Thursday, April 26, 2007

Urbana’s Ancient Oaks Provide Living Link to the Big Grove

Urbana’s Ancient Oaks Provide Living Link to the Big Grove

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When we think about the landscape of central Illinois prior to European settlement we tend to think “prairie,” but prairie is not the whole story. Groves of trees intruded on the grasslands here and there, especially on the eastern edges of rivers and streams, which created natural breaks to prairie fires driven by winds from the west.

Such groves were dominated by fire-resistant species of oak, and interspersed with hickory, ash, walnut, sugar maple and linden trees as well.

Prairie groves were quite hospitable to humans compared to the prairie itself, offering game, shelter, and respite from some of the discomforts of life in the open. They were preferred sites for Native American villages, and the first places to be settled by Americans of European descent coming from the east.

One of the largest of these timbered areas in our region was called by settlers of the early nineteenth century the Big Grove.

As it was mapped in the original survey of the area in 1821, the Big Grove covered about 10 square miles. Its western edge roughly paralleled the Saline Branch, the stream that drops into Urbana from the north and runs through Busey Woods and Crystal Lake Park before turning east toward St. Joseph. Along its southern edge the Big Grove extended to about where Urbana’s Main Street runs today.

If you’re familiar with Urbana and the locales just north and east of the City, you know there’s no forest left that would merit the name, “Big Grove,” most of the wood from those trees having gone into houses, fences, farm implements and fires long ago.

But here’s something really cool. Some trees that began life in the Big Grove still stand in Urbana today.

You can touch them. Heck, you can hug them. They’re the kind of trees that elicit that response from people.

Near the corner of East Main and Maple Streets, a bur oak that predates the Declaration of Independence rises more than 80 feet from the yard outside Long’s Garage.

Farther from the center of town on East Main, a still larger bur oak can be seen on the eastern edge of the site of the Quaker Meetinghouse. We know this tree to be roughly 240 years old now, based on calculations made in 1976, when the International Society of Arboriculture recognized it as a “bicentennial tree.”

Greater numbers of oaks that predate European settlement can be seen—and hugged—at Urbana Park District sites. The largest trees in Crystal Lake Park and Busey Woods are relics of the Big Grove, as are 10 or so of the trees at Weaver Park on East Main Street.

Two events scheduled for tomorrow (April 27, 2007), which is Arbor Day, will celebrate local ancient oaks. At 10:00 a.m. the grove of trees at Weaver Park will be dedicated to the commissioners who have served the Urbana Park District in its first 100 years. At 4:00 p.m. there will be a birthday party for the 200-year-old bur oak tree that grows in front of the Natural History Building on Green Street on the U of I campus.

At that celebration bur oak seedlings will be given away so that people can help keep some part of the Big Grove alive for centuries to come.

***Press Release for Campus Bur Oak Birthday***
Bur Oak Birthday Party, 4p, 27 April, in the front Lawn of the Natural History Building, Green Street and Mathews, UIUC campus. All invited. This 200 year old Bur Oak, the oldest living thing on the campus, was a sapling when the prairie fires swept easterly across what is now Champaign, routinely consuming everything before them. The wetlands that became the campus subdued these fires, allowing only the hardiest trees to survive. The Boneyard creek stopped the spread of the fire and allowed the Big Grove to flourish beginning in what is now downtown Urbana, and spread eastward. Only remnants of that grove remain, along with our most famous tree. It is important to learn the impact on the landscape we have had over that last 200 years. This living survivor provides us with a starting point.

The Grand Prairie Friends will present drawings of this landscape. Bur Oak seedlings will be given away with growing instructions. 200 candles will be lit by those attending.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Reflections on Activism for Earth Day, 2007

Reflections on Activism for Earth Day, 2007
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Today marks the 37th anniversary of the first Earth Day, the day in 1970 that twenty million Americans came out to move environmental issues to the top of the national agenda. The depth and complexity of the environmental challenges we face today are equally, if not more, daunting than the challenges of the past. But it is important to remember that those challenges are not all the same because we have made some important gains since that first Earth Day.

