Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Saving Soils in the Forest Preserves
Nature Bulletin No. 562-A   April 12, 1975
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

The Little Red Schoolhouse nature center and its surrounding areas offer some interesting examples of how nature slowly rebuilds and protects soils if given a chance and plenty of time. Along the neighboring highways in those hilly Palos preserves you can also see some excellent demonstrations of how, in various ways, the Forest Preserve District has hastened the processes of building soils and provided the protection that saves them.

For example, when Willow Springs Road was paved from Archer Ave. to 107th St., some deep cuts were gouged through those hills. The highway department permitted us to sod and plant the steep ugly slopes to prevent erosion and make them more attractive. Between 95th St. and the schoolhouse entrance they were planted with black locust seedlings. That tree not only has dense fibrous roots which hold soil in place; it grows fast and serves as a "nurse crop" protecting other plants. Also, being a legume, its roots harbor nitrogen-fixing bacteria that enrich the soil.

On deeper cuts, south of the schoolhouse entrance and also at Archer Ave., we planted a mixture of shrubs such as coralberry, snowberry, wild roses and sumac, which prevented erosion and have become dense masses furnishing food and cover for wildlife. On 107th St., about two miles west of Willow Springs Road, you can see how we planted and protected the steep hillsides with mixtures of vines, shrubs, and fast-growing trees such as black locust, poplar, silver maple and boxelder.

Much of the land in our Palos preserves, originally forested, had been cleared and farmed before we acquired it. Many of those old fields have been reforested with mixtures of native hardwoods including ash, elm, maples, poplars, black walnut and oaks. Typical examples, now grown to considerable size, may be seen along 107th St. and also on Kean Ave. between 95th and 107th Streets. Nowadays we use tractor-drawn machines that plant from 2000 to 7000 seedlings per day, depending upon the soil conditions.

Roughly paralleling the highways in many locations, and the edges of reforested areas, you may notice plowed strips from 16 to 20 feet wide. These are fire breaks that protect the woodlands and young plantings from fires.

The Swallow Cliff picnic area, on the hilltop at US 45 and 119th St., demonstrates what we have done to rebuild the soil and save the trees in several heavily used areas. Many years of abuse, including unrestricted traffic by automobiles, had destroyed the grasses and compacted the soil on the eastern portion next to US 45. Many trees had died or were very sick.

After developing a new picnic area west of it, we erected a fence around the old one. Its surface was loosened, covered with rich black dirt and an 3-inch layer of rotted leaves, and sown with a mixture of grass seed. The steeper slopes were sodded. Today that old picnic area, including its grasses, wildflowers, shrubs and trees, has a healthy natural appearance.

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