UI putting out word: Woods at South Race really off-limits

UI putting out word: Woods at South Race really off-limits

URBANA — The signs may say "no trespassing," but the half-open gates and well-worn trails through this wooded area indicate some people haven't heard.

The forest just west of Meadowbrook Park along South Race Street has been a favorite for runners, dog-walkers and bicyclists for years, officials say.

But technically the Illini Forest Plantations are a University of Illinois research area that's off-limits to the public, said Jay Hayek, Extension forestry specialist for the UI Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences.

The UI wants to get the word out that the fences and gates are there for a reason, even if they haven't been all that effective.

"The public perceives it as a recreation area," Hayek said as he walked through the site Wednesday. "This is a research area. We do have a no-trespassing policy."

Officials recently discovered an elaborate "fort" built inside the woods, with second- and third-story decks. Someone also stole a pile of firewood that had been cut by the Illini Foresters student group.

The trespassers haven't harmed any research yet, Hayek said, but he and others worry about public safety and liability. Officials plan to repair holes in the fence and gates and beef up the no-trespassing signs in coming weeks.

The forest was established in the 1950s or 1960s to test how various species of trees would grow in the soil, both native and non-native, he said. Researchers take periodic measurements at the site.

But it's also become a refuge for invasive plant species, such as bush honeysuckle, brought in by birds, wild animals, people and their pets, Hayek said.

Last fall, Hayek started teaching a class on management of invasive species, taking students out to identify and remove invasive plants that account for 99 percent of the underbrush.

The students use chainsaws and loppers to cut them down, then apply herbicides to the stumps — not the best environment for recreational use, he said. One big fear is that dogs will lick the bright blue herbicide off the stumps.

The forest was planted in half-acre blocks of different tree species, and natural trails formed along the boundaries. They're obviously well-used, with deer tracks, paw prints and human footprints evident in the frozen mud.

"The vast majority of people have no idea they are trespassing, and it is a research site," Hayek said.

The main entrance at the northeast corner of the forest has a wooden sign warning the public to keep out, but the gate was open on Wednesday.

Another gate along Race Street was not fully closed, chained instead to a pole that left a gap wide enough for two people to walk through. It hadn't been moved in some time, as a tall sapling had grown through the gate. Farther south along Race, a section of fence had been torn down, providing easy access to the woods, Hayek said.

Trespassing has been a problem for years — the forest has seen its share of homeless people and "high school drinking parties," Hayek said — but the new invasive species program and the recent discovery of the fort prompted officials to act. UI Police Sgt. Tom Geis said police discovered another fort there several years ago.

The college plans to improve security with more signs and better gates along the north and east sides of the forest, the two biggest problem areas, he said. The west side bumps up against other UI research fields.

Runner Andrea Stack said she's never realized the forest was off limits and said the UI should post signs all around the perimeter if it's going to use herbicides so no one gets sick. She said there are too few natural areas left that haven't been developed or farmed.

"I think of it as an extension of Meadowbrook. I have been out there with other groups of friends in the summer before. It is nice because it is easier on your legs and feet since it isn't paved, and it has beautiful scenery and little trails here and there," she wrote in an email.

Hayek expects other complaints but urged people to use the public paths across the street at Meadowbrook Park instead.

"It's mostly for the public's safety and their pets," he said.

Many of the trees in the forest date back to the 1960s, including the Eastern white pine. Others died out, and walnuts, locusts, cedars and other trees have sprung up in their place.

The invasive bush honeysuckle, privet shrubs, bush thorn and winterberry have proliferated via droppings from birds and other animals that frequent the woods, Hayek said.

"This is an urban forest. It's a great place to study invasive species," he said.


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ROB McCOLLEY wrote on February 21, 2013 at 9:02 am
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I liked running through there, too. But then it became a favorite spot for off-leash dog owners.



syzlack wrote on February 21, 2013 at 9:02 am

As opposed to dog owners who are on leash?  Which may be truer than most dog owners think.  I could never see running in there with all the black walnuts, hedge apples and assorted junk on the paths, all of which are there solely to cause ankle injuries.  Or, it could be that the area was obviously abandoned years ago, and there is little or no active research going on.  Wasn't this supposed to be part of that public/private interface for the ag school, with mumford house moved there.  There is no rhyme or reason to the U of I.

