By Valerie Blaine
Oak trees are rugged. They're strong. They're beautiful. And they're disappearing.
The decline of oaks first caught the attention of ecologists throughout the Midwest, and now others are sitting up to take notice. To help spread the word, October 2015 has been designated as Oak Awareness Month, or "OAKtober" for short.
"Oak decline" refers to many types of oaks -- white oak, bur oak, red oak, and black oak to name a few. There are 19 species of oaks in Illinois, eight of which are native to Kane County. Across the board, our native oaks are in trouble.
The story of oak decline is not the story of one oak, or one species of oak, but of oak communities. In ecological terms, a community is a neighborhood of plants and animals, fungi, and other creatures. Every individual in the neighborhood grows in the context of its surroundings -- soil, water, sunlight, next-door neighbors, and visitors. So, to raise an oak it's a village kind of thing.
Oak trees once flourished in several kinds of communities in the Midwest -- forests, woodlands, and savannas. According to restoration ecologist Ben Haberthur, oak communities have disappeared at an alarming rate in Kane County, and the situation is just as bad elsewhere.
"The total loss for Kane County has been about 90 percent since the middle of the 19th century," Haberthur said, "and the story of oak loss has been repeated across every county in Illinois."
To understand the story, we look to conditions in pre-European settlement times. Oaks grew tall and mighty in forests near rivers, buffeted from the flames of prairie fires. Open oak woodlands dotted the landscape like islands on the sea of prairie. In savannas, great oak trees stood like sentinels with massive branches outstretched over grasses and wildflowers.