As we look to the future, it’s worth reflecting on the fact that people in east central Illinois have participated in and benefited from environmental activism.

Have you visited Busey Woods in Urbana recently? When you are there next, take time to remember that this fifty-nine-acre remnant of what was once a ten-square mile forest was slated for development as an industrial park in the late 1960s. Had concerned citizens not come together to fight for its preservation, there would be no Busey Woods today. Now part of the Urbana Park District, the woods provides a haven for wildlife and a nearby retreat for urban dwellers. It is also home to numerous programs conducted by the park district that provide children an important connection with the natural world.

Have you enjoyed the sight of woodland wildflowers blooming in the bottomland forest at the U of I’s Robert Allerton Park this spring? Do you hike, bike, hunt, fish or canoe on the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River? As with Busey Woods, these places were preserved for recreation and ecological values by the direct action of concerned citizens and the political leaders who came to share their perspective.

Activism is alive and well today, too.

Activism is the force that last year prompted Illinois lawmakers to protect the health of people and the environment by requiring coal-fired power plants to reduce their mercury emissions by 90% over the next six years.

Activism is the energy that moved U of I students this Spring to adopt a new fee that will support efforts to make the U of I a living, learning laboratory where researchers and students can devise ways to make human activity sustainable.

Activism informs the technological innovation that produces super-energy-efficient buildings, such as the houses constructed by Ecological Construction Laboratory in Urbana, and the new Business Instructional Facility on the U of I campus.

Activism is at work when farmers and homeowners treat land and waterways with respect, recognizing that the true costs of pesticide and fertilizer misuse are borne by the land community as a whole, not just the person who purchases them.

Activism is the spirit that moves volunteers to spend their free time restoring prairies, counting birds and cleaning up streams.

Activism is alive every time a person walks or bicycles or takes the bus rather than jumping into a car.

Now, none of this is to say there’s smooth sailing ahead. But as we confront urban sprawl and our dependence on harmful chemicals, as we face the threats posed by invasive species and global warming, we do so in the knowledge that activism works.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Rain Gardens an Elegant Way to Handle Storm Water

Note: I am still researching and writing EA each week, but other people will be voicing the spots until April 17, 2007. I'm running for a seat on the Champaign Park District board, so my voice can't be on the radio without opening up the same amount of time for other candidates.

Dee Breeding from WILL-AM 580 narrates this week's installment.


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In a vegetable garden, you grow vegetables. In a flower garden, you grow flowers. In a rain garden you grow . . . . Well, unlike these others, the purpose of a rain garden isn’t limited to what grows in it. A rain garden is actually a landscape feature that functions as a small-scale, temporary wetland.

A rain garden typically consists of a shallow depression that is planted with shrubs, flowers, and grasses that are native to the region where it is located. A rain garden may be designed to receive water from a downspout or sump pump, or it may be located to intercept water that runs off of a parking lot or other impermeable surface.

Like a natural wetland, a rain garden provides important ecological services. Chief among these, it reduces the amount of water that enters streams via storm drains during and immediately following rain showers. In this way, a rain garden helps to alleviate flooding and cuts down on the amount of silt and pollution that washes into our waterways. Water that is held back in a rain garden infiltrates the soil more effectively than water that runs over a lawn, and thus it can also help to recharge groundwater locally.

Also like a natural wetland, a well-designed rain garden is a pleasure to look at, and it provides a bit of wildlife habitat, albeit on a small scale. During the growing season, native flowers used in a rain garden can attract butterflies and other beneficial insects. Over the winter, the seeds from those flowers and the berries from shrubs can provide food to attract birds.

It’s important to note that while a rain garden functions like a wetland, it is not a pond. A rain garden should dry up following precipitation, as the water it holds filters into the soil.

If you would like to see a really super rain garden that was completed last Fall, check out the project on the U of I campus just south of Allen Hall on Dorner Drive. There, students who were enrolled in a Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences internship class actually constructed a rain garden, based on a design that was produced by students from a previous class.

