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Part of Independence Grove Gains National Recognition


St. Francis Woods, located within Independence Grove Forest Preserve in Libertyville, Illinois, has gained prestigious national recognition.

St. Francis Woods is the first northern Illinois forest inducted into the Old-Growth Forest Network (OGFN). The network is a nonprofit organization working to connect people with nature by creating a national network of protected, publicly-accessible forests and a network of people to protect them. OGFN also educates about the extraordinary ecological and human wellness benefits of mature and old-growth forests and speaks out regarding immediate threats to specific forests.

The public is invited to a celebration at 10 am, Friday, May 5 at Independence Grove where officials will present a plaque to the Lake County Forest Preserves. The event will take place at the trailhead near the parking lot at the North Bay Pavilion. Participants will walk through St. Francis Woods and learn what makes it one of the highest-quality oak woodlands in the county.

Visitors are invited to take a guided walk where leadership from OGFN and the Forest Preserves will share information about the ecology and cultural history of the site. The event will be held rain or shine. The Preservation Foundation, the charitable partner of the Lake County Forest Preserves, is sponsoring the event. Lake County Forest Preserves volunteers Vic and Ann Berardi nominated St. Francis Woods for the recognition.

“We are thrilled to gain this national recognition and thankful for our volunteers,” said Rebekah Snyder, ‪director of community engagement & partnerships. “This designation recognizes the importance of St. Francis Woods and our responsibility to take care of it.”

The roughly 80-acre forest on the north end of Independence Grove is dominated by red and white oak. Other tree species present include hickories, basswood, black cherry and sugar maple. “Most of the trees there are under 200 years old,” said Ken Klick, restoration ecologist for the Lake County Forest Preserves; however, “there may be an ancient tree up to 400 years old. Generally, trees live to be about 150 years old in our region.”

Founded in 2012 by Joan Maloof, OGFN has recognized more than 190 forests in 33 states. St. Francis Woods is the third Illinois forest to be recognized, joining Beall Woods State Park in Wabash County and Allerton Park-University of Illinois in Piatt County. The full list of forests in the national Network may be viewed at

“St. Francis Woods has a fascinating history, and we’re thrilled that the forest and its old trees remain a surviving part of that history for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations,” said OGFN Network Manager Nick Sanchez. “We are excited to recognize Lake County Forest Preserves for their protection and careful stewardship of this forest. And a big thanks to our local volunteer county coordinators, Vic and Ann Berardi, for their work in exploring their local natural areas and nominating this beautiful old forest for the national network.”

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Surveyor George W. Harrison conducted the first land survey here between July 12 and 14, 1840. He walked through the forest and listed the trees in order of dominance: white oak, red oak, burr oak, hickory, elm, ash and walnut.

The property was formerly owned by people who wanted to use the land to help others less fortunate than themselves. In 1926, about 200 acres along the Des Plaines River was used to build a summer camp for children living in a Chicago orphanage. It consisted of 15 buildings, including a recreation hall, dormitories and an outdoor swimming pool.

Over the years, the camp was used by various organizations. The Catholic Church and Catholic Youth Organization bought the property and ran the St. Francis Boys Camp from 1954 through 1973. The camp was then opened to girls until it closed in 1979 when the buildings were demolished. 

The Lake County Forest Preserves had been purchasing land north of Libertyville along the Des Plaines River throughout the 1970s, and in 1982 acquired the site of the former camp and restored it to its native state.

Forests have shaded this portion of the eastern slope of the Des Plaines River since the glacier melted about 9,000 years ago, Klick said. In the beginning, forests of spruce, pine and fir grew. As the climate warmed, maples, basswood and ash trees appeared. Descendants of the original trees remain in small numbers.

“About 5,000 years ago, oaks and hickory spread into the area, aided by the Native People’s use of controlled fire that shaped forests, prairies and savannas,” Klick said. “When Euro-American settlers arrived, they wrote of the forest with beautiful descriptions. St. Francis is a rare place that preserves the look and feel of those ancient forests.”

The quality soil represents 9,000 years of autumn leaves falling and decomposing. “It’s all here at St. Francis Woods and we take its healthcare needs very seriously. Prescribed burns help maintain healthy trees and healthy trees support the web of life found among and below its branches,” Klick said.

Invasive species, including buckthorn, garlic mustard and stilt grass, are removed before they destroy the forest floor vegetation. “Volunteers do the good work of helping this place and engaging the next generation of stewards. St. Francis Woods needs our care so it can live on for generations to come and support the insects, birds, worms, spiders, mammals that rely on the power of photosynthesis to support their existence.”



Old-Growth Forest Network: Nick Sanchez, Network Manager, 616-840-5840 or

Lake County Forest Preserves: Rebekah Snyder, ‪Director of Community Engagement & Partnerships, 847-968-3434 or