River Bend Forest Preserve planting seeds of conservation

MAHOMET – Jim Gallivan looked across the larger of two lakes at the River Bend Forest Preserve on Saturday and could see the piles of sand and gravel that were his livelihood for decades.

"It's really a good day," said the 81-year-old Champaign man, who along with the family of his late business partner, Harold O'Neil of Danville, donated the land for the first forest preserve to be opened in Champaign County in more than 20 years.

"They've done a wonderful job," said Gallivan, who said he's retired from Mid-America Sand and Gravel, "except to complain."

"I like the openness of it and the aspect of it not looking like central Illinois," he said of the 275-acre development, almost half of which is water in the form of two lakes, clear because they were gravel mines for decades.

"I hope that people, as they learn about it, will enjoy it. You hate to let an area like this go to private development. This way quite a few people can enjoy it," Gallivan said.

About 60 people turned out Saturday, a blustery, cool June day, to christen the newest member of the Champaign County Forest Preserve family with wild flower and prairie plant seeds rather than a ribbon-cutting ceremony. The preserve is located just south of Mahomet, west of Illinois 47.

"That's a cool idea, the second most creative I've done," said state Rep. Chapin Rose of Mahomet, one of several public officials in attendance. His other favorite involved being handed a sledge hammer to raze a barn on a site destined for redevelopment.

Forest Preserve District Board President Bob Toalson noted the efforts of Rose, a Republican from the 110th district, and other area legislators in obtaining state money to help pay for the acquisition and development of the preserve.

"This was done with no local tax dollars," said John Potts, retired executive director of the Forest Preserve. Retired three years and now living in Chillicothe, Potts looked like a proud papa Saturday.

He was at the helm of the district when Gallivan approached him, at the urging of local environmentalist and educator Bruce Hannon, with the notion of donating the land south of Mid-America Sand and Gravel for a forest preserve.

"That was one of the best days of my career when this gentlemen walked into my office," Potts said. He also acknowledged Hannon's role in convincing Gallivan of the value of the donation.

"I'm so proud of this. How often to you get to have a new forest preserve? This was totally noncontroversial. We didn't take any farmland. It was just a fit," Potts said.

The actual donation of the land, valued at $1.8 million, occurred in 2002. A matching grant of $1.8 million from the state Public Land Trust and a $222,000 Open Space Land Acquisition grant rounded out the money used for the site.

The latter grant paid for things like a boat launch, shelter, toilet and trails, said Toalson, who called the preserve a "great gift to our children and grandchildren."

"Imagine what it's going to look like 50 or 100 years from now," said Toalson, whose career has been dedicated to parks and recreation.

Bob Craft of Champaign, a member of the forest preserve's citizens advisory committee, called the new preserve "a great place."

"It's not a park like you see in the center of the city. It's different. There's fishing, bike riding, walking trails," said Craft, who said biking is his preferred activity although he has fished once.

Jennifer and Lloyd Black and their son, Austin, 12, live in the nearby Lakes at River Bend subdivision and have been using the lake with the permission of the Gallivan family for years before it was deeded over to the Forest Preserve. They've watched the area being developed.

"We're extremely pleased with the progress," said Jennifer Black. "We're thrilled to have something this close to us."

Although their family primarily uses the area for hiking, Austin said he and his dad have also been out on the lake in the neighbor's canoe to fish.

"We have seen many large fish," said Lloyd Black, stressing the "seen" as opposed to "caught."

Lloyd Black also said they've seen lots of wildlife – coyotes, beaver, deer, foxes and all kinds of waterfowl.

Their neighbor in the Lakes at River Bend, Rhonda Proctor, and her son, Max, 7, act as "trail stewards," picking up trash, clipping unruly weeds, and just "being the eyes and ears of the Forest Preserve," Proctor said of their volunteer work. "The trails are really nice here."

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