Know of an oak tree in danger in McHenry County? The Land Conservancy will come to the rescue.
For more than a decade, volunteers have inconspicuously trudged into fields and farmland throughout the area. Their goal is to save the trees, wetlands, farmland and other areas in danger of development or destruction.
In doing so, they say, they’re preserving the county’s scenic beauty for future generations.
“It’s one thing to maybe preserve the land, but if you’re not taking care of it and making sure it’s healthy, you’ve only done half of the work that really needs to be done to make sure it’s going to be there forever,” said Lisa Haderlein, The Land Conservancy of McHenry County’s executive director and one of the nonprofit group’s five employees.
The group relies on about 100 volunteers, 40 of whom show up regularly, to do the restoration work necessary to preserve land. Along with rescuing oaks under stress from invasive brush, the group identifies high-quality natural areas and works to preserve farmland.
They take advantage of days off from their jobs, such as Martin Luther King Jr. Day, to work the land. Volunteers are asked to gather from 10 am. to 1 p.m. Monday at 5507 Irish Lane in Harvard to clear brush from around oak trees.
Much of the group’s efforts involve working with private landowners to both inform them of the value of their land and help them maintain it.
Volunteers called “oak creepers” assess oak trees on private properties and offer the help needed to keep some of them, many more than 300 years old, alive, Haderlein said.
“It can be really daunting for a landowner who loves their trees,” Haderlein said. “If you don’t clear this stuff from underneath, the tree’s going to die, and you’re going to be left with weed bushes growing.”
In all, the group has preserved 2,000 acres of land, completed 100 land preservations projects and received more than 3,000 hours of donated volunteer time.
Most of the work has been done since 2002. Before that, efforts were completely done through volunteers, beginning in 1988 when a small group of residents formed a committee of the McHenry County Defenders. After hiring an executive director in 2002, the group officially became The Land Conservancy of McHenry County in 2003.
Volunteer work days are hosted weekly and every other weekend.
Both young and old come out, but weekday work days, like a recent one hosted in Harvard, typically draw those who have retired and want to help, said Melissa Hormann, the land stewardship specialist for the group.
Hormann became involved about two years ago, having grown up with a love of the land.
“As a kid, my parents were always taking me camping and taking me out into nature,” she said.
She said the volunteers are inspiring, devoting their time to the cause, even on cold winter days.
At 80 years old, Al Wilson of Lake in the Hills has been helping restore and preserve land for nearly 30 years. He and his wife, Barbara, both want to see Illinois remain true to its Prairie State nickname.
“This is what we do. It needs to be done. A lot of these plants, unless someone does something about it, they’re going to disappear,” he said. “It’s disappearing so fast, we desperately have to try and save it.”
He has worked on 18 acres at Routes 23 and 14 in Harvard in an effort to turn the area into a nature park that can be used by students of a nearby school.
The winter actually draws more volunteers because people are busier in the summer, Hormann said.
“Once you take out the invasive species, once you clear those out, it’s incredible to watch the wildflowers actually come back,” Hormann said. “There are more birds, and animals can move around, more deer. It’s really fun to see the transformation happen.”
The group hopes to focus more this year on farmland preservation, Haderlein said. More than 50 percent of the land in the county remains farmland, and much of that remains owned by families, she said.
“We want to work with them to make sure that land is going to continue, and that there’ll be a next generation of farmers working the land in McHenry County like there has been since the 1830s.”
To Haderlein and others involved with the efforts, their work is powerful. They take pride in it and the land they’re leaving behind for future generations.
“I like to tell people everybody needs air to breathe. You need water to live and you need food, and all of those things come from a healthy landscape and a productive land,” she said.
“You can put up subdivisions and maybe there’s short-term more income, but if you don’t balance it with enough open land, ... we’re out of luck.”