Thursday, November 10, 2011

Grand Prairie Friends works to protect precious woodland

Grand Prairie Friends works to protect precious woodland

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If you’re familiar with Fox Ridge State Park south of Charleston, you know there’s more to east central Illinois than mile after mile of flatland. Thanks to the influence of the Embarras River, forested ridges and lush valleys provide the area with a distinctive natural character.

This character is maintained through a chain of protected lands, including the Woodyard Memorial Conservation Area at the edge of Charleston, Warbler Woods Nature Preserve a little further to the south, and Fox Ridge State Park itself.

During the past year, an opportunity has arisen for adding a beautiful link to the chain, and the board of the local conservation group, Grand Prairie Friends, has been actively pursuing it. The “link” in question is a 140-acre tract of land adjacent to Warbler Woods that’s up for sale.

Known, for now, by the name of the current owner, the Dolan Woods tract is almost completely forested. On the ridges, where the soil tends to be dry, a mix of towering white oak trees forms a loose canopy, which allows some sunlight to reach the floor below. There, native shrubs, such as serviceberry, provide structure and food for wildlife.

In the ravines, where moisture is more abundant, red oaks and sugar maples dominate. Beneath them grow plants adapted to dampness and low light, a luxuriant blanket of ferns and wildflowers.

Scientific surveys of Dolan Woods have identified some real treasures among the plants there, including the relatively well-known yellow lady’s slipper orchid, along with two less common types of orchids as well. [Photos: Coles County naturalist David Mott (right) leads Jamie Ellis and other GPF board members on a tour of Dolan Woods this past June (Fred Delcomyn); yellow lady's slipper orchid (Michael R. Jeffords); worm-eating warbler (Greg Lambeth/].

Better still, according to Jamie Ellis, who is a botanist and also board president for Grand Prairie Friends, further discoveries are very likely. He told me, “The plant list already includes more than 100 species, many of which are typical of high-quality woods—but it’s certainly not complete. We’re still adding species each time we take a walk there.”

Thanks to the diverse, intact habitat, a variety of wildlife thrives at Dolan Woods. The site is presumed to host the same birds as the adjoining Warbler Woods, where breeding bird surveys have identified 57 species, eleven of which are considered “species in greatest need of conservation” by the Illinois State Wildlife Action Plan. These are birds that rely on large blocks of forest to reproduce, and they include some that are familiar, such as the redheaded woodpecker, as well as others that are less common, like the worm-eating warbler.

Dolan Woods also offers ideal habitat for the mammals, frogs, salamanders and other animals typical of Illinois forests.

Since June, members of the Grand Prairie Friends board have been working to secure grants from major Illinois foundations to cover the lion's share of the cost for Dolan Woods. (NEWS FLASH: Approval for one of the two key grants came in just as I was submitting this column.) But they are also committed to raising a significant amount for the purchase—$50,000—in contributions from members and friends by the end of the year.

If you are interested and able to help, there are two easy ways to donate money. You can send a check made out to Grand Prairie Friends to P. O. Box 36, Urbana, IL 61803. Or click you can go to the Grand Prairie Friends Website at and click on the “Donate Now” button. To my way of thinking, this is an exciting opportunity to help protect a real gem in east central Illinois.