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.