The Old Plank Road Trail was a decades-long project converting an old railway line to a recreational trail, and Mike Rzepka was there from the start.
Today, Rzepka volunteers for the Forest Preserve District of Will County as a steward along sections of the trail. But his work goes back much further than that, having helped with prairie restoration through the Old Plank Road Trail Association.
Once the work was complete and the trail was dedicated in 1997, he decided to become a steward to stay involved.
“I work with the (Forest Preserve District) to protect the native prairie remnants along the (trail),” he said, adding his tasks include spraying for and removing invasive species such as buckthorn and honeysuckle; assisting with prescribed burns; collecting and dispersing native seeds; and monitoring the natural areas along the trail.
Rzepka also helps with steward work at Hickory Creek, Lockport Prairie, Lily Cache Wetlands and Messenger Woods preserves, but he said his work at the Old Plank Road Trail is most important to him.
“The creation of the Old Plank Road Trail from the abandoned railroad line was a two-decade work in progress,” he said. “It is special for me.”
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Rzepka also has assisted with stream monitoring at Hickory Creek since 1996. This work is done through the statewide RiverWatch program, which works to quantify stream-quality trends.
“It is a lot of fun to wade in the creek and gather data,” he commented.
He said he considers himself an amateur naturalist, which is one reason why volunteering in the preserves is such a good fit for him. His connection with the District provides him with an opportunity to study nature, one of his many interests.
“Understanding ecology and plant identification are challenging so the work includes both the physical and the cerebral,” he said. “That is a big plus.”
In addition to volunteering for the District, Rzepka, who is retired, enjoys reading, traveling, attending concerts, hiking, biking, canoeing and spending time with his family and grandchildren. He also volunteers with other nature and conservation organizations.
“Building community, camaraderie and friendship are more benefits of volunteering,” he said. “Friends with mutual interests and some of the best people I know were met through volunteering.”
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