Hundreds of ash trees have been removed in Riverside during the past two years in the face of the emerald ash borer, the tiny insect that has been responsible for the loss of millions of ashes across the upper Midwest and Canada in the past decade.

During the last half of December alone, a private tree service hired by the village removed about 150 trees, most of them ashes, from the forested area bordering Indian Gardens along the Des Plaines River.

But while the loss of the trees has been regrettable, it has also provided an opportunity.

“Ultimately it’s a great opportunity for performing woodland restoration,” said Village Forester Michael Collins.

While it’s not noticeable from the street, the removal of those trees has allowed the village to widen the walking path that extends from roughly the Scout Cabin to Indian Gardens and even further east. Eventually, the goal is to clear a walking path all the way to the site of the former dam and to provide clear views of the river all along that stretch. 

According to Village President Ben Sells, the removals near Indian Gardens are part of a larger opportunity identified by the central business district plan, completed by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP), which the village board adopted as policy in 2013.

The CMAP plan includes an entire section about connecting Riverside’s downtown with its riverfront, including focusing on shoreline habitat restoration. Work crews and volunteers from the Frederick Law Olmsted Society have already cleared sections of the river bank along Riverside Road east of the Swinging Bridge and on Bloomingbank Road north of the Scout Cabin.

In mid-December, a large-scale effort was made to widen the walking path along the river between the Scout Cabin and Indian Gardens. That path previously was just a couple of feet wide in some place. Now it is 6- to 8-feet wide and views to the river, which were once obscured by invasive plants like buckthorn, are wide open.

“What they’ve already accomplished is you can start at the Swim Club and walk all the way down Bloomingbank,” said Sells. “There’s a clear path all the way down, and they’ve completely opened up the river views.”

Eventually, said Sells, the goal is to extend the path all the way to Barrypoint Road and include educational signage describing the area’s historical and geological past and ties to the Native Americans who once lived in the area. Plans are already in the works to place a “stylized, old map” at the Scout Cabin, where there is already educational signage inside the building.

“The whole idea is to cement the whole area into a nature area,” said Sells. “It’s really coming together and is being driven by Mike [Collins] and public works. I’m really proud of what they’ve accomplished.”

Collins said the chainsaw activity along the river bank in recent weeks hasn’t gone unnoticed by residents, some of whom have called to express concern at the loss of so many trees. Three large piles of tree trunks line the parking lot at Indian Gardens, a morgue of mainly ash trees.

Once Collins explains the strategy, he said, most people support what’s going on. He also said he’s trying to find a sawmill to partner with to take some of the larger, older specimens and cut them for lumber — in essence recycling them.

“We want to get someone interested in buying [the wood],” Collins said.

Not all of the ashes, even dead ones, are being removed. Ones that don’t impact the safety of anyone walking the path, still stand to provide habitats for woodland animals and birds.

That there were so many ash trees in Indian Gardens — dozens more ashes were removed from the park proper in 2013 — wasn’t surprising, said Collins. The flood-prone area was perfect for ash trees.

It’s bottom-land forest area. When you have that, you’ll have a lot of ash trees, which like the wet conditions. It’s no surprise that ash trees would colonize that area,” he said.

But such land is also good for native species like the swamp white oak and red oak, said Collins. Those species, once crowded out by the overgrowth near the river will get a new chance to thrive.

“There’s lots of positive momentum we’re seeing with this,” he said. “In my mind, this is a longstanding project.”        

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