Thursday, April 28, 2011

Researcher with U of I Energy Biosciences Institute seeks help to locate escaped Miscanthus

Researcher with U of I Energy Biosciences Institute seeks help to locate escaped Miscanthus

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If you live in east central Illinois, you may know the name “Miscanthus” as it applies to a hybrid species of this Asian grass, which is the subject of long-term research as a biofuel at the University of Illinois. But if you have ever laid eyes on Miscanthus, you are likely to have seen one of the two parent species of that hybrid, both of which have long been used as ornamentals in the United States.

As an ornamental, Miscanthus may seem like a landscaper’s dream. It thrives without supplemental water and tolerates a wide range of other growing conditions. Its long, flowing leaves, which emerge directly from the ground, give the impression of a fountain, and its feathery seed heads provide an added attraction by the end of summer.

Unfortunately, where ornamental varieties of Miscanthus escape cultivation, the landscaper’s dream can morph into the land manager’s nightmare. Naturalized populations of Miscanthus can crowd out native vegetation, and they serve North American wildlife poorly. They can also be expensive and time-consuming to eradicate. [Photo: US Forest Service wildlife biologist Mike Brod surveying a Miscanthus invasion in a rare and sensitive mountain bog habitat in northern Georgia. Courtesy of Lauren Quinn.]

How widespread are populations of naturalized Miscanthus in the United States? That’s a good question, to which there is no good answer at present. But Lauren Quinn is working on it.

Quinn, a researcher with the Energy Biosciences Institute at the University of Illinois, is an invasive plant ecologist. She studies how nonnative plants affect the native plants, animals and other components of ecosystems where they become established. Currently, she is collaborating with UI faculty members Tom Voigt and Bryan Endres, along with a colleague from Virginia Tech, Jacob Barney, to describe the distribution of naturalized Miscanthus populations in the state and around the country.

Here’s where you come in. If you’re conservation minded and competent at plant identification, or you’re capable of taking identifiable digital photographs of plants, Quinn wants you to notify her if you come across Miscanthus growing outside of cultivation.

Of course, unless you’re more familiar with perennial grasses than most people, you’ll need to study up on the subject a bit to become involved with this project. For that purpose, let me direct you to the resources at the Website Quinn has put together:

Quinn says she is looking for Miscanthus in “natural areas,” but she defines that very broadly to include just about anyplace outside of intentional cultivation, from roadsides and pastures, to forest openings and stream corridors. She emphasizes that she is looking for plants that have established themselves at a distance from intentional plantings and become self-sustaining. (So one or two volunteer plants growing on the same property where their parent plants are cultivated wouldn’t count.)

If you should locate Miscanthus established in a natural area, following are the things Quinn would most like to have: a photo (or photos), for purposes of identification and population size estimate; location, with GPS coordinates if possible, but otherwise a road name with reference to nearby cross roads or landmarks; and a description of the habitat—for example, roadside, pasture, etc.

Quinn would also be happy for other information where it is known, including contact information for property owners if the Miscanthus is on private property, the age of the population, possible sources for it, and even the age of those plantings.

Over the course of the next two summers, Quinn and her colleagues will be visiting populations of escaped Miscanthus to collect data on them. Ultimately, they hope to answer the question of which types of Miscanthus pose the greatest risk of escape, and under what environmental conditions.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

U of I student fees support wide range of sustainability initiatives

U of I student fees support wide range of sustainability initiatives

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In recognition of Earth Week, let me call your attention to the progress toward a greener campus being made possible by the sustainability fees University of Illinois students assess themselves. These fees, which have been enacted with overwhelming support in three separate student votes dating back to 2003, now generate roughly a million dollars a year to fund projects.

I spoke recently with Suhail Barot, a graduate student in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning, to get the scoop on how those funds are being used. Barot is chair of the Student Sustainability Committee, which, in cooperation with administrators from the Office of Sustainability and U of I Facilities & Services, allocates the funds.

