Forest tribute keeps growing at River Bend

MAHOMET – New life from seed will be Champaign County's tribute to the 2,996 dead of Sept. 11, 2001.

The fifth anniversary will be marked here at 2 p.m. Sept. 11 at the "9-11 Memorial Woodland" at River Bend, the new forest preserve just south of Mahomet.

Dan Olson, the Champaign County Forest Preserve District's natural resources director, said newly planted trees include "a little bit of everything."

A sign will be erected at the site, within a few steps of the preserve's main entrance and on the bike trail. River Bend is at 1602 Mid America Road, a mile west of Illinois 47.

On the first anniversary of the al-Qaida attack on America, volunteers planted a green ash, which remains the biggest tree at the site, Olson said.

Forest preserve district spokeswoman Andee Chestnut said a committee led by board member Robert Toalson had the idea to plant the trees, originally thinking of individual trees for individual victims.

Instead, the woodlands will celebrate life itself. Olson said visitors will get a rare chance to see a forest in the making. The land had once been forested, but was used for corn and beans for decades before a nearby materials company donated the land with its ponds, dug for gravel.

Because the spot is so close to the Sangamon River, Olson sad, floodplains species like sycamores and cottonwood will grow close to the river, and different species will be planted on the higher ground.

The biodiversity includes nursery-grown trees and direct-seeded trees, he said.

"We've planted acorns and walnuts and several other species," Olson said. "That's the better way to do it. It's nature's way: They can sprout when they feel ready, and grow as fast or slowly as they want."

Also direct-seeded are hickory and redbud species.

Olson made sure one of his personal favorites, the Kentucky coffee tree, got its share of space at the memorial.

Early settlers brewed the large seeds of the Kentucky coffee tree, a relative of the honeylocust, to make a hot beverage. (Eaten raw, the seeds are poisonous).

On Sept. 11, a crew will plant a white oak, the state tree of Illinois.

Also planted were a few native shrubs like buttonbush and viburnum, Olson said.

Chestnut said the woodlands will be a place of meditation and calm at which to reflect.

Nature lovers can also enjoy birds there in years to come.

"Within a few years, the trees we direct-seeded will be 3 or 4 feet tall," Olson said.

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