Thursday, October 11, 2007

Celebrating the Urbana Park District’s Natural Areas

Celebrating the Urbana Park District’s Natural Areas

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As the Urbana Park District celebrates its 100th anniversary this week I’d like to recognize its ongoing efforts to protect and restore natural areas. While each of the sites I talk about here is a story in it own right, taken together they give evidence of the Urbana Park District’s recognition that good habitat for plants and wildlife is also good habitat for people.

Let’s start at Busey Woods, the 59-acre tract connected to the Anita Purves Nature Center on North Broadway. Saved from development as an industrial park in the 1960s, this remnant of the Big Grove (the10-square mile forest that once encompassed much of present day Urbana) was formally acquired by the park district in 1992. The mix of mature oak and hickory trees that makes up Busey Woods provides a home for nesting birds in the summer, and an important stopover for migrants in the spring and fall. Busey Woods is also the only nearby place where residents of Champaign-Urbana can witness the awakening of life in vernal pools in early spring, and enjoy the show put on by woodland wildflowers.

In recent years the park district has made great strides in promoting a robust and diverse understory of native plants in Busey Woods by removing the invasive species that had begun to crowd them out.

People are accommodated at Busey Woods by a system of well-maintained trails, as well as a boardwalk that makes the woods accessible to those with physical restrictions. The boardwalk features overlook areas with benches, and signs that help visitors understand and appreciate what they see there.

A visit to Meadowbrook Park, just three miles south of Busey Woods, provides area residents and others with the opportunity to experience an 80-acre restoration of the tallgrass prairie that dominated the local landscape prior to European settlement. Prairie restoration efforts at Meadowbrook date back to the late 1970s, and have benefited greatly from the help of the Champaign County Audubon Society. In recent years the park district has added a 15-acre savanna restoration to the prairie at Meadowbrook Park. Named the Walker Grove in honor of park board president Michael Walker’s parents, this area is meant to recreate the transitional zone that existed where tallgrass prairie and woodlands met.

Toward the eastern edge of town, the Urbana Park District is integrating natural areas with the development of athletic fields at one of its newest sites, Weaver Park. The natural areas at Weaver Park include a 10-acre remnant of the Big Grove with trees that date back 200 years or more, as well as a brand new watershed management project. This project uses native plants in a naturalized basin to create wildlife habitat and at the same time alleviate flooding on the site and in the surrounding neighborhood.

An even more ambitious wetland project is taking shape at an 86-acre site not yet open to the public, adjacent to the district’s dog park on Perkins Road. The best way to experience what, for now, is called the Perkins Road site before it’s officially open is to participate in one of the regularly scheduled workdays there.

Would we be able to get by without access to woodlands, or prairies, or wetlands? I suppose so. But our community is far richer for the opportunities we have to experience natural areas thanks to the Urbana Park District.