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'Environmental evangelist' guides restoration of Fabyan's oak woodlands

Jay Womack tirelessly pushes for conservation of green space in Geneva

GENEVA – Summer greenery abounds in Fabyan Forest Preserve in Geneva.

But tucked in among the 150-year-old oaks on the east side of the bike path are huge brown mounds of dead wood, the remains of invasive species of buckthorn, honeysuckle and wild mustard. They were pulled, cleared and cut by more than 100 high school students in a Battle of the Brush competition last December.

For Jay Womack, this is a labor not only of love, but of duty to the natural earth, the environment and the future.

“I think of myself as Aldo Leopold,” Womack said, referring to a conservationist who is considered the father of wildlife ecology. “He espoused a land ethic. That is what we’re working on here. We are bringing the land back.”

Restoring oak woodland

Womack has been chairman of the Geneva Natural Resources Committee since 2007.

He has worked to raise money for parkway trees with a fundraiser called Wine, Cheese and Trees; promoted the use of rain barrels by hosting them to be painted and selling them; Earth Day at Peck Farm Park; and the Fox River cleanup on World River Day on the fourth Saturday of September.

And for the past several years, Womack has worked with 20 to 30 volunteers – mostly teens – 9 a.m. to noon every other Saturday from October to April, turning a two-acre parcel in Fabyan Forest Preserve back to its original oak woodland.

An open ecosystem

To the untrained eye, the area is a green mix of sun and shade amid these huge brush piles.

But to Womack, a landscape architect and ecologist, this natural woodland is making a comeback.

Walking with him on the bike path, Womack identified nearly every green growing thing within sight.

“This is actually a little baby hickory,” Womack said, gently touching the leaves of a small sapling. “It’s beautiful."

Other small native trees now getting sunlight were hackberries, green ash and oak, previously so buried by buckthorn and honeysuckle, nobody knew they were there.

One of Fabyan's towering white oaks with giant limbs almost 70 feet across, will also be doing better now that the volunteers have opened up the ecosystem.

“You can tell when an ecosystem is more open than closed because these tree have these giant nobs … called ghost limbs,” Womack said. “A branch used to be there but it was over-shaded … an indication to an ecologist that this was very open at one time. We’ve got a couple people on work days who remember this as a lawn-like manicured habitat when the Fabyans were here.”

Other native species now growing include gooseberry, Virginia creeper, wild onion and sedge, as well as woodland flowers such as Solomon’s seal, mayapples, jack-in-the-pulpit, wingstem, red trillium and sedges, which are a type of grass, he said.

Poison ivy – the bane of campers, hikers and nature enthusiasts with its urushiol oil that can cause an itchy rash – is also a native plant.

Poison ivy grows in low, damp areas and is the one plant that can take every form in the plant world: vine, shrub, ground cover and small tree, Womack said.

“It’s the most versatile plant imaginable,” Womack said. “But left to its own devices … without a little bit of management, it goes rampant like some of the non-native species.”

‘One of the most endangered ecosystems’

He looked over the area for a moment.

“It is amazing that anything is growing here after this has been mown for 25 to 50 years,” Womack said. “That’s one reason the oaks are suffering, they’re not getting the nutrients. Their root system is 2 1/2 times outside their canopy because they are struggling to get nutrition.”

But seeing the small oaks sprouting is cause for hope.

“Baby oaks – they require a lot of sunlight to go from an acorn to a small tree,” Womack said. “One of the things we are hoping to see is the next generation of trees coming up.”

The restoration also supports the existing oaks and hickories.

“The oak/hickory woodland is one of the most endangered ecosystems on the face of the earth,” Womack said. “It’s because it takes 100 years sometimes to create the relationships between the trees and the soil and microbes and their roots to create a healthy ecosystem. Each one of these (trees) feeds over a thousand different species of animals and plants.”

Teaching about nature

Emma Cole, who teaches biology and environmental science at Geneva High School, said she first met Womack when he was planning an Earth Day event and she was adviser for the Environmental Club.

"We worked on getting kids out there to volunteer," Cole said. "They love it. The kids love hands-on experience. And their enthusiasm is infectious. ... They will say it is a life-changing experience for them."

Womack said he is a teacher when teens come out to a workday.

“When you bring a child to nature and spark interest, it stays with them for life. … When they’re 20, 30, 40 years old, they will want to continue to improve the environment,” Womack said.

“That’s how it’s passed on,” Womack said. “I’m an evangelist for the environment. That’s what gives me hope for the earth because the young people get it. They really do."

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