He emphasized that the committee aims to foster innovation by awarding funds to cutting edge projects rather than routine conservation efforts, which, he said, the University ought to take care of as a matter of course. But he also noted that many of the projects that are awarded funds would help the University make progress on the goals articulated in the Climate Action Plan it adopted last year.

Many projects made possible with student sustainability funds have already begun to pay off, either in energy dollars saved or other conservation values achieved. These range from energy-saving retrofits in the Illini Union, to the sustainable rehabilition of an underused building as rehearsal space for dance students, to the prairie plantings established near the president’s house on Florida Avenue and at the College of Veterinary Medicine.

Other efforts, which have been awarded sustainability funds more recently, are just getting off the ground. Barot was very enthusiastic about the Student Weatherization Project, which will be implemented when the new school year begins in August. With guidance from Facilities & Services staff, students participating in this project will learn how to assess the performance of existing buildings, with attention to building envelope, heating and insulation, lighting, water and waste. They will then put their knowledge to use in audits of campus buildings that will help F & S set priorities and implement upgrades.

In the early stage of this program, student auditors will focus on the residential units that have been converted to house campus programs, buildings that are too small to merit attention from the campus retrocommissioning team, but where easily identified improvements could significantly decrease energy consumption.

Barot was also excited about the Committee’s support for an initiative by the School of Earth, Society and Environment to establish a Sustainability Living and Learning Center. Like other living-learning centers, this one will house students with a shared interest together in an existing facility, which will serve as a hub for them to connect with faculty and staff who share their common interest. Through the Sustainability Living and Learning Center, students will participate in the process of making the university more sustainable, and, as they move on, become leaders in the effort to address issues of sustainability in the wider world.

As you probably already know, given the difficulties that have arisen with student efforts to bring wind power to campus, renewable energy is a priority for the Student Sustainability Committee. In addition to their continuing support for a wind turbine, they are also funding the Illinois Student Solar Initiative, which aims to install photovoltaic arrays on 20 campus buildings over the next five years. Barot anticipates these arrays will generate between five and ten percent of the electricity used by the buildings involved, depending on how big they are and what they are used for.

If you are interested in learning more about projects that receive funds through the Student Sustainability Committee, you can find them online at

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Now is the time to catch woodland wildflower show in Illinois

Now is the time to catch woodland wildflower show in Illinois

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The beauty of a single Virginia bluebell would be enough to draw me out to Allerton Park this month. But I am all the more compelled to go when I think of bluebells in context of the extended wildflower show that takes place each spring in the woodlands of Illinois.

It begins with a prelude in February, when skunk cabbage takes the stage. An unconventional beauty, perhaps best appreciated by botanists and the carrion flies that pollinate it, skunk cabbage generates its own heat, enabling it to grow right through the frosty soil of late winter.

The show gains momentum in March, as two prettier flowers make their entrance: Snow trillium, named for the fact it sometimes appears through the snow, and sharp-lobed hepatica, whose other name, liverleaf, calls attention to the deep reddish brown color taken on by its leaves as they persist through the winter. [Upper photo, sharp-lobed hepatica; lower, bloodroot. Both taken by author at U of I Allerton Park near Monticello.]

Over the course of April, another ten or more players fill the scene. Among them are bloodroot, whose inch-and-a-half wide white flowers bloom only for a day; Dutchman’s breeches, whose flowers resemble, well, you know; and spring beauty, a flower that makes up for being tiny by being numerous, and tolerating a wide range of growing conditions.

The show reaches its climax in early May, at which time an observer might count more than a dozen species flowering at once. These include idiosyncratic stars who may be more widely recognized by name than appearance, Solomon’s seal, Jack-in-the-pulpit, and blue-eyed Mary among them. In May, the woodland flower show retains none of its earlier subtlety, and the hiker who didn’t think to look for skunk cabbage or who overlooked hepatica blooming cannot help but pause at the sight of a bottomland forest carpeted in Virginia bluebells.

The Illinois woodland wildflower show winds down in June, as the trees above leaf out completely to claim the sun’s energy for themselves, and most of the players quietly disappear from the stage once the work of producing seeds is done. Although they are out of sight, they persist underground as bulbs or other structures, awaiting their cues the following year.

