Chicago Conservation Corps Removes Invasive Species

Project Summary: In five sites around the greater Chicago region, a conservation crew has removed invasive plants and weeds, restoring habitat for local wildlife.

Project name: Calumet Conservation Corps

Location: Calumet, Illinois and greater Chicago Area

Crew leader Brenda Elmore shows off her strength by carrying two big logs. The Conservation Corps members have fun while taking care of invasive species in parks around Chicago. Photo courtesy of Brenda Elmore.

Crew leader Brenda Elmore shows off her strength by carrying two big logs. The Conservation Corps members have fun while taking care of invasive species in parks around Chicago. Photo courtesy of Brenda Elmore.

Description: Before Chicago, Ill., grew to its current size, the region was covered in wetlands, prairies, and forests. In 1915, the Forest Preserve District of Cook County was formed and it would eventually set aside 69,000 acres of natural space within the county. In recent years, these critical natural habitats had been overtaken by dense underbrush and invasive species, crowding out native plants. Thanks to a grant from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and the work of the Friends of the Forest Preserves, there is now a plan in place to restore many of these sites by clearing out invasive species.

The Calumet Invasive Species Conservation Corps, started by the Friends of the Forest Preserves, is a team of five people trained to identify invasive species, remove and dispose of the invasive plants, and conduct prescribed burns (a practice that helps restore prairie species that benefit from periodic fires). By removing invasive species, the native seeds lying dormant in the soil—known as the seed bank—have been able to sprout and grow. Additionally, members of Calumet Conservation Corps collect native seeds from other restored locations in the region and plant them in areas where invasive species have just recently been removed. The Conservation Corps program benefits the local environment, but it also provides valuable opportunities for individuals who participate in the program, which hires many people from nearby low-income neighborhoods. The variety of skills learned in the Conservation Corps, including how to operate power tools, identify plants, conduct a controlled burn, and work as a team, have allowed past Corps members to go on and get jobs in environmental restoration.

Approximate cost of project: $518,467 from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative

Resource challenge addressed: Lack of natural habitat for species, too many invasive species

Crew members attend to a controlled burn. These burns are used to regenerate ecosystems, such as prairies, that are used to natural wildfires. Photo courtesy of Brenda Elmore.

Crew members attend to a controlled burn. These burns are used to regenerate ecosystems, such as prairies, that are used to natural wildfires. Photo courtesy of Brenda Elmore.

Key partners (public and private): Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, Friends of the Forest Preserves, The Nature Conservancy, Student Conservation Association, Forest Preserves of Cook County

Types of jobs created: Heavy equipment operators and crew members

Results and accomplishments: Since the program started in 2011, the Calumet Invasive Species Conservation Corps have helped restore parts of five sites, totaling 228 acres, removing invasive species like glossy buckthorn, purple loosestrife, Japanese knotweed, and spotted knapweed. Throughout the year, crew members visit several sites, cut down invasive species, apply herbicide on stumps, and burn the brush material. On these five sites, between 70 percent and 90 percent of the invasive species cover has been removed, allowing native plants to come back, including turtle head, big blue stem grasses, and blazing star flowers. These native species provide a much better habitat for wildlife.

Website: http://www.fotfp.org/internships/

Originally published on August 17, 2015

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