EL YATIRI wrote on February 25, 2013 at 9:02 am
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As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said "No Trespassing."
But on the other side it didn't say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.
                                              Woody Guthrie  
AisleRightDave wrote on February 21, 2013 at 9:02 am

How's that old saying go? Good fences make good neighbors... fix the fence, fix the problem.

jdmac44 wrote on February 21, 2013 at 10:02 am

Signs, signs, everywhere there's signs...

Urbana_Watcher wrote on February 21, 2013 at 11:02 am

I have driven by there at dusk and at night several times and have watched wolves running along the inside of the fence and running in to it trying to find a way out. I would not want to come up on a panicing wolf or even a deer.

If the place is fenced and gated and there is a sign, even if the gate is open there's still no trespassing. Who doesn't understand that? Apparently many! So, use Busey Woods instead!!!

syzlack wrote on February 21, 2013 at 11:02 am

They are coyotes, not wolves.  And they are not panicking. The deer they are hunting (and I've seen the carcasses of their success) probably are.  Just drive carefully along Race and Windsor. The goal of deer is to wreck your car.

ThinkWithYourBrain wrote on February 21, 2013 at 11:02 am

Wolves? Really?  You should probably learn a little more about the world around you.  And they were not looking for a way out, they're most likely running with their nose to a deer trail. 

Does the public have access to Busey Woods? 

bernies wrote on February 21, 2013 at 6:02 pm

The public has access to Busey Woods. It's part of the Urbana Park District.

rsp wrote on February 21, 2013 at 11:02 am

I've always wanted to go in there but I saw the no trespassing signs so I didn't. I didn't want to become a research subject or damage any research. Just because you don't actually see it doesn't mean it isn't going on. Sometimes it can take years to get results and carelessness can invalidate it. 

Sid Saltfork wrote on February 21, 2013 at 12:02 pm

rsp;  Good point.  Evidently, some people disregard the signs based on some of the comments.  A well educated segment of the south east Urbana population cannot read signs, or disregards signs?  How would an attorney defend them from a trespassing charge?

The costly solution will be building a bigger fence, locking gates, and erecting bigger signs.  At least after the public interview for the media; the university can defend it's self in lawsuits created by the arrogant, and illiterate.

syzlack wrote on February 21, 2013 at 4:02 pm

Before the DIA metastisized all over the south of campus, university faculty and staff would dress at Huff Gym or the Old Mens Gym and go jogging all through that area, occassionally picking an apple when they were ripe.  There was no fence around the President's house garden, where one could take a stroll.  SE Urbana kids would go fishing for creek chub and crawdads along what was then called McCullogh's Creek. You could walk into Memorial Stadium any old time of year and race up and down the ramps, or if extra foolish, try and skateboard down them.  But this was all before the university went mostly private and became a going concern. Today almost all of the research plots are surrounded by new and well-maintained chain-link fence.  That seems reasonable, I guess.  But the plot across from Clark Lindsay Village has been abandoned for years.  There has been no research going on there that a few joggers and dog walkers would upset.  I doubt there is any going on there now, despite the extension service and students clearing out brush.  Maybe the reporter can ask some questions next time.  The only sign I've seen there is one that said No Parking, but that was taken down this year, or blew down.  There is an old derelict canoe with a Minnesota tag chained to a shed, along with other flotsam and junk laying around, like an old abandoned steel desk.  The picture of the tree growing through the gate says more about this site than anything.  It was abandoned,and one of the few somewhat wild spaces in town where one could walk.  Oh well, it's been reclaimed as private, no-tresspassing property again, like nearly everything else.  

wayward wrote on February 21, 2013 at 3:02 pm

Why not let the Autumn Berry Inspired folks go in and harvest the winterberries?  That should cut down on the proliferation.

bernies wrote on February 21, 2013 at 6:02 pm

It's interesting. The Rutgers University Ecological Preserve has quite a few research projects going on that involve experiments in using various chemicals to control invasive plants. Heck, they even had a controlled deer hunt to see how reducing deer numbers might impact overgrazing of the forest understory. But they welcome people to walk the trails. They just post signs telling folks what to watch out for.

syzlack wrote on February 22, 2013 at 10:02 am

Because the Autumn Berry folk don't fund research at the Ag School to the tune of Monsanto and other herbicide manufacturers.