For me, the beauty of woodland wildflowers exceeds that of flowers “improved” for gardens by human art precisely because it developed without regard for our tastes, and because it is out there free for people to enjoy wherever they have access to intact wooded areas.

Of course, how Illinois’ woodland flowers fare in the future depends largely on how well we treat our woodlands. Few woodland flowers can be restored to an area once they have been eliminated by intentive logging, grazing or other development, so it is crucial to protect habitats where they still thrive. It is equally important that people maintain the existing quality of woodlands by helping to keep in check the exotic invasive plants that might otherwise overrun them.

Where to look

In Piatt County, the trails at Allerton Park and Lodge Park offer excellent opportunities for finding woodland flowers, but residents of Champaign-Urbana need go no further than Busey Woods to get a taste of what’s out there. In Vermilion County, try the Forest Glen Preserve, or any of mature woodlands within the state and county natural areas along the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River.

How to help

Join up with volunteers from UI Extension’s Master Naturalist and Master Gardener programs for “The Great Garlic Mustard Hunt” being conducted this between now and early May. Participants meet at scheduled times and locations to pull garlic mustard, an exotic, invasive plant that crowds out native woodland flowers. For details and registration see

Friday, April 08, 2011

Illinois Senate Bill 664 would protect public interest should “fracking” come to state

Illinois Senate Bill 664 would protect public interest should “fracking” come to state

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In the face of the massive disruptions promised by global warming, and the current, ongoing environmental degradation associated with coal-fired power, many environmental advocates have found themselves supporting natural gas as a bridge to a clean energy future.

Among such advocates, count Brian Sauder, who is Central Illinois Outreach and Policy Coordinator for the statewide organization, “Faith in Place,” which seeks “to give religious people the tools to become good stewards of the earth.” Burning natural gas, he point outs, releases only half the carbon dioxide per unit of electricity that coal does, and it produces far less other pollution, too.

But even as Sauder and others at Faith in Place have favored natural gas over coal, they have some misgivings about that position. According to Sauder, “It’s more difficult to prefer gas as an alternative when you look at the wreckage that can be caused by the current method of extracting it.” If you’ve seen the film “Gasland,” or kept up with national reporting on the issue, you know what he means.

The extraction method Sauder refers to is high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing, also known as “fracking.” This method of extraction involves injecting a high-pressure mixture of water, sand and chemicals into deep layers of shale to break them up and release the gas they hold.

On the plus side, fracking allows energy companies access to vast stores of natural gas that would otherwise remain locked underground. On the minus side, it uses enormous quantities of water, it can contaminate groundwater if the fracking solution reaches an aquifer, and it leaves companies with large quantities of toxin-laden recovered fracking solution to dispose of.

High-pressure hydrofracking has not yet—and may never—come to Illinois, because the shale that underlies parts of the state holds less natural gas than the shale currently being tapped elsewhere. For now, it’s not economically viable. But a significant rise in the price of natural gas could change that.

Given the pollution problems that have arisen with fracking in other states, and the difficulty of addressing those problems after the fact, Sauder and others at Faith in Place sought help from State Senator Michael Frerichs to ensure that if it is done here, it is done safely.

Toward that end, Senator Frerichs has recently introduced a bill (SB 664) that requires oversight and regulation of fracking by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR). Under the framework established by the bill, companies would be required to disclose the components of fracking solutions to IDNR, which would then make that information available to the public. The bill would also limit the use of certain hazardous chemicals, and require companies to report on the reuse and disposal of fracking solutions.

In a phone conversation about the bill, Senator Frerichs emphasized to me that it was not intended to deter development of Illinois’ natural gas resources. “The point,” he said, “is to ensure transparency and public access to information.”

Sauder and other advocates appreciate Frerichs’ leadership in safeguarding the public interest in the case of fracking. But their ultimate goal, he reminded me, is renewable energy, not just use of “cleaner” fossil fuels.