Key work items have begun and TWI is already seeing progress on the 27-month Oak Ridge Trail and Restoration Project at our Dixon Waterfowl Refuge, which began in May 2014.
The Oak Ridge project will restore a 70-acre mosaic of rare, high-quality oak savanna, marsh, prairie, and sedge meadow habitats in the center of the Refuge. It will also dramatically expand public access to the site with a new 2.7-mile hiking trail that will lead from the north end through the Refuge interior to the Oak Ridge area.
So far, the restoration team has made significant strides in managing invasive plants and shrubs at Oak Ridge. Over summer 2014, the work crew treated aggressive cattails in Oak Ridge Pond and sought to eradicate a large population of blackberry canes from the understory in the savanna. Blackberries can displace other species and had spread over large patches.
This work is showing results just a few months later, said Gary Sullivan, TWI senior ecologist and project manager of the Oak Ridge effort. “The remnant marsh plant community along the margins was struggling to survive when the dense cattails were there; now it's doing really well and should be looking great by next year.”
Dr. Sullivan noted that valuable native wetland plants such as pickerelweed, duck potato, sweet flag, hard stem and soft stem bulrushes, white water lilies, and various sedges are all present in the marsh and beginning to thrive with the removal of the non-native cattails.
Over the next few months, the restoration focus will shift to managing aggressive trees that don't belong in savanna, such as honey locust and autumn olive, and ordering and planting seed of a diversity of native plant species. A prescribed burn of the entire Oak Ridge project area will be conducted in winter 2014 to help control invasive species and prepare the ground for seed planting.
Meanwhile, TWI recently completed construction of a low wooden viewing platform that is situated among the savanna trees and looks out over the marsh and the Refuge’s restored backwater lakes.
“The platform overlooks one of the best spots at the Refuge to observe migrating waterfowl, and it’s very scenic,” said Dr. Sullivan. “It should be a really enjoyable end point for anyone who travels down the new trail.”
Construction of the Oak Ridge Trail is expected to begin in 2015. In the meantime, a rough dirt access road leads from the site’s north levee out to Oak Ridge and can be taken by adventurous hikers interested in seeing the restoration in progress (see a map here; please park by the shed near the farmhouse).
Support for the Oak Ridge Trail and Restoration Project has been generously provided by the Grand Victoria Foundation, the federal North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA) Small Grants Program, Dynegy Hennepin Power Station, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources’ Illinois Wildlife Preservation Fund Grant Program, and several individual donors. TWI is seeking funding for the trail and the restoration’s next stage of work.
Read more about the Oak Ridge project here.