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Winnebago County Forest Preserve District to restore 80 acres of prairie

December 10, 2011 at 07:07 AM

Rockford Register-Star

ROCKFORD — An 80-acre patch of farmland southeast of Rockford will be restored to prairie by the Winnebago County Forest Preserve District.

The district plans to purchase and restore Larry and Nancy Bernier’s land, which is flanked on three sides by Deer Run Forest Preserve.

“It looks better and functions better (as a wildlife habitat) without a big chunk of preserve missing in the middle,” said Jamie Johannsen, the district’s director of marketing and community relations.

Acquiring the land, which was used to test farm equipment and not to raise crops, will bring the acreage of the Deer Run preserve to 675.

Deer Run is among a chain of forest preserves along the Kishwaukee River corridor. It connects with the 654-acre Oak Ridge Forest Preserve to the south, the 630-acre Blackhawk Springs preserve to the west and the 115-acre Espenscheid Memorial preserve to the north.

“One of the best things about having these corridors of preserves is the unfragmented habitat for wildlife,” Johannsen said. “It’s much better for the wildlife to have these connected systems of natural areas. They need to be able to move for food, reproduction and safety.”

The preserve is home to river otters, deer and a variety of grassland birds, said Tom Hartley, the district’s director of land and development. The area can support habitats for the endangered Henslow’s sparrow or short-eared owl, for example, according to the district.

The newly acquired property will be planted with prairie grasses similar to other parts of Deer Run, and a small portion will be reforested. District staff will handle the planting with seed that has already been collected, Hartley said.

An equestrian and hiking trail will also weave through the property and link to existing forest preserve trails. Deer Run already features more than nine miles of trails.

Commissioners agreed Tuesday to pay $374,000 to purchase the property. That’s about 10 percent more than the appraised price range of $324,000 to $340,000 determined by Frank Harrison and Associates, but $14,000 less than the asking price.

The district has to commit just $34,000 to acquire the property thanks to grants from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Fund and Grand Victoria Vital Lands program. The Clean Energy fund provided $235,000 toward the acquisition, and the Vital Lands program, funded by the Grand Victoria Casino in Elgin, gave $105,000.

The district can’t afford the acquisition without the support of the grants. Its land acquisition fund was depleted until recently.

That’s expected to change because the district has refinanced about $2.4 million in
bonds it sold in 2002 for buying land. Refinancing the debt is expected to save about $250,000 over the life of the bonds, according to Winnebago County Administrator Steve Chapman.

The savings will help replenish the district’s acquisition fund, Commissioner Judy Barnard said during Tuesday’s meeting.

Staff writer Kevin Haas can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) or 815-987-1410.

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