Thursday, February 08, 2007

The Urbana Park District’s Perkins Road Wetland Restoration

Note: I am still researching and writing EA each week, but other people will be voicing the spots until April 17, 2007. I'm running for a seat on the Park District board in Champaign, so my voice can't be on the radio without opening up the same amount of time for other candidates.

Dee Breeding narrates this week's installment.


Listen to the commentary
Real Audio : MP3 download

What kind of image comes to mind when you hear the term “wetland?” Maybe you picture a southern swamp, where the knees of cypress trees poke up out of dark, unmoving water, and the air is alive with haunting birdcalls. Or maybe you see a northern bog, the sort of place where you might startle a moose as it feeds on aquatic plants.

In any case, most people don’t associate the term “wetland” with the current landscape of Champaign-Urbana, even if they know that prior to artificial drainage most of east central Illinois was too wet for habitation or agriculture during parts of the year. Indeed, our drainage systems are so effective that most people can’t even picture the types of wetlands once found here. This is true around the state as well, where more than 90% of wetlands have been lost to agriculture or urban and industrial development.

But there’s a place in east Urbana where the Urbana Park District is working to restore a wetland complex that has survived through the years, despite having been modified for many different uses. The site, which encompasses about 30-acres in all, is located off of Perkins Road, half a mile east of Cunningham Avenue, and adjacent to the southern edge of the recently established dog park.

The Park District acquired control of the property in the year 2000, through a long-term lease from the Urbana-Champaign Sanitary District, after managers there recognized its potential as a restored natural area. And the Sanitary District has continued to support restoration efforts by matching grants obtained by the Park District from other sources.

Derek Liebert, who coordinates restoration efforts for the Park District, emphasizes that the Perkins Road site was already a wetland when work there began. The main effort there has been to improve the health of the ecosystem by establishing a more diverse plant community. This involves removing invasive, exotic species and establishing a mix of native plants. A more diverse plant community will, in turn, improve the value of the site as wildlife habitat.

In the first phase of work at the Perkins Road site, completed last year, a low-lying area of about 12 acres was converted to wet prairie. This is an area that contains surface water in late winter and spring, and where the soil remains moist much of the year. As the grasses and sedges planted there mature, the wet prairie will be used by wading birds, such as herons and rails, as well as migrating shorebirds and waterfowl.

The next phase of work at the site, which is to begin this Spring, will focus on restoring prairie and savanna to the upland components of the landscape.

The only downside to this story about a truly wonderful natural area restoration is that there can’t be public access to the site while work goes on there. Eventually, though, a system of trails and boardwalks will allow visitors to experience the rich diversity of wetland life in a place very close to home. If you’re really anxious to see this area before it’s officially open, there’s one way to do that--by attending volunteer workdays there, beginning when weather allows. For details about workdays contact the Urbana Park District’s Anita Purves Nature Center (217) 384-4062.