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Begalka: Natural areas have history to preserve

Published: Friday, Aug. 22, 2014 4:39 p.m. CST
(Photo provided)
At 2 p.m. Aug. 24, Greg Rajsky will talk about the history of the land we call home at the McHenry County Historical Society Museum in Union. He will discuss the relationships between early settlers and the plant communities they encountered.
(Photo provided)
A stand of oak trees is seen through the window of Harmony School. The oak grove is under threat, despite being designated a Heritage Grove site by the county.

By now, many of us have read stories about the threatened Monarch butterfly. Woodstock naturalist Greg Rajsky has seen the evidence firsthand this summer: While milkweed and adult butterflies can be seen in McHenry County’s prairies, he has seen just one Monarch caterpillar.

The causes are many and varied. There is the threat of climate change and the impact of genetically modified crops on pollinating insects, but there also is a loss of habitat to worry about. While the public will rally to preserve a historic building like the old courthouse in Woodstock, many folks will not bat an eye when a scenic vista or a centuries-old forest is lost to development. There is a feeling that there is more where that came from.

Except when there isn’t.

An oak grove behind the former Harmony School, at Route 20 and Harmony Road in Coral Township, continues to be under threat, despite its designation by the county as a Heritage Grove site. The largest bur oak on the property, which includes a historic 1931 school the Society is working to save from demolition, is 245 years old.

“You have to look for early warning signs when managing natural areas,” Rajsky said. “It takes monitoring and conducting surveillance on the ground to make sure that suddenly you are not too late. Blink and you can miss your opportunity. Vigilance is important.”

At 2 p.m. Aug. 24, Rajsky will talk about the history of the land we call home at the McHenry County Historical Society Museum in Union. He will discuss the relationships between early settlers and the plant communities they encountered. What remnant populations of native plants remain today? What can we do to preserve them for future generations?

“I hope they leave [the program] with a deeper appreciation for the character of the landscape as it existed at the time of settlement,” Rajsky said, “and why early settlers were inclined to wax poetic about land. … We forget that right in our own backyard there is tremendous beauty, if we just open our eyes and get outside.”

Rajsky, an avid field botantist, established True Nature Consulting in 2013 to help landowners and others to better understand natural areas – their functions and composition, history and inhabitants. He has been engaged in ecological restoration since 1990 and is a certified naturalist through the Morton Arboretum in Lisle.

Originally from Westmont in DuPage County, Rajsky moved to McHenry County in 1997 and picked up where he left off. In 1998, he earned the President’s Award from the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, and he has received conservation leadership awards from the Chicago Wilderness Habitat Project.

Locally, The Land Conservancy of McHenry County presented him with its Living with Trees Award in 2010 for his efforts to preserve oaks and their native habitat in the county. His work includes serving as steward of the Lone Oak Fen in Lake in the Hills and efforts with Project Quercus, which helps conserve oak woodlands.

It was through his work with TLC’s Oak Keepers Project that Rajsky saw the need for consulting organizations to help landowners better manage native and non-native plants. True Nature was an opportunity to put his 20 years of habitat enhancement and land management experience to work.

“I look at history as our benchmark and our reference point from which to try and assemble a new and healthy functional system,” Rajsky said of his environmental restoration efforts. “Whether it’s seeping into the general public conscience or not is hard to tell.”

The program, at 6422 Main St. in Union, is free with museum admission. An optional field trip to the nearby Pleasant Valley Conservation Area in Woodstock will follow. Those who wish to go should dress appropriately, including long pants and comfortable shoes.

• • •

Upcoming museum programs include a quilt appraisal with Sandy Schweitzer from 1 to 4 p.m. Aug. 31. Each 15-minute verbal appraisal will cost $30, which Schweitzer is donating to the historical society. Registration and prepayment are required. For information, call 815-923-2267. Participants receive free admission to the museum.

• Kurt Begalka is administrator of the McHenry County Historical Society. He can be reached at kurt@mchsonline.org.

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