On a Saturday morning when one might expect junior high schoolers to be sleeping in, the Homewood Science Center’s conservation ecology interns are hard at work clearing invasive buckthorn plants from the Homewood Izaak Walton Preserve.
Using little more than simple tools and teamwork, interns cut down and carry away thick bundles of branches and leaves until the area that was once difficult to walk through becomes an open space for native species to thrive.
“When I heard about conservation ecology, I just wanted to make a difference, especially when I learned about all these invasive species at Izaak Walton,” said Josh Jury, 12, a seventh grader at James Hart School in Homewood. “Then when we were measuring the biodiversity level, we found out it was really low, and so far I feel I’ve made a really big difference.”
The group of 20 students from various local schools meets every other Saturday to study the preserve’s ecosystem and implement conservation projects. They will meet a total of six times this fall and present what they have learned during the Oct. 21 Walk Walton fundraiser.
The Homewood Izaak Walton Preserve consists of 193 acres including lakes, woodlands, sand dunes, prairie and picnic grounds. It is maintained by volunteers and with the help of membership fees.
On Sept. 8, interns began removing buckthorn, a common, hardy shrub invasive to the United States which dominates ecosystems if left to grow.
Jury said he learned that managing invasive species will help to preserve native plants as well as insects, birds and other animals.
“I’ve never seen so many invasive species in one spot in my life, so that was pretty incredible, but not in such a great way, which is why we’re trying to make a difference,” he said.
Jacinta Ndubuisi-Obi, 13, an eighth grader at Infant Jesus of Prague School in Flossmoor, said she also was unaware of how numerous buckthorn trees were until she took part in the conservation project.
“I never really knew anything about plants in general,” she said. “I knew a little bit about chlorophyll and all these other things, but I never knew about these invasive species and that they’re taking over.”
Evelyn Cunneen, 12, a seventh grader at Parker Junior High School in Flossmoor, said she felt that everyone worked hard and had fun while clearing the buckthorn.
“I think it’s important because it’s going to help increase the diversity of wildlife over there as well as plant life, which will overall make the entire area not only more beautiful but more healthy,” she said.
Patti Messersmith, a member of the Homewood Science Center’s board of directors, is one of the leaders of the conservation ecology interns. She is also a senior educator at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.
Messersmith said 50 students applied to be interns, but the center was only able to accept 20. Because of the high level of interest, the center will accept new applications for another run of the program in spring, she said.
“We’ll probably continue the projects that we started with this group, which would be continuing to look at different invasive species,” she said. “Buckthorn is not the only invasive species at Izaak Walton. There are others, and so potentially if this project gets finished we could be working in the prairie and then hopefully be involved in replanting the areas that we clear out.”
Steve Wlodarski, a volunteer for the preserve who oversees controlled burns, said working with the interns has been a great experience, especially as they accomplish in a couple hours what a handful of volunteers might have taken days to complete.
He added that it is up to adults to encourage the positive attitudes and energy these children naturally bring.
“Homewood, with having Izaak Walton and the science center, it provides a unique opportunity for the young people, and I’m glad that the young people are embracing the opportunity,” Wlodarski said.
Messersmith said she appreciates the efforts of local science professionals who volunteered to speak with interns about the importance of biodiversity.
“In order to do a program like this, we need community support,” she said.
Messersmith said she envisions the program growing with family days, field trips and further school involvement as possibilities.
“Because the Izaak Walton preserve is such a treasure being here right next to Homewood and Flossmoor, my big goal would be for both communities to become more involved,” she said.
Nathan Greep, 12, a seventh grader at James Hart, said he would encourage others who want to help the environment to volunteer and donate.
“I’m happy and pretty proud of what we did,” he said. “I really wanted to learn more about nature and what things people are working on to help nature.”
Aaron Mcintyre, 13, an eighth grader at James Hart, said he also wants more people to step up and assist with conservation efforts.
“The more people we can get to help, the faster we can get this done,” he said. “I want to go into biology when I get older and conserving the ecosystem and everything, so I feel like this is a really good place to start.”