Late last fall, I took a walk in forested bottomlands where the Sangamon River meanders through. Well-established trees grew on top of oddly geometric earthen dikes, now breached in several places, and therefore long past their useful function. A coyote hastily dashed across the makeshift, vague trail out in front of me, long gone before I could click on my digital camera.
White oaks, burr oaks, shagbark hickory, silver maple and sycamore occupy the bottomland forest. Closer to the river’s edge, huge trees had been felled by industrious beavers. The river was low here, and I walked on out on the exposed dry, sandy river bottom.
Out over the river were cardinal pairs, a woodpecker, and crows. A turkey vulture glided effortlessly far above in the deep blue fall sky; a graceful and beautiful bird, from a distance at least.
I was at a special place on the river, just on the south end of the city of Monticello along the road to Allerton Park. This is a place where humans have demonstrated their capacity for honest and effective land stewardship, for land protection and conservation.
I met Bruce Hannon at the Courier Café in Urbana. I had the paperboy breakfast. The Courier was once home to the Urbana Courier, a paper which was supportive of the once-proposed Oakley Dam project on the Sangamon River, something I have written about before in this column. Bruce was a strong opponent of Oakley. Bruce and his supporters won, but he bears no hard feelings to the Courier.
Bruce is now President of the Land Conservation Foundation, the recent and very proud owner of the forested bottomland I was exploring.
Founded in 2003, the principal goal of the LCF is to “conserve the river corridors of East-Central Illinois so as to protect the recharge areas for the Mahomet Aquifer, sustain clean drinking water in the region, preserve wildlife habitat, and ensure that all those who call this area home have places in which they and their families can enjoy nature’s miraculous beauty.”
They note that “the Sangamon River is identified by the Illinois Natural Areas Inventory as having a high diversity of aquatic species, and it provides life-giving resources to wildlife species native to Illinois including the largest great blue heron rookery in central Illinois.”
The LCF describes the Sangamon River as a “living museum that affords invaluable insights in to the workings of Mother Nature.” And they consider themselves “the curator of this educational treasure.”
The place I was walking was the “Land Conservation Foundation Reserve,” a recently acquired 108 acre tract of hardwood forest and cleared agricultural fields now protected in perpetuity from further development.
Bruce had to tell me in detail how to find the Land Conservation Foundation Reserve, and it wasn’t easy. It’s not marked along the roadway, there are no directional signs, there is no map, and there is no sign posted to say that you’ve arrived. Yet.
So when I arrived, I still wasn’t certain I had arrived. But the first thing I noticed on my walk was an apparent agricultural field entirely planted in saplings. That’s how I knew I was at the right place. Bruce had told me that these hardwoods comprised a future forest bought and paid for by the LCF.
This was a smaller agricultural tract, but one day, the entire 108 tract will again be a native lowland hardwood forest of pin oaks, white oaks, hickory and sycamore, all native trees to Sangamon floodplains. This forest will reduce herbicide runoff by acting as a water filtration system before runoff reaches the river. This forest will also hold water longer which will protect and enhance recharge to the Mahomet Aquifer and reduce sedimentation to the Sangamon River.
Given the isolated location, the lack of markings and the difficulty of finding the place, it was with some surprise that as I was crossing back through the future hardwood forest heading to my CRV, I saw a guy in hiking boots, flannel shirt and a wide brimmed hat purposefully striding toward me like he owned the place. I thought maybe I had the location wrong after all and I was now trespassing on some none-too-happy landowner’s field.
Turns out he did own the place, sort of. This was Fran Harty, Special Projects Director with the Illinois Nature Conservancy and a special advisor to the Land Conservation Foundation. Fran and I had met several times back in civilized country. From a distance, he thought I was the farmer who had planted the hardwood forest for the LCF and had come to check out my handywork. But when we realized who we were, we exchanged happy greetings.
Fran was out marking the numerous breaches in the dike structure that I had been walking. He explained that the dikes, which were meant to keep the Sangamon River out, were now breached in so many of precisely the wrong places that it lets the floodstage Sangamon pour into the fields along the north boundary and then retains the floodwaters inside, flooding the fields to the south and west.
Oh well. I guess you really shouldn’t mess with Mother Nature.
Fran explained that they’ll fill, culvert and bridge the various breaks in the dike to make a high ground hiking trail. He also explained that the area I had spent the last few hours walking represented only about a third of this amazing tract. And he gave me a map for my next visit.
The LCF Reserve I was walking is a tract of “singular significance” also because it is an integral part of the Sangamon River Corridor project.
This project focuses on the area between Allerton Park and Lodge Park in Monticello. To date, the LCF has helped put over 400 acres of floodplain in the Sangamon River Corridor in conservation reserve protection in perpetuity. The ultimate goal is to create a continuous corridor between Allerton and Lodge Park, with a river trail between the two parks as a resource for all to enjoy and explore the Sangamon River.
While the LCF Reserve is not developed, the LCF says it is now open for you and your family to explore. To visit, turn into the Monticello Landscape Recycling Center off of Allerton Road, drive to the very back, continuing down to the end of the road where there is a large “Stop” sign telling you to go no further. Stop. Park in the clearing and head through a break in the treeline down to the bottomland. You’ve arrived at the future hardwood forest. The river is pretty much north and west. Walk that direction and you’ll find it. If you don’t have a compass, good luck.
And enjoy your walk!
For more information: www.landconservationfoundation.org
Appeared as Notes from the River, Mahomet Citizen, March 6, 2014, by Scott Hays