Walking the Talk: Oak Park Tree Advocate Shares Challenges and Opportunities

Kathryn advocated for the trees and sledding hill at Ridgeland Common sledding hill.

Kathryn advocated for the trees and sledding hill at Ridgeland Common sledding hill.

By Sally Sovall

Meet Kathryn Jonas, a long time Oak Park, IL, resident, tree expert and advocate. In addition to her many other credentials Kathryn was trained and has served as a “treekeeper” through the Treekeepers program at Openlands.

GCC:  Tell us about yourself and how you got interested in trees and "tree keeping." 

Kathryn:  I am a certified arborist/municipal specialist.  I was a vice president for a real estate development company for 20 years as their environmental coordinator.  The president of the company was passionate about trees and we worked with engineers, architects and planners in the early stages of a project to preserve as many trees as possible during the design and construction phases.  I learned there were many tools available for preserving trees that were not being used because arborists and landscape architects are usually hired only at the end of a project to "decorate" it with plants.

GCC:  What are some of the most important things that you have learned about the relationship between people and trees?

Kathryn:  Trees in native cultures were, considered sacred because people were very aware of the strong connection and interrelationships they had with trees.  People relied on trees as a food source, for firewood for heat, for protection from the weather, for habitat for the wildlife they depended on and for wood for boats, and on and on.

People today still rely on trees to provide many things they use in daily life:  firewood, furniture, flooring, fencing, building material, tools, acoustical material for making musical instruments, books, shelter for people and animals, ships, canoes, shade, oxygen, food source in the form of nuts and fruits, shade and beauty for their homes and towns.  The difference today is that the relationship is more distant and we often have little awareness that the source of all these "goods" that come from the store actually come from trees.

GCC:  Are there things that families can do to learn more about trees and their role in the environment, and to help support healthy trees?

Kathryn:  Families can plant a tree on their property with their children.  A trip together to the forest preserve district or Morton Arboretum, or a walk along Oak Park's streets and parks, can reveal the great diversity of species available while showing the form and seasonal characteristics of different species.   When I was on the Forestry Commission, we volunteered to take residents on tree identification walks of their blocks as part of block party events.  It was an opportunity for residents to learn about trees and to provide information they had about various trees in their neighborhood.

Many of the families that purchased heritage oaks as part of the Historic Oak Propagation Project planted their tree with their children and have sent us photos of the planting, with follow-up photos of how the trees are growing along with their children.  Teachers at Mann School and Longfellow scheduled planting events with school children when they planted the historic oaks they were given, and continue to maintain them.  All of the trees planted have survived.

The residents of 300 S. Humphrey planned a special block event last November when 3 historic oaks were planted on their block.  The festivities included a song composed for the event, a poem recited by children, and homemade apple sauce and maple syrup made from trees on the block.  It was a great learning experience for everyone and showed a deep connection between residents and their natural environment.

GCC:  Our community has many beautiful trees. Should we be concerned about the urban forest in our community?

Kathryn:  I was a member of the Village's Forestry Commission for 6 years until the Forestry Commission was folded into the Citizens Design Commission several years ago.  There is currently no strong Citizens Commission advocating for trees.  It is left to individual citizens and groups to advocate for better urban forestry policies.

Sometimes even the “professionals” in the tree care industry don’t know how to properly care for our trees.  Many practices like volcano mulching and unnecessarily severe pruning are damaging our urban forest, but are not getting the attention they should.

Some of us are talking to Board members currently about restoring the Forestry Commission for the important work of establishing more professional policies, to advocate for adoption of a Tree Preservation Ordinance by the Village to provide some protection to heritage trees on private property, and to promote a better understanding of the benefits well cared-for trees provide to the community.  With a new forester in the Village, I am hopeful there will be a more collaborative relationship between staff, our elected officials and citizens who are working for a healthy urban forest.

GCC:  What would you like to see as you look to the future for the Oak Park area’s  urban forest?

Kathryn:  I advocate planting more native trees if they are suitable for the situation because they evolved over many years under local conditions and support the web of life they evolved with.  I  co-founded the Historic Oak Propagation Project in 2008 in part to raise awareness about the value and benefits of native trees -- to preserve their genetic material and to regenerate the remnant oak "forests" that still remain in OP.  Only about 150 of these trees remain and they are not regenerating naturally.  The oaks are a keystone species in the oak-hickory savannah that thrived here in pre-European times and they provide habitat for over 500 insect species, including hundreds of butterfly species.  So, it's not just the oaks, but the entire ecology of that natural system that is important.  West Cook Wild Ones is doing an excellent job of bringing this awareness to people and we plan to collaborate with them more in the future.

There is also a group of us that is working with The Morton Arboretum on getting Oak Park designated as an Arboretum.  Hopefully that would bring more awareness, attention and support for Oak Park’s valuable trees.