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A Face Only an Ecologist Could Love

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I was enjoying a picnic at a relative’s house this past weekend, and the topic of changes in the neighborhood came up.  They included newly resurfaced roads, trees that had been lost in a wind storm, and a shop that had burned to the ground after being struck by lightning.  But the change that started the most debate was that in the local forest preserve.  A relative exclaimed, “Oh, you should see what they’ve done to the forest preserve.  They tore everything down and now it’s so empty; just a few trees here and there.  It’s so UGLY!  What were they thinking?!?”

Does this buckthorn-free forest look pretty or empty?

Jumping quickly to the defense of the forest preserve, I explained that they were probably removing invasive species like buckthorn, which grows in extremely dense patches and uses large amounts of sunlight, water, and nutrients.  When this species invades a forest, it prevents a vast number of other plants from living in the area and can lead to the local extinction of many native varieties.  Removing these shrubs was probably the first part of a prairie or woodland restoration plan, and it would take years before it looked like a more “normal” habitat.

I think I eventually convinced my family that having a healthy ecosystem in which a variety of species were able to thrive was better than having a monoculture of invasive shrubs whose seeds were sure to spread elsewhere. (Although one relative couldn’t help but ending with, “Fine.  But I still think it’s ugly.”)  This area could one day support a multitude of prairie plants and animals and could be quite important for generations in the future.  But restoration is not always a pretty process, and sometimes it takes a few minutes to look beyond the current haggard state of the land and embrace its future potential.

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