Thursday, January 06, 2005

Busey Woods Boardwalk

Listen to the commentary
Real Audio : MP3 download

There are many reasons not to get outdoors at this time of year: short days, cool temperatures, wind, rain, you name it. But the rewards of an excursion into the woods do not disappear with the departure of agreeable weather. And thanks to the recent completion of a half-mile long boardwalk, you can now enjoy Busey Woods in Urbana without even getting your feet muddy.

On the chance you’re not familiar with it, Busey Woods is a fifty-nine-acre natural area adjacent to the Anita Purves Nature Center just north of Crystal Lake Park. It’s a remnant of what was called the Big Grove, ten square miles of forest that stood in a sea of tallgrass prairie before the settlement of Champaign County by European Americans.

Busey Woods is notable for its mature oak and hickory trees, as well as the vernal pools that mark the former streambed of the Saline Branch, the stream which now runs through a straightened channel along the eastern edge of the woods. Had it not been for the efforts of local citizens, Busey woods would have been destroyed to make way for industrial development in the 1960s.

Given the scarcity of natural areas in east central Illinois, Busey Woods is an important home for wildlife, from smallmouth salamanders that breed in the pools, to red fox, deer, owls, and other forest birds. It is also an essential stopover and excellent spot for birdwatching during spring and fall migrations.

According to Derek Liebert, Natural Areas Coordinator for the Urbana Park District, the primary motive for the boardwalk was to provide increased access to the woods. Park District personnel anticipate that the boardwalk will make the woods accessible to several new groups of users, including people with physical restrictions, parents with children in strollers, and the like.

They also anticipate that the boardwalk, which is visible from the adjacent road, will prompt people who might have just driven by before to recognize the woods as a public natural area.

The boardwalk also compensates for the wet nature of the woods, especially the vernal pools. After a significant rainfall, particularly in the spring when the Nature Center conducts large numbers of school programs, these ponds breach their banks and flood large portions of the woods.

The boardwalk itself is constructed of non-arsenic treated white pine and features three pop-out overlook areas with benches. These pop-outs will be incorporated into the many environmental programs that are conducted in the woods. During one such program, for example, children use dip nets to sample the diverse aquatic communities of the north pond.

The park district is now working with Taylor Studios of Rantoul to design interpretive panels to be stationed along the boardwalk next spring. These panels will call attention to seasonal changes, provide history, explain management practices, and introduce ecological concepts.

The park district is also currently restoring, planting, and seeding the few areas that were adversely impacted during boardwalk construction. Volunteers interested in helping out with such restoration projects are encouraged to contact the Anita Purves Nature Center to sign up for one of the regularly scheduled workdays.