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Lake Forest Academy Students Remove Buckthorn

April 28, 2023 12:48 PM

When their Service Learning Day kicked off Thursday morning, the majority of the 65 participating Lake Forest Academy students did not know what buckthorn was or looked like.

The students knew after the three-hour workday that buckthorn is a non-native, invasive tree that harms native plants and wildlife. The group spent the morning cutting down buckthorn on their school campus and piling up the pesky species which would later be removed and burned. Other Academy students partnered with organizations throughout Lake and Cook counties to work on a variety of projects.

“Buckthorn is an invasive large shrub or small tree that grows up to 25 feet tall, often in dense thickets. Birds eat the plant’s fruit, which has little to no nutritional value and a laxative effect, causing widespread distribution of the seeds,” said Mark Hurley, environmental educator for the Lake County Forest Preserves. He spoke to students at the beginning of the service learning project to explain the process.

Ashley Kolovitz, a chaperone at the event, said the buckthorn removal process is a great learning experience for the students. “It’s nice for them to know that they’re making a difference on their campus.”

“It’s important for the kids to learn the meaning of community service,” agreed Academy teacher Ackim Mpofu. “It’s important for us to take care of the environment.”

Students Austin Ewing of Chicago and Riley Mormow of Ohio had not seen or heard of buckthorn before the workday event, adding that they now understand the significance of removing the species. Clare Gartz of Northbrook knew the threats of buckthorn. “I’m in the sustainability club,” Gartz said, “We have talked about how removing invasive species is good for the environment.

“Buckthorn accounts for about 52% of Lake County’s trees,” Matt Ueltzen, manager of restoration ecology at the Forest Preserves, told students. Removing this pesky shrub is a key objective in the Forest Preserves’ 100-year Vision for Lake County.

A pilot project to help achieve this goal started in 2015. Its mission is to clear buckthorn from Middlefork Savanna Forest Preserve in Lake Forest and the surrounding landscape, encouraging about 700 public and private landowners to do the same. The total area encompasses 2,900 acres, bordered by Interstate 94 and IL routes 176, 43 and 60.

The academy neighbors Middlefork Savanna. The two organizations have teamed up to remove the invasive species that has come to dominate the region’s tree canopy. “We’ve removed about 15 acres of buckthorn here at the campus,” said Kyle Haines, grounds manager for Lake Forest Academy. “We usually do about a half-acre on a service day. We’re headed in the right direction.”