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Illinois hunting and fishing

Illinois Audubon protects jewel in the Shawnee National Forest

April 24, 2011 at 08:59 AM

The State Journal-Register

Not even a rainy day can extinguish enthusiasm for one of nature’s special places.

“You couldn’t ask for a better day,” says Mike Maynard. “Well, except for the rain.”

Maynard was leaning against his 1979 Jeep pickup truck after spending the afternoon giving a tour of the Illinois Audubon Society’s Lusk Creek Sanctuary in Pope County in southern Illinois not far from the Kentucky border.

Maynard is one of the former owners of the property near Harrisburg about 190 miles south of Springfield.

Representatives of Illinois Audubon traveled well off the hard road in Maynard’s old truck for the chance to see the sanctuary with its rare plants and steep cliffs. And a little rain wouldn’t be allowed to dampen the party.

“It didn’t even start raining until we got to Mount Vernon,” says Tom Clay, executive director of Illinois Audubon, which is based in Springfield.

Clay assured everyone it would clear up soon, despite weather radar that indicated otherwise.

The Lusk Creek Sanctuary is right in the heart of the U.S. Forest Service’s Lusk Creek Wilderness in the Shawnee National Forest not far from Garden of the Gods.

The Shawnee Forest isn’t always a single vast contiguous forest. It’s a patchwork of forest, roads, towns, businesses and farms.

Illinois hunting and fishing

The Lusk Creek Sanctuary formerly was a 57-acre private in-holding in the midst of thousands of acres of public land. And it was home to sandstone bluffs and an array of plants, including the Illinois state-threatened French’s shooting star.

The shooting stars were in full bloom on the excursion in mid-April, taking up refuge below cliff overhangs and drinking up water that was dripping and sometimes pouring off the cliffs.

Illinois Audubon purchased the parcel four years ago, as part of its efforts to protect not just birds but rare habitats.

The group recently purchased a piece of ground nearby five miles from Lusk Creek where endangered Indiana bats spend the winter. Another purchase of 40 acres in Pulaski County protects the rare dusky salamander.

“Have I mentioned a bird yet?” Clay asks in jest.

‘An absolute jewel’
Illinois Audubon also is active in the neighborhood of Prairie Ridge State Natural Area near Newton, home of the last remaining flock of greater prairie chickens in the state. It also harbors many rare and declining grassland birds.

Illinois Audubon, along with groups like Pheasants Forever and Ducks Unlimited have stepped into the role of acquiring special places when they come on the market.

Smaller groups are more nimble, and can get the deal done quicker than large government entities that have to go through budgetary processes or simply may not have the cash available.

“That’s the best phone call,” Clay says. “We might get a call from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or U.S. Forest Service saying, ‘There’s a parcel we want to add to our system of protected land in the future and we can’t move on it right now. Can you guys go roll on it?’”

Clay says the Lusk Creek Sanctuary was a big purchase for Illinois Audubon.

“This place is an absolute jewel in the center of a wilderness area,” he says. “I’m glad we made the acquisition.”

Illinois Audubon’s board has not decided whether to sell the sanctuary to the Forest Service or keep it within the group’s system of 14 sanctuaries.

Included in the sanctuary system is the Adams Wildlife Sanctuary, 2315 Clear Lake Ave. The sanctuary also serves as the group’s headquarters.

Statewide, Illinois Audubon has protected 3,000 acres of land and invested $5 million so far.

The group paid just over $270,000 for Lusk Creek’s 57 acres, plus another $8,100 for mineral rights.

“We are paying higher than fair market value to protect an important piece of a wilderness area,” Clay says.

But government can’t pay the higher price some landowners are asking.

So, if Illinois Audubon sells, the Lusk Creek Sanctuary would go to the Forest Service for the property’s fair market value at the time of the sale.

“At that point it becomes the cost of land protection,” Clay says. “We are willing to take that loss to protect such an important parcel.”

Clay says he doesn’t know the current market value, but if it were to sell for $2,500 per acre the most Illinois Audubon would get back would be $142,000.

Proceeds would be returned to the organization’s land acquisition fund to be used for the next project.

‘It’s been heaven-sent’
After the mid-April tour, Maynard talked about what the property means to him and how his view of it has changed.

He says it once was considered a “playground.”

“I grew up down here raising dogs and camping,” he says. “Then I went through the phase of three-wheelers and four-wheelers and motorcycles. We’d come down here in caravans of four-wheel drives. And we’d just take off with chainsaws and make trails and roads.

“It was about as wild and carefree as you can imagine.”

He also says horseback riders would shelter their horses under the bluffs during rain, in the very spot where the shooting stars flower today.

“There are more shooting stars now then I’ve ever seen,” he says. “That area was really impacted near the bluff line.”

Maynard says he’s seen a big change since Illinois Audubon took ownership.

“It’s been heaven-sent for this place,” he says. “Audubon has protected it and brought it back to life. It was going downhill big-time.”

Illinois hunting and fishing

Mike Maynard poses with his 1979 pickup truck next to Tom Clay (left) and Jo Fessett of Illinois Audubon.

The visit to the Lusk Creek Sanctuary was well worth the bumpy, wet ride.

But getting there was only half the battle.

“There’s a 50 percent chance this old truck won’t even start,” Maynard says as we climb in for the ride home. “And then there’s a 50 percent chance we’ll never get out of here.”

Chris Young can be reached at (217) 788-1528.


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