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Oak Keepers Through the Years

OK3Oak Keepers® : Uncovering the Secrets of our Oak Woodlands

Between 2008-2014, TLC’s Oak Keepers surveyed over 1000 acres of privately-held oaks, and in the process contacted over 100 landowners. The information they gathered was used to offer technical assistance and educational programs. Ultimately, their work led to the training and restoration focus for the program that it has today.

When the program started, only a mere fraction of the remaining oak woodlands found across McHenry County had been studied, in large part because over 80% are located on private land. TLC contacted over 500 landowners to seek their permission for Oak Keepers to survey their woods. These land-owners had properties in eighteen oak woods that are each larger than 50 acres in size. Together, these eighteen woods include nearly 1,300 acres of oak woodlands! That was a lot of ground to cover. Given that the vast majority of the County’s surviving oaks are found on private property, there was no way of telling what surprises were waiting to be discovered!

The inaugural Oak Keeper training in 2008 included 32 students who committed three evenings of their time to learn about the history of the County’s oak woods, the ecology of oak woodlands, how to identify native and invasive species of the woods and also how to conduct a basic ecological survey.

That first field season resulted in some impressive findings:OK2 tauck bicolor

  • The first documented occurence of pre-settlement Swamp White Oaks (Quercus bicolor) was made in McHenry County on a property north of Marengo. (photo on the right)
  • A grove of mixed, red (Q. rubra), white (Q. alba), bur (Q. macrocarpa) and scarlet oaks (Q. coccinia) was found north of Harvard, many of the trees are 300 years of age or older. It is unusual to find such a diversity of oak species growing together.
  • A Witness Tree was found in the same woods north of Harvard. Witness Trees are trees that were marked by surveyors during the 1837 public land survey in McHenry County. They are typically located along section lines, and near to section corners. Surveyors would mark large trees with an axe near key survey points as part of the surveying process. These trees were noted in the field notes, and those notes have been mapped, making it possible to document that a marked tree was present during the 1830s.

From the 2009 field season:
Fondly known as “The year of the mosquito”

A cool summer didn’t stop TLC’s Oak Keepers from visiting dozens of properties around the county!

One of the biggest issues that landowners reported was the need for help determining how to restore their woods. This can be an intimidating undertaking. The prospect of cutting all of the buckthorn from these oak/hickory woodlands is a huge task. Starting small and expanding slowly is usually the best approach. The release of even one oak from the grip of buckthorn brings immediate satisfaction and inspiration!although the abundant mosquitoes did slow them down!

The 2009 field season yielded some impressive results:

  • 2nd and 3rd occurrences of swamp white oaks in the county were documented
  • A second witness tree was verified in Ringwood
  • 52 inch diameter white oak tree was found in Bull Valley this summer – the largest white oak documented in McHenry County until a 54″ white oak was found one December 31, 2011 in Harvard.

From the 2010 field season:
Another 16 Oak Keepers were trained in May, and the new class, along with members of the Classes of 2008 and 2009, explored privately owned woodland parcels across the county, to help understand the issues facing the remaining oak woods. 

Notes from the 2011 field season:

Lauretta Wolf likes being an Oak Keeper. “Having the chance to connect with landowners who have lived here a long time and can remember things, like when their woods were free of buckthorn so they could see right through them. One landowner planted multiflora rose many years ago, when the government was promoting its use as a natural fence. Now his oaks are choked by it.” Lauretta has been Oak Keeping in Alden and South Marengo Woods.

ErvBottlemyOne of the properties Lauretta visited was Erv Bottlemy’s oak woods in Alden. Lauretta and the other Oak Keepers were so impressed with Erv’s love for his oaks, they presented him with the “Living With Trees” award in 2011, followed by an “oak rescue” at his woods in Alden. Erv is the one wearing red in the center of the photo. He is surrounded by Oak Keepers.

Another dozen people went through the Oak Keeper training in 2011,  including Fox River Grove resident Mary Lou Seidel: “Had my first oak monitoring visit as an official Oak Keeper(R) yesterday! Incredible experience! Becky [Walkington] and John [Peterson] are great mentors, the relationship with the landowner is remarkable, and I couldn’t be more thrilled to be a part of this effort. Thanks!”   Mary Lu Seidel said about ensuring the privately-owned oak woodlands remain a part of the local landscape.

photo for Oak Rescue watermanIn 2011, landowner George Waterman (orange cover-alls in photo) showed Oak Keepers Margaret Fox-Hawthorne, Doug Hawthorne, Dick Maguire and Greg Rajsky around his “ancient woods” near Harvard. In 2016, an Oak Rescue was held at George’s woods.

On New Year’s Eve in 2011, the largest White Oak known in the county was found during a restoration event at the site that is now Gateway Nature Park in Harvard. At 54″ diameter at breast height (dbh), the oak is estimated to be 400 years old.

In 2013, two properties that had been surveyed by Oak Keepers were permanently preserved by their landowners: 40 acres south of Harvard owned by Al Van Maren, and 3 acres in Bull Valley owned by Judy Woodson. Both property owners were first introduced to TLC through the Oak Keeper program. All told, over 100 acres of oak woods have been preserved in the county as a result of the work that the Oak Keepers did.

In 2016, the Oak Keeper program shifted from surveying oak woods to training individuals to evaluate and restore oak woods.

Finally, a special thanks goes out to all the experts who donated their time to develop and teach the Oak Keepers training program: Ed Collins and Ben Haberthur from MCCD, John Nelson from the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission, Mary McClelland from Glacier Oaks Nursery, Dave Brandt retired from the Natural Resource Conservation Service, Grant Jones and Andy Lutz from Davey Tree Expert Co., Adam Klein from The Care of Trees, Scott Kuykendall from Planning Resources, and Greg Rajsky from True Nature Consulting.