September 22, 2010

Restoration efforts under way in wooded areas

by Tim Crosby

CARBONDALE, Ill -- Southern Illinois University Carbondale employees are removing from the campus’ picturesque wooded areas the final reminders of the violent windstorm that hit the area May 8, 2009.

SIUC employees, working alongside The Davey Tree Expert Co., from Canton, Ohio, are clearing the hundreds of fallen, leaning and damaged trees from the wooded areas in the middle of the campus known as Thompson Woods and from around campus lake. Those areas, like the rest of campus, sustained significant damage from the “super derecho” that swept through the area more than a year ago.

Workers also will greatly reduce a thick growth of vegetation that has overrun the area in the wake of the storm, as damage to the woods’ shading canopy of tree limbs allowed much more sunlight to hit the ground. Campus officials intend to use a prescribed burn later this fall to reduce the ground cover, making it easier for the hundreds of new trees the University plans to plant in the area.

Philip S. Gatton, director of Plant and Service Operations at SIUC, said the coordinated effort is aimed at more quickly restoring the wooded areas to their natural beauty.

“We are looking at this as a way to jump-start the restoration process,” Gatton said. “In 20 or 30 years, the area might or might not restore itself, but we want to help that process.”

The storm, which struck during commencement weekend, knocked out power for days, damaged campus buildings and felled hundreds of trees, making travel around the campus difficult and dangerous. The storm also caused significant damage throughout Southern Illinois, straining resources everywhere.

Gatton said the University prioritized its recovery efforts following the storm, focusing first on safely re-organizing and relocating graduation ceremonies before moving on to other health and life-safety issues around campus and ensuring that classes could continue. Eventually, as power was restored and buildings were repaired, workers moved on to clearing sidewalks and roads and areas near those travel paths. Workers also have planted many replacement trees around campus.

Gatton said the devastating impact of the storm on SIUC’s signature wooded areas became apparent last fall as the trees shed leaves.

“We could then see how extensive the damage was back there, and we realized that not only were a lot of trees knocked down, but that many were also heavily damaged, leaning over and dying. This year’s hot summer also had an impact on those trees and many of them have to be removed for safety reasons.”

Because so much of the area’s canopy was damaged, great swaths of poison ivy and vines have thrived. Charles M. Ruffner, associate professor of forestry at SIUC, said he and others have battled overgrowth issues the in campus’ wooded areas for several years, trying to manage it with prescribed burns.

Ruffner, who is working as an adviser on the project, said that, while unfortunate, the storm has provided several opportunities for the University and its students.

Forestry students, for example, will use it as a case study on how to restore a forest after a major natural event such as the storm. They will assist in the planning and execution of the management efforts, including prescribed burns.

“It will come up during some of their careers, for example if they’re managing a park. But it only happens when there is an event like this” Ruffner said. “It’s also an opportunity to sort of open up the forest to more the way it used to be.”

Prescribed burns are a major component to any ecosystem in the Midwest, he said, as they clear overgrown vegetation and make the area more tenable for new growth and other species.

Ruffner said workers will plant native tree species such as serviceberry, dogwood and red bud, which will help restore the area’s character and provide a mid-story canopy for other species.

Work on this final phase of storm recovery began last week, Gatton said. Fall is ideal because campus plant and service workers don’t have to mow as much and snow removal is not yet a priority.

All together, the effort will impact about 150 acres and will take about four to five months to finish.

“In the short-term it’s going to look rough because we have to take things apart a little in order to put them back together,” Gatton said. “If we wait and don’t do anything it will stay like it is for an extended period of time.”

Ruffner said even though the area might look bad for now, it is necessary work for restoration.

“To the untrained eye it may look bad but in the end it will be improved,” he said, adding that wooded areas need management in order to maintain their character. “Secession happens in nature. Areas change.”

Gatton said while workers have repaired infrastructure damage to buildings and such, in some ways the woodland damage has been even more painful.

“For the people who are close to this campus, the devastation was just too much in many ways. And the remaining damage is a constant reminder of that day and the storm,” Gatton said. “People want to see some closure, even though most of campus is back to normal. This is going to do that. There are better times ahead.”