Tom Kacich: Exploring the pristine Sylvester Woods

Tom Kacich: Exploring the pristine Sylvester Woods

Last winter when it was cold and windy and wet, and the landscape was brown and bleak, I talked to Dan Olson about a glorious little speck on the landscape unlike almost any other spot in Champaign County.

Olson is executive director of the Champaign County Forest Preserve District and was eager to talk about a nearly 7-acre tract called Sylvester Woods, near Homer Lake, that the agency had recently acquired exclusively through private donations.

The thing that stood out, and remained with me all winter long, was Olson's description of what the woods would look like four months hence.

"The real beauty of it in my opinion will be in the springtime," he said in the depths of January. "It has all these great ephemeral wildflowers in the woods and the (Salt Fork of the Vermilion) river transects it."

Spring took its time this year and it wasn't until early May, not mid-April, that Sylvester Woods began to green up and all those beautiful dainty East Central Illinois wildflowers — the bluebells and the red trillium and the downy yellow violet and the spring beauty with their dazzling little striped petals — finally appeared.

These days, at least when the sun is shining and the flowers aim their faces to its light and warmth, Sylvester Woods is at its best. The earth is wet and rich from decaying leaves and limbs and giant trees. Even with a pleasant breeze through the woods, an earthy smell is thick in the air. Birds flit low to the ground and sing and chirp and tweet, as if to scare off the intruder.

Except for the occasional beer can carelessly discarded from the nearby county road, or an empty cigarette pack or, deeper in the woods, a rusting old gas stove, it could be 200 years ago when the first non-Indians traveled across a Champaign County that was, in its entirety, something like Sylvester Woods is today.

Instead of pavement and buildings and well-drained soil and detention basins, Champaign County was big patches of rich woods among marshy, grassy prairie.

Thanks to the late George Blaine Sylvester, who agreed long ago to sell the property to the forest preserve district, visitors can experience what it was like to walk through virgin woodland in Champaign County. Generations of Sylvester's family farmed near the location, which is a few miles northwest of Homer along the Salt Fork, but experts believe Sylvester Woods was never farmed or grazed or even cleared of trees or brush.

The site, part of the Sylvester family since at least 1893 and perhaps as far back as pre-Civil War — George Sylvester's great-grandfather, George W. Sylvester, was a Union soldier who died at the Battle of Frederick in 1864 — apparently was used by the family only for recreation, such as fishing and camping.

Off to the northeast on the property is an unusually wide part of the Salt Fork, part of a section where the river — now high with the runoff of a month full of generous rains — snakes its way through eastern Champaign County, twisting every 100 feet or so. According to a meticulously researched management plan for the woods, fish and freshwater mussels are found in the waters, as are turtles and frogs.

Getting to Sylvester Woods is a bit problematic, and that's probably a good thing. It's located on County Road 2400 East, a few miles south of the Homer Lake Road, but parking is nonexistent. "No parking" signs are posted along the county road, and if you come by vehicle it's a pretty good hike from the nearest safe roadside parking spot to the woods.

The management plan is insistent that parking not be provided — "parking areas would ... significantly degrade the natural resources that are present at the site," it says.

There's a locked gate at the woods although it's easy to walk around it. Once inside there are no paths or trails, just a slog through mud and tiny ponds and over fallen trees and limbs. Don't wear your church shoes on this walk.

In fact, even the old natural areas motto — leave nothing but footprints — may be too much activity for this pristine site. Clearly the greatest threat to Sylvester Woods is human, presenting a delicate quandary for the forest preserve district: making the property available to the public while preserving its virgin state.

"The creation of trails and facilities would increase use therefore increasing the opportunity of invasion by non-native species," says the management plan. "It also creates additional edge habitat, fragmentation and soil disturbance. The soil types and flooding models indicate that most of the site is not conducive to infrastructure development. Any anthropogenic (caused by humans) impacts would be very detrimental to the native populations of plants and animals."

The Sylvester family, with the help of adjacent landowners, have kept the woods looking like it did 100 or even 200 years ago. That responsibility now rests with the forest preserve district and, more broadly, the people of Champaign County.

Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette editor and columnist. His column appears on Sunday and Wednesdays. He can be reached at 351-5221 or at tkacich@news-gazette.com.

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