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Illinois hunting and fishing

Sandstone outcrops along the Sangamon River in Carpenter Park were defaced with spray paint about a year ago. Photos by Chris Young.

Commission manages threats to protected nature preserves

February 21, 2012 at 06:55 AM

The State Journal-Register

Eighty-eight white oak trees shouldn’t just disappear from a protected forest, but that’s what happened.

When the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission convened for its quarterly meeting in Springfield last month, commissioners reviewed an eyebrow-raising report of threats to nature preserves and other protected sites.

One of those cases involved the “unauthorized removal” of the mature white oak trees in 2009 from Tallmadge Sand Forest in Kankakee County.

As they were updated on the progress of the case, commissioners viewed a slide presentation including a picture of remaining tree stumps.

They also heard of a salt dome placed next door to a sensitive wetland and a dredging operation that flooded part of a preserve with silt.

Most threats to nature preserves are not as dramatic as the case of the disappearing white oaks, but the commission has its hands full keeping an eye on developments affecting more than 500 protected parcels of land statewide.

“It just takes constant vigilance,” commissioner Bill McClain said. “The areas are small and they are vulnerable.”

McClain served as a natural heritage biologist based in central Illinois before he retired from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources in 2002.

During his career, he witnessed many threats to protected areas.

McClain said keeping all-terrain vehicles off central Illinois preserves, including rare hill prairie habitats, was a big challenge.

Illinois hunting and fishing
Meredosia hill prairie.

“What they did was just terrible,” he said. “They had their routes figured out and at Meredosia Hill Prairie I managed to drop a couple of trees to keep them from getting onto the property.”

McClain said challenges to protecting natural areas keep coming.

“I’m not completely surprised, but I’m always somewhat astonished (at the things people do to nature preserves),” he said. “These days practically anything can happen, and it often does.

“You might have bulldozers coming on to your property, logging, or maybe even ginseng hunting,” McClain said. “They just kind of think, ‘It’s public land or a nature preserve so why can’t we do this?’ And they do.”

When high-quality natural areas are accepted into the nature preserves system, they receive permanent legal protection so they can remain in their natural state.

“Once a site has been identified and has been protected, the next step really is stewardship and defense,” said Randy Heidorn, acting director of the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission.

“Stewardship is that active on-land management (like prescribed burning or removing non-native species) but defense is walking the site on a regular basis, looking for threats that occur and then responding to them,” he said. “Defense is an ever-growing piece of the puzzle, and with over 500 sites it has become a big part of the time spent.”

The commission has a staff member focused on the defense of protected sites.

Occasionally, a dispute will involve legal action and fines, but most often, Heidorn said the desire is to resolve the issue with the neighbor and preserve the relationship.

“That’s the best way and the most long-lasting,” Heidorn said. “You have to be willing to take it farther than that, but it’s always best to work things out locally.

“If you have 525 sites and each of them have four sides, you can do the math (on the number of potential neighbors).”

Heidorn said there are more people and more potential threats to preserves in northern Illinois, like the Tallmadge Sand Forest owned by The Nature Conservancy in Kankakee County.

The case still is in litigation so the commission can’t say much about what happened to the 88 white oaks at Tallmadge.

However, a white oak tree standing in the forest can be worth up to $450 before cutting, according to a timber price guide issued by the Illinois Dept. of Agriculture and Illinois Dept. of Natural Resources.

White oaks to be sold for veneer can be worth up to $2,000.

According to the Illinois law (740 ILCS 185), the penalty for knowingly cutting a tree without the landowner’s permission is three times the “stumpage” value, or how much the tree is worth standing.

McClain said despite occasional disappointments or setbacks, serving on the commission has been rewarding.

McClain points to efforts to restore bluff prairies along the Mississippi River and continuing efforts to restore the Cache River and its associated swamps as good news for those concerned about Illinois’ natural areas.

“Some parts of the state are really energized and that is really exciting,” he said.

Taking trees easier than unloading them

It can be difficult to imagine how 88 mature white oak trees could just disappear.

At Tallmadge Sand Forest, owned by The Nature Conservancy in Kankakee County, authorities still are working to resolve the case of the missing trees.

Since the case is in litigation, there is little additional information available.

But timber buyer Kenin Edwards of Pekin said a logger that knows his business could log that many trees in less than a day.

“I can do a 125 trees in a day,” Edwards said. “If you go in with the proper (equipment), you can be gone by 2 p.m.

“It’s not that difficult a process if that’s what you do for a living.”

The harder part is selling them.

“In the state of Illinois, if you are going to buy timber you are going to need a haul report with you in the truck,” Edwards said. “It is called a transportation paper, and it requires the signature of the landowner and the buyer.

“Any log truck that passes an Illinois State Police trooper or Conservation Police Officer is detained just to review the transportation paper,” he said.

Over the past 30 years, laws have been strengthened to make timber thefts more difficult, Edwards said.

“But you still hear stories like this from time to time.”

Chris Young can be reached at 788-1528.


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