Prescribed forest preserve burns in Cook County ignite controversy

Prescribed forest preserve burns in Cook County ignite controversy

25 November 2008

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USA — The bigger the complaints, the bigger the burns, said Old Edgebrook resident Petra Blix in regard to the Forest Preserve District of Cook County’s biannual prescribed brush and forest burning.

The district conducts prescribed burns as a land management practice. It determines which plant species are native to a specific site and then clear-cuts, sprays and burns species it deems as invasive, such as buckthorn, garlic mustard and green ash.

“They are burning more and bigger brush piles almost as an affront to people opposed to it,” said Blix, a member of three area burn-opposition groups. She also manages a medical practice and holds a PhD in molecular biology and nutrition. “They’re doing that in neighborhoods that have protested it the most in the last year.”

But Blix’s statement is simply untrue, said John McCabe, who oversees the prescribed burns. The “burn boss,” as he’s called, also directs training for the forest preserve district. 

“The district and the volunteer stewards burn brush when conditions allow,” he explained. “And this may cause piles to build up as we may not be able to burn brush on consecutive workdays.”

But the brush pile burns are just the start. After clear-cutting the invasive species and burning the piles, the prescribed area of the forest ground is set ablaze.

The burn controversy is an old battle that has pitted even local environmentalists against one another.

Doug Chien, Sierra Club conservation field representative, said the land has adapted to the age-old practice of fire.

“All of Illinois’ ecosystems, whether they be open prairies, woodlands or wetlands, have evolved with the help of fire—lightning fires or fires set by Native Americans for thousands of years,” Chien explained. “There are plant species that will only germinate if scorched by fire.”

“We need fire to keep the biodiversity. Without it, the forest would be a monoculture,” added Tom Clay, executive director of the Illinois Audubon Society.

Urban Wildlife Coalition, a group that opposes prescribed burning, doesn’t buy the argument, however.

“It’s such a red herring,” said Bathsheba Birman, head of the Chicago-based coalition. “They’re saying they’ve reintroduced this burning that has been suppressed, but if that were true, we would see naturally-occurring fire here.”

Birman said the health toll on the community is the group’s largest concern. She cited examples of prescribed burning across from a nursing home and as close as 300 feet from residential homes.

Smoke emissions from these burns contain carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and other harmful chemicals, according to a prepared statement by Brian Ursbaszewski, the Chicago Respiratory Health Association’s director of environmental health programs.

“We understand the efforts to restore landscapes,” Ursbaszewski said in the statement. “The health concerns of Chicago-area residents should not be compromised in the process.” 

But McCabe said the forest preserve district isn’t in business to be a “bad neighbor.” The district takes every precaution to ensure the public’s safety, he said.

“We burn on days conducive to a smoke lift—when the smoke will come up into the transport winds and move out and be dispersed,” he explained. “We won’t push smoke through a neighborhood.”

The Sauganash neighborhood, which boasts pristine lots that back into Sauganash Woods, is home to many residents who are frustrated that a moratorium banning the burns in that area was ever lifted. That ban was lifted in 2006 by interim Cook County Board President Bobbie Steele. The forest preserve district is part of Cook County government.

“I’ve come in these forests since I was a child,” said Kathy Mannriquez, who has lived in Sauganash for 50 years. “This used to be all trees. The forest preserve district is the ‘invasive species.’”

McCabe disagreed. “In a neighborhood like Sauganash, you have a prairie area and you have a lot of high quality plants that, because of a 12-year moratorium and no management of invasive species, are suffering.”

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