds Department, said his motivation is a commitment to nature.

“We’ve got to look for the future generations,” he said. “So they will not just see something in a book or on the History Channel. You can come to a park, and it’s something you can actually see and touch.”

Michels said it provides a great amount of fun as well.

“We have a remarkable group of regulars, and we’ve formed a friendship,” she said. “We share a similar interest in taking care of the land and being outdoors. It’s wonderful that you can be out of doors in the winter time and have something vigorous to do.”

At Fabyan, Lootens, Cooper and crew were working on piling up buckthorn, the kind of plant that becomes a nuisance. As Allen explained, “this stuff is nasty.”

“Each plant needs four things – light, air, water and space,” Allen said. “You take any one or two of those away, and that plant’s not going to propagate, so something else will. ... Buckthorn, the birds love the berries, but they cause diarrhea. It has no native or natural predator or disease, and so it just takes off. That’s what we don’t want. It’s a loss of all this space. So we come in and cut the tops off, and then Bob dabs it with a herbicide. And it will not come back.”

Lootens said he’s found that first-time volunteers might be intimidated, but he said that usually soon passes. He stresses that the experience is not complicated.

“We ribbon the good stuff, so they can’t make a mistake,” he said. “People thought they had to be a botanist.”

Lootens said he has been a part of the program for 18 years. He got involved, he said, because he would fish in the area and note that there were many native plants. When he would talk to officials, he said, they noted that they could use help. Lootens said he quickly embraced the opportunity.

Groups also meet in Aurora, Big Rock, Sugar Grove, Burlington, Elgin, St. Charles, Rutland Township, Elburn and Dundee Township.

Allen said the reward can be great.

“This is a big hangout for birders and botanists,” Allen said. “They’ll come out here and say, ‘I’ve never seen this plant, ever. This is my first time.’ And for a plant lover, that’s a good day.”

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