CHAMPAIGN — A local land conservation group has received a grant to help it purchase a 108-acre tract along the Sangamon River near Monticello.
It's another step in a long-range plan by the Land Conservation Foundation to acquire hundreds of acres of forested bottomlands along the Sangamon in Champaign and Piatt counties.
The group has helped acquire several miles of riverfront along the Sangamon between Lodge Park and Allerton Park in Piatt County.
The latest acquisition was announced Wednesday at a panel discussion at the University of Illinois College of Law. The tract was purchased with $160,000 in private donations along with a $455,000 grant from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation. It connects land owned by the city of Monticello with tracts held by the state of Illinois.
"It's a chain of pearls," said Bruce Hannon of Champaign, president of the Land Conservation Foundation.
Eventually the land will be available for recreational purposes, Hannon said.
"The foundations will not put money into anything that doesn't have public access," he said.
Among those at the panel discussion was James Liautaud, founder of the Jimmy John's Sandwich Shop franchise, who said he has "ended up as a significant farmer in Champaign and Piatt counties" with 4,500 acres on 19 different parcels.
"I always wanted to be a farmer and I began purchasing farms about six years ago," he said, "and during that process not only did it have to be a responsible asset to our holding company and it had to provide a certain amount of return, but it also had to provide a recreational hunting activity for myself and family and the people I work with who enjoy hunting."
Liautaud said he has enhanced his land holdings by planting 100-foot strips of prairie grass around all his farms.
"One is that it controls runoff naturally, and two, it adds to the habitat for the wildlife in the area," he said. "We started this operation six years ago, planting and restoring thousands of trees and prairie grasses. We now have quail populations that are so fantastic that they are huntable. From turkeys to pheasants to wild quail, it's amazing what has happened."
He described himself as "not a pollyana. I just love mother nature."
Jake Lieb, a Piatt County farmer, urged students and others to support the federal conservation reserve program. He said he planted 700 trees and prairie grasses on his 21-acre tract.
"With the CRP, you don't get as much money as if you were farming but money's not everything," said the 30-year-old farmer. "You've got to come to the realization that what judges a man's character is more what he leaves behind than what he takes."
Fran Harty, director of special projects for the Nature Conservancy, said the various conservation groups want to protect land along the river corridor for wildlife habitat, recreation and to protect the Mahomet Aquifer.
He said the series of land acquisitions, now more than a thousand acres, wasn't planned.
"It was just serendipity. A whole bunch of different people had an interest in the river, and when their interests happened to coincide with granting opportunities, this corridor came together," Harty said. "My guess is that if you started out 13 years ago and got everyone in this room and said let's do this, you'd still be talking about it. It's one of these unique situations where it just came together."
During Wednesday's meeting, Liautaud pledged to donate $10,000 to the Land Conservation Foundation and also opened negotiations on donating another 14-acre river tract near Monticello to the foundation.
"I think it's perfect property for us to donate to you guys," Liautaud said matter-of-factly to spontaneous applause from students and others in the auditorium.