On Thursday, April 19, a ribbon-cutting ceremony will be held to celebrate the completion of the Dorner Drive rain garden. Students, faculty and staff who contributed to the project will be on hand, along with UI Provost Linda Katehi, Facitlities and Services Executive Director Jack Dempsey, and other campus administrators who supported the effort.

Beyond retaining and purifying stormwater, the Dorner Drive rain garden is intended to alleviate ponding around a substantial red oak tree on the site, and to prevent flooding on heavily used adjacent sidewalks. Construction of the rain garden was funded by U of I Facilities & Services in conjunction with the U of I Environmental Council, as part of a broader effort to develop and showcase sustainable practices on campus.

If you are intrigued by the possibility of creating your own rain garden, you may want to start with some of the links at the Environmental Almanac website. These include a how-to column by U of I Extension educator Sandy Mason, and a more detailed online manual for homeowners.

Both at home and in larger landscapes, rain gardens are an elegant, economical way to reduce the negative impacts of storm runoff.

Facilities & Services Rain Garden sketch
Sandy Mason's UI Extension column on Rain Gardens
Wisconsin DNR Rain Gardens How-to Manual for Homeowners (pdf file)

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Boneyard Creek Gains Respect

Note: I am still researching and writing EA each week, but other people will be voicing the spots until April 17, 2007. I'm running for a seat on the Champaign Park District board, so my voice can't be on the radio without opening up the same amount of time for other candidates.

Dee Breeding from WILL-AM 580 narrates this week's installment.


Listen to the commentary
Real Audio : MP3 download

Most people hardly notice the Boneyard Creek, which arises in north Champaign, flows through the U of I campus, and joins the Saline Branch of the Salt Fork River in Urbana.

When you slow down to look, though, you see that, small as it is, the Boneyard is a magnet for wildlife. At this time of year, the trees along Second Street and in Scott Park are coming to life with migrating songbirds. The creek itself provides a stopover for mallards and the occasional wood duck, and a belted kingfisher cruises the corridor. In a deeper pool on the U of I campus you may see bullfrogs, or even an occasional snapping turtle. And this is to say nothing of the twenty-two species of fish that inhabit the creek.

To the credit of all involved, local decision makers have begun to treat the Boneyard as an asset, too.

In January the Champaign City Council approved a plan to create a naturalized flood control basin between downtown and Scott Park. With the right attention to design, such a basin could provide a small but significant bit of habitat for wildlife in the heart of the city, and give residents a place to unwind with access to the creek.

This redeveloped stream corridor in Champaign will complement the redeveloped creek on the U of I campus. There, planners took into account environmental and aesthetic values as they reshaped the stream, incorporating features that give it a natural appearance and make it hospitable to aquatic life.

The retaining walls on campus are faced with block and natural stone rather than smooth concrete or corrugated metal. The channel is marked by some of the variation characteristic of free-flowing streams—deeper pools, shallow riffles, and even a few meanders. And all of this is set off with landscaping that uses native plants to further the impression of a natural area. Most welcome of all, a person need not risk life or limb to get near the creek, thanks to grassy slopes that lead right to the water’s edge.

The City of Urbana is just beginning a landscape and urban design study focusing on the portion of the Boneyard that flows through downtown. Planners there envision beautifying the creek between Main Street and University Avenue, and integrating it with surrounding development. The possibilities for this project include naturalized landscaping, sitting areas, and pedestrian connections that would showcase the creek rather than hide it.

The Boneyard Creek really is a natural asset for our community, and we have much to gain by treating it well.

You can participate in the renewal of the Boneyard Creek and celebrate Earth Day by turning out for the Boneyard Creek Community Day on Saturday, April 21. Participants at this event will clean up litter, mark storm drains to alert people not to dump waste there, and help naturalize stream banks. Boneyard Creek Community Day activities begin with registration at 9:00 a.m. at Scott Park [map] in Champaign and continue until noon, when lunch will be provided for volunteers.

For more information you can contact Prairie Rivers Network by phone at 344-2371, or check in on the web at