Thursday, October 23, 2008

New Sangamon River Forest Preserve a testament to the value provided by the Champaign County Forest Preserve District

New Sangamon River Forest Preserve a testament to the value provided by the Champaign County Forest Preserve District

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I was delighted to learn this summer that the Champaign County Forest Preserve District had acquired a new 160-acre property along the Sangamon River north of Mahomet. I’m a frequent visitor to the four other preserves maintained by the district--River Bend and Lake of the Woods near Mahomet, Middle Fork River Forest Preserve in the northeast corner of the county, and Homer Lake--but one thing or another kept me from exploring the new preserve until earlier this week

I arrived there at mid morning under a clear blue sky. A red-tailed hawk wheeled overhead as I collected myself in the parking lot, and a large flock of white-throated sparrows, just in from their breeding territory in the north, brought to life the weedy edges and a brush pile nearby. The buzz of late-season insects provided a backdrop of sound, and as I began to walk each step through the drying grass flushed another handful of grasshoppers with wings that flashed yellow and black.

As an angler I always incline toward water, whether or not I’m going fishing, so I took the path that follows a small stream called Wildcat Slough to its confluence with the Sangamon River. The banks of the river are marked occasionally by crossings where the mud has been churned by hooves, confirming that good numbers of white-tailed deer use the preserve. Standing along the water’s edge were many of the “Y” shaped sticks that people fashion to prop up fishing rods, which tell at least that the river provides recreation, and maybe food, too.

Massive oak trees that predate European settlement are the most distinctive feature of the Sangamon River Forest Preserve. Some are scattered along the river, while others cluster together on an upland savanna. These trees provide a living link to the landscape the Forest Preserve District intends to restore at the site, which will also include significant prairie restorations.

In addition to the magnificent oaks at the preserve, an ancient and enormous green ash tree grows in the floodplain there. Forest Preserve executive director Jerry Pagac likes to note that it takes seven people to encircle it with their arms. [Photo: I wanted a person in the picture to provide scale but I was on my own at this point. So I propped my camera on my hat and used the timer to take a picture of me with the tree.] Use of an increment borer to count the annual rings confirmed that this giant ash tree is 206 years old. Many younger native trees also grow in the bottomland at the Sangamon River Forest Preserve, planted there with an eye toward the benefit of future generations by Ron and Karen Cook, the previous owners of the property.

Although the Sangamon River Forest Preserve is not yet widely known, and I was there on a Monday, I ran into other people enjoying the trails throughout my visit, evidence, I think, of the great value natural areas have for people who live in highly developed landscapes, as we do in east central Illinois.

If you value natural areas for conservation and recreation, you should be aware that on November 4th voters in Champaign County will be asked to approve a modest increase in the tax levy that supports the Champaign County Forest Preserve District. The additional revenue generated by the increase would be used to repair or replace aging infrastructure at current preserves, help establish and maintain the long-anticipated bike trail between Urbana and Kickapoo State Park, and make possible the acquisition of additional land for preserves along rivers and streams in the future.