How do you make a well-loved forest preserve even better?
One way is to develop it. Toward that end, the Champaign County Forest Preserve District recently completed installation of what's called a natural playscape at Homer Lake. The playscape differs from a typical playground in that it uses natural materials — plants, boulders, logs and earth mounds — rather than plastic and metal.
It also includes an already popular, stream-like water feature. According to Pam Leiter, assistant director of the forest preserve's museum and education department, children really seem to gravitate toward the part of the stream where it feeds into the lake — perhaps it's because that's where the mud is.
The playscape is intended to provide children with opportunities for creative, open-ended play — damming up water, digging holes, climbing, getting dirty — some of the stuff they might get in trouble for elsewhere.
The playscape is located near the Walnut Hill Shelter, and it's open all year long, although the water feature is shut off over the winter to prevent damage to the plumbing. Forest Preserve staff are quick to point out that pathways to and around the playscape are ADA accessible, which is a great benefit to children, parents or grandparents with physical disabilities.
Aside from adding features to a forest preserve, another way to make it better is to make it bigger, and there's also a project in the works for that at Homer Lake. The forest preserve district is currently pursuing an opportunity to expand the preserve by purchasing a nearby tract of land known as Sylvester Woods.
At just over 5 acres, Sylvester Woods may strike people as a small addition, since the Homer Lake Preserve already encompasses more than 800 acres.
But in this case, quality really counts.
According to Dan Olson, who was recently named executive director of the forest preserve district, Sylvester Woods stands apart from other local natural areas because of its ecological integrity.
The Sylvester family has held the property since the original apportionment of the area by the federal government, and they used it only for low-impact recreation. They fished in the Salt Fork River, which transects it, and had family get-togethers there, but not much else.
Sylvester Woods was never clear-cut or row cropped or even, as far as anyone knows, grazed. A cabin is thought to have been built on the site, but little evidence of that remains.
As a result, the forest there is characterized by some majestic trees, with chinkapin oaks dominating on one side of the river and black walnuts on the other. In addition, says Olson, the forest understory of Sylvester Woods is incredibly diverse. A survey of herbaceous plants conducted there identified no fewer than 86 species, including some wildflowers not found at any of the district's other preserves.
One important use Olson sees for the property is to serve as a nursery where uncommon native plants can be propagated for ecological restoration work at other sites. He also sees Sylvester Woods as providing a unique experience for people who recreate there. It is separated by private land from the rest of the Homer Lake preserve, and it's not really big enough for developments like shelters or restrooms. Visitors who drive there will need to park on the side of the road and explore without the benefit of trails. Those who take the trouble to do so will be rewarded with a glimpse of Illinois forest as few have known it for more than 100 years.
In order for this vision to become a reality, however, the Champaign County Forest Preserve District still has some money to raise. If you can help out with a donation, please give them a call at 586-3360 or visit http://ccfpd.org/Index.html .
Environmental Almanac is a service of the University of Illinois School of Earth, Society and Environment, where Rob Kanter is communications coordinator. Environmental Almanac can be heard on WILL-AM 580 at 4:45 and 6:45 p.m. on Thursdays.