WOLF LAKE — Eight students from Boston University are spending their spring break working in Shawnee National Forest as part of the National Forest Service’s Alternative Spring Break program.
On Tuesday afternoon, they worked with two volunteers from Sierra Club Shawnee Group and forest service employees along Snake Road to clear invasive species from LaRue Pine Hills Ecological Area. Earlier in the day, they removed at least six bags of trash from the Inspiration Point Trail.
Kelly Pearson, wilderness tech and youth hostess and volunteer coordinator, said the students pulled garlic mustard at Clear Springs Wilderness Area on Monday. On Wednesday, students will remove brush and haul gravel for the trails in Bald Knob Wilderness area, followed by map and compass training. The group will spend Thursday doing trail work at Garden of the Gods. On Friday, they will clear brush at Lincoln Memorial Park at the Ranger Station in Jonesboro.
Part of the reason the students chose this service project is that none of them had been to Illinois. They are impressed with the beauty and wildlife in Shawnee National Forest.
“The wildlife is amazing and there’s so much of it,” Kai Medina of Chelmsford, Massachusetts said.
The students saw salamanders, deer — lots of deer, according to Kai — a bald eagle and a snake. They also saw frog eggs on a pond.
“We stumbled across one [a snake] while picking up trash,” Peyton Tierney said.
“I wanted a break from the city,” Anna Baggett of Syracuse, New York, said.
“It was an area I hadn’t been in before — and it has a national forest,” Hanna Freeman of Miami said.
“I grew up doing community service and hiking in the wilderness around Portland,” Tierney said.
Part of the Alternative Spring Break program is an educational component. They students have learned about the unique biodiversity that exists in LaRue-Pine Hills and how invasive species threaten the diverse plant and animal life that lives in the area, some of which are endangered or protected species.
Medina was surprised to learn it takes two years for an orange peel or banana peel to decompose.
Jean Sellars, a restoration ecologist and member of Sierra Club, showed the students the plants they were removing, but also pointed out plants that would be helped by their efforts, such as the Spice Bush and Swamp Rose.
“LaRue-Pine Hills is certainly the most biodiverse spot in Illinois with thousands of species of plants and animals,” Sellars said. “DNR and National Forest Service are underfunded, and work like this is critical to saving species.”
Sue Hirsch of National Forest Service said the students get a snapshot of the different areas in Shawnee National Forest that the forest service manages.
“We are hitting some spots that really need work,” Hirsch said.
“More than anything, we are trying to give them an amazing experience connecting to our natural areas and culture,” Pearson said.
She added that many hands make light work, and the students have proved that both Monday and Tuesday.
Snake Road will close March 15 for the annual spring migration of reptiles and amphibians from their hibernation spots to the swampy areas of La Rue-Pine Hills.
For more information about volunteer opportunities in Shawnee National Forest, call 618-833-8576.