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Special volunteer workdays make a difference in St. Charles Park District natural areas

The St. Charles Park District is calling all volunteers to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty to help restore and maintain the natural areas that are dependent on hands large and small.

While you can lend a hand any Saturday throughout the year, save the date special volunteer days coming up include:

- Seed Harvesting Oct. 5 at Otter Creek Bend Wetland Park

- Make a Difference Day Oct. 26 at Delnor Woods Park

Each event takes place from 10 a.m. to noon. All ages and groups, scouts and families are welcome to participate, as no green thumb is required. A member of the Natural Resources team will provide instruction throughout the morning for activities that could include collecting seeds of native plants and/or brush removal of invasive species. Work gloves, tools and refreshments will be provided. Long sleeves, long pants and closed-toe shoes are recommended.

“While we have workdays every week, these special volunteer days continue to bring more awareness of the hard work and dedication required to foster the growth of native species, thereby providing a healthier ecosystem and a healthier community,” said Ecological Restoration Supervisor Jill Voegtle.

“Prairies and woodlands clean the air we breathe and wetlands clean the water we drink,” Voegtle said. “Our hope is that volunteers who participate in these work days begin to better understand and appreciate the natural environment and its benefits to the community.”

As Voegtle oversees the Natural Resources team of three and volunteers, she has witnessed first-hand the volunteer restoration efforts pay off. For example, a prairie in Ferson Creek Fen last year was overrun with invasive plants such as buckthorn and honeysuckle as well as aggressive dogwoods.

Over the course of five workdays during the winter, eight volunteers plus Voegtle’s team worked to clear out the nearly 35,000-square-foot area.

The plan was to lay seed mix in the spring, but to her surprise, that wasn’t necessary. That section of the prairie had rejuvenated well, now that it wasn’t competing for sun and resources. It became lush with native plants including rattlesnake mater, foxglove beardtongue, and a matrix of grasses and sedges. Other areas in the fen were cleared of cattails and reed canary grass. As a result, Ferson Creek Fen is abuzz with more insects and animals including skippers and frogs.

“If you have a healthier plant base, you have a healthier ecosystem,” Voegtle said. Increased competition for sunlight from nonnative trees and shrubs like honeysuckle and buckthorn impede native prairie plants from flourishing. Removal of the shade layer gives the native plants a fighting chance.

“Clearing the woody species saved the prairie, and that’s a direct correlation of the work of volunteers,” Voegtle said.

“It's pretty amazing what such a small group of park district naturalists and volunteers have been able to achieve,” agreed volunteer Jim Lotarski of St. Charles.

“Those who are not familiar with our native species may not notice the difference being made, but if you spend time in the natural areas, you will begin to see the changes and it feels great to be part of that,” he added.

Lotarski began volunteering two years ago as a concrete way to help the environment, and while he said it’s still the primary reason for coming out on workdays, his reasons have evolved over time.

“Spending time with the naturalists and other volunteers has helped me learn more about the flora and fauna of our local ecosystems, build camaraderie and network with others,” he said.

Advance registration is requested for volunteer days. For more information, call 630-513-